The author: Mary’s life in books

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I grew up reading and it's shaped my whole life. I was allowed to choose my new baby brother's name, and inevitably it came from the character in my then favourite book Bobby Down on the Farm. It still didn't stop me demanding that he be taken back and changed for a girl.

Later on, all my pocket money was saved to buy Enid Blyton's Famous Five books at, I think, the rate of one a month. Timmy the dog was my favourite character, followed at some distance by George. I really wanted curly hair like hers.

By the time I reached my early teens I was heavily into historical fiction. I was a hugely partisan supporter of Richard III against all calumnies. I was impressed by Elizabeth I's tenacity and belief in her destiny. I was consumed with admiration for the Palatine Royal family, children of James I's daughter Elizabeth, the Winter Queen. I didn't much care for thwarted bitter Eliza, obsessed with philosophy, but there Louise, who painted with Gerhart Honthorst. She was daring and rebellious, losing her only love, the famed Earl of Montrose, through political intriguing. And there was Louise's dashing brother Rupert, who led his uncle Charles I's cavalry so successfully, but who was unable to deal with court machinations.

Then came Georgette Heyer and her Georgian/Regency novels. A delight to me then and now, when I can appreciate the accuracy of their backgrounds so much more.

By this time my interest in history was well developed, unwittingly seeded by the accurate background detail in the historical novels I first enjoyed in my teens. My interest has always been in individuals of all degrees, their characters, how they interacted, the way in which they lived. I had, and still retain vestiges of, a detailed knowledge of the English Civil War and its protagonists.

When I came to the later Georgian period as a researcher I found that I had absorbed masses of details other than dress and hairstyles from the Heyer books. I was amused to hear many years ago that her novel The Infamous Army was recommended reading at Sandhurst Military College in England, because it gave the most detailed and accurate account of the Battle of Waterloo.

I grew up surrounded by woodland where I walked and played as a child. My father had grown up here too and knew where the wild things lived. I listened for the first cuckoo near the lake, watched deer rootling around the woodland clearings, played on bluebell-covered slopes, knew which tree roots harboured adders' nests, and created stories to act out with my friends.

It was Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals which changed an early interest in wildlife into a concern for its future on a worldwide scale. It was many years before I could visit Durrell's zoo on Jersey and it totally changed my attitude to keeping animals in captivity, for protection, captive breeding and hopefully for reintroduction into their native habitats if the opportunity is ever there.

But it was naturalists like W H Hudson and his mentor, Gilbert White, who opened my eyes and ears to the creatures that live in our own country. Hudson wrote a collection of essays about Land's End, which I always carry with me when I travel in the West Country.

It was an aunt's collection of Agatha Christie's work that first introduced me to crime fiction. It quickly became, and still is, my most favourite form of fiction. Her books were read and reread, and then I found there were other crime writers. I worked through Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers and, to my great delight, Georgette Heyer's crime stories. And later I came across Ellis Peters, whose Cadfael series combined crime and history, bringing to life a period and a county I knew little of.

After some years I ran out of crime novels I wanted to read and that was when I began to write my own, based on the West Country. I have holidayed in different parts of Devon and Cornwall for as long as I can remember. I was a child when we found Clovelly and its donkeys plodding slowly up and down the steep cobbled street, whose doorways and windowsills were crammed with pots of red geraniums. For some years after, I devoured tales of smugglers and invasion, and of West Country characters and heroes, men like eccentric parson Hawker of Morwenstow and brave Beville Grenville, the King's General in the West during the Civil War. And of course there were Daphne du Maurier's novels too, many not only combining history and mystery, but frequently with a West Country element which appealed to me.

I’ve been to many countries since I was a child, and to many parts of Britain, but still it's the West Country that draws me back, especially to its wilder more isolated parts. When I first grew up I spent many holidays in the South Hams of Devon, not knowing that Dame Agatha's home was only a stone's throw away. From there I migrated to the Lizard, spending several months over a period of years walking the cliff paths with my own collie, the inspiration for Lucy's Ben. I've explored the little churches and the tucked-away houses like Godolophin of long-gone noble families. I've read the legends and stories, talked to people whose families have lived there for generations, working on the land or the sea. The Lizard is in my blood. I only have to shut my eyes and I'm back on a particular cliff side, a hot and eager collie at my feet, waiting for the slightest sign that we'll be moving soon, but resigned to spending time staring out to sea, watching the foaming waves crash onto the beach that he longs to get to.

These days trips to the Lizard have become too much for Tirn, my beloved collie, so we've moved ourselves to Dartmoor, discovering it properly for the first time. Now it's the more isolated tors we scramble up to, finding a flattish stone to perch on to while away some time sniffing the air (in his case), dreaming (in mine). Right now, he's struggling with spondylitis (arthritis of the spine for those, like me, who didn't know what it was), and has good days and bad days. But always he sits by the cottage gate looking purposefully up to the tor above. When he was really in pain, still he insisted on plodding, painful step by painful step, up to the top, sinking with enormous pleasure onto our regular resting rock. On his better days, and here there are more than I could ever have hoped for, he can cover the ground more easily and go further, even on to the next tor which we used easily to visit before breakfast in his younger years.

Here of course there are so many traces of earlier lives, waiting to be deciphered in the lines and mounds of the moor. But there are no crime writers I associate with the high moor, except Conan Doyle. Other writers are plentiful, often giving details of moorland lives, like Cecil Torr in Small Talk at Wreyland and Beatrice Chase with her stories from the early twentieth century.

So I began to write all those years ago, tying in my interests and favourite places in a world of my own. I completed The Rossington Inheritance and Death at the Priory in the South Ham era. Then I left the stories, picking them up again some years later. I was revising the first on holiday with friends and one of them borrowed the manuscript to read. She sat up all night to finish it, much impressing the publisher who was there. No blandishments over previous years had created any interest, but this did, and so The Rossington Inheritance came to be published. The second book is dedicated to my first collie, who was part of those South Hams holidays and knew the Lizard too. To know a little more about my own books, go to the section on them.

I've come to enjoy many more authors since that dearth of books I wanted to read that drove me into writing. Among my pantheon of favourites is Elizabeth Peters. When I picked up the first in her Amelia Peabody series and began to read it I was taken aback, but carried on and fell for the tongue-in-cheek humour of it. For years now I have tracked down her older books, many of them mystery rather than crime novels, and fallen gleefully on the latest ones, usually in the Vicky Bliss and the Peabody series. They have never ceased to interest and amuse me, and are still among my favourite solaces in times of tiredness or ill health.

There are more and more writers whose work I enjoy. Some are contemporary, like M C Beaton, Carola Dunn, Kate Ellis, Donna Leon – I could list many more. Some are earlier ones, dug up in secondhand bookshops, and increasingly reprinted, like Catherine Aird, Edmund Crispin and Gladys Mitchell. I can always write about books – if you can bear more, go to my Library section, to read more about the writers mentioned, and to find others I enjoy too.

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