If you've been a member of Geneva Writers' Group for more than a couple of months, you will no doubt have met Peter St John Dawes with his gentlemanly manners, witty poetry and his mischievous alter ego Jenno Bryce, who even has a blog of her own. Peter has published seven novels in the Gang series about children in the village of Widdlington during the Second World War, as well as two other full-length novels (all available on Amazon or via Silverwood Publishing). You can find Peter on his website, on Twitter and on Facebook. Thank you, Peter, for answering our questions about writing and publishing.
Where did your love of books/storytelling/writing come from?
I don’t really know where it comes from. I have no memory of learning to read; it is as though I always could. Somebody somewhere must have taught me, but for myself, it seems as though I was born with the knowledge. Even when I was very small, reading was one of my favourite occupations. I read anything and everything that I could get my hands on. I particularly enjoyed encyclopaedias or other illustrated non-fiction. I was less-interested in stories and storytelling, unless connected with life as I experienced it. As for writing, it seemed to me as a child, that this was for other people to do...
What sort of writing do you do and why?
My career as a chartered engineer, and later in the parliamentary area, required much writing of technical reports. However, after retirement I began to write stories about village gangs of children in the early years of the Second World War. My original intention was to write a series of short stories or vignettes, but when the first short story grew to novel length, I decided to continue to write novels.
As to why I wrote them, I am not very sure. Perhaps I just wanted to capture the spirit of childhood in a setting very different from that of today. Perhaps I also wanted to say something positive about fundamental human values, in dangerous times.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about your genre?
To be honest, I don’t know with any certainty what my genre is. Because the setting of the “Gang” books is more than fifty years ago, they can be classified as “historical fiction”. Because I felt that my work could be enjoyed by all people from 9 to 99 years of age, the “Gang” books don’t fall neatly into a genre such as “Children” or “Young Adult”. Indeed, adults seem to enjoy my stuff as much as younger readers. Some adults have contacted me to say that they bought the first book because they thought it would be about adult gangsters, but discovered with pleasure that it was not about those kinds of gangs at all. It is the characters themselves, as well as the village settings in which their adventures take place, that give me the incentive to continue. With hindsight, I can see that there has been some influence from Richmal Crompton’s rampageous “William” series of stories, as well as from the delightful children’s books of Arthur Ransome. A further influence is perhaps Ronald Blythe’s absorbing study entitled “Akenfield – Portrait of an English Village”.
Tell us a little bit about your publishing journey.
My publishing journey has been a long, momentous adventure, which almost warrants a book to describe. A resumé of this experience would include my initial acceptance as a so-called “mainstream flagship” author with a publisher who subsequently went out of business. I was accordingly forced into becoming a do-it-yourself writer, publishing e-books on Amazon and Smashwords, as well as doing my own printing and binding. Finally I discovered the “empowered publishing” of SilverWood Books Ltd. This enabled me to again put my books out into the world in paperback format, starting with those that had gone out of print through the failure of my first publisher.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I enjoy interacting with my characters and participating with them in telling their story, Making the illustrations is an enjoyable occupation too, even though they require a lot of time to prepare and add to the cost of the book. I also very much enjoy the camaraderie of fellow writers, and participating with them in workshops such as those run by the Geneva Writers’ Group, as well as the small group of writers that meets regularly at my house for critiquing sessions.
What do you find most difficult about writing?
It’s not the act of putting thoughts into words that is the most difficult, but rather the unavoidable task of bringing those thoughts and words to potential readers. A writer today, must be ready to become his or her own publicity agent, spending time and energy on advertising and marketing activities. There often seems little to show for much of this effort, which sometimes calls for quite considerable expense
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
The first thing I do, is to sit down comfortably with a long drink at my elbow, and go over the project in my mind. I then sleep on it for several nights. Finally, I sketch a plot outline rather like a film story board. It may even contain some drawings. The eventual writing may stray away from the plot outline, as the characters press to introduce their own ideas. Even so, the outline provides a frame of reference on which to hang the action and keep the characters more or less on the storyline.
I nearly always have to hand a notebook in which I jot down stuff that could be useful. This is particularly handy for brief ideas that come in the night, or during a writing workshop. I’m sometimes astonished later, to see night jottings that I have no recollection of writing. Some of them are good and useful.
What (if anything) has surprised you most since publishing your first book?
I am surprised by the fact, that I have published 16 titles since my first novel, “Siberian Summer”, in 2007. However only nine of these books are novels, the others being booklets mainly in electronic format. Several other titles exist in draft, but may never be published.
What advice would you give to new writers?
Don’t, unless you intend to do it for the fun and the adventure, and are ready to accept the inevitable disappointments with good humour.
We always love hearing from our members. If you are a published author and would like to be featured in our series, please get in touch via email or in the comments below.