2020 RNA's Joan Hessayon Award Nominee's Anounced! Special Interview with nominees Lynn Johnson and Maggie Richell-Davies

Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure to read and review The Servant by Maggie Richell-Davies. Her book has been nominated for the Joan Hessayon Award by the Romantic Novelist's Association. I am thrilled to be able to tell you more about the award and interview two of the finalists; Lynn Johnson and Maggie! The Romantic Novelists Association was founded in Britain in 1960 and is the professional body representing writers of all genres of  romantic fiction.

Romantic Novelist's Association 2020 Joan Hessayon Award Nominees!

Press Release:

The contenders for this award are all authors whose debut novels have been accepted for publication after passing through the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme. Each year 300 places are offered to unpublished writers in the romantic fiction genre. As part of the scheme, they can submit a complete manuscript for critique by one of the Association’s published authors as well as attend RNA events which offer opportunities to meet and network with publishers, agents and other published authors.

This year’s debuts show the wide range of stories encompassed by the romance genre, from the ever-popular romantic comedies, to fairy tale romance, romantic suspense, historical stories and paranormal thrills. From the house just down the street to the sun-soaked beaches of Italy and that different world that is the past, these books deal with themes we all recognise and hold close to our hearts.  

Commenting on the contenders for 2020, Alison May, RNA Chair, said, ‘The New Writers’ Scheme is at the heart of the RNA’s commitment to nurturing romantic authorship and the celebration of the Joan Hessayon shortlist is a highlight in the Association’s year. This year has been different for so many reasons, but we’re still delighted for all these debut novelists and excited to announce our Diamond Joan Hessayon Award winner in this, our 60th Anniversary year.’

Imogen Howson, RNA Vice Chair, who previously co-ordinated the New Writers’ Scheme, commented, ‘In the midst of uncertain times, it’s immensely encouraging to see a record number of contenders this year for the Joan Hessayon Award. It speaks so well, not only of the hard work and talent of the authors themselves, but of the continuing health of the publishing industry.’

The Award will be announced on 5th September 2020 in an online presentation.

The Joan Hessayon Award is generously sponsored by gardening expert Dr. David Hessayon OBE, in honour of his late wife, Joan, who was a longstanding member of the RNA and a great supporter of its New Writers’ Scheme.

Meet Nominee Lynn Johnson author of Girl From the Workhouse

JMR- Hi Lynn, welcome to the Books Delight and congratulations on your nomination! Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you do for fun and what does the perfect day look like for you

LJ- Thank you so much for inviting me to your Blog, Jeanie. I write family dramas set in the Staffordshire Potteries, in the heart of England, the place where I grew up. After researching my family tree and discovering my Grandma spent time in the local workhouse, I started to write for fun and then got hooked. I like to read a range of genres. Whenever I go out, I always have my ebooks with me. I love Am-Dram and, in local drama and musical productions, I have been a cat in CATS, one of the poor in Les Miserables, and a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz. I find acting is akin to writing. You have to really get to know your character. I am retired so a perfect day is one spent with my husband and six cats, followed by a walk along the beach in the evening sun!

JMR- My favorite part of writing historical fiction is doing the research. Sometimes I don’t know when to stop! What surprised you the most in your research for this novel? 

LJ- I agree that it’s very difficult to stop. A writer needs to know exactly what she/he needs to know about before starting otherwise it’s too big a task and it’s easy to go off at a tangent. There are so many questions you need to ask about timelines, what’s happening in the real world at the time, what people wore, how they thought, and was the car your character is driving actually invented when she drove it! I find it’s the little snippets of information I come across that are the most fascinating. For example, in The Girl From the Workhouse, Ginnie goes to the local picture house to see a film. I happened to have a DVD of the actual film bought from one of the museums. When I looked in the local newspaper I discovered that the very same film was actually running at the very time Ginnie went. And, very relevant to today’s problems, the picture house had to be disinfected after each performance because of Spanish Flu.

JMR- Your historical fiction novel, Girl from the Workhouse, is set in the early 20th century is a coming of age story about a young girl, Ginnie Jones, whose life circumstances have left her in a workhouse for the poor. She overcomes her struggles and emerges a strong young woman. What lessons can today’s youth/ young adult find in her life?

LJ- That’s a difficult question. Ginnie goes through emotional difficulties during her young life. Love and loss feature strongly. In her experience, she believes that good things are always followed by bad. It’s not surprising that she almost begins to dread good things happening to her. As individuals, we can often feel that we are the only people that bad things happen to. We each have to play an active part in developing our own futures. A number of years ago, I came across a saying which has stayed with me – They can because they think they can. It’s what Ginnie learns and it’s a message for both young and the not so young! 

JMR- Today we live very different lives from our ancestors who lived in tiny houses without running water, communal toilets, poor health care and lack of access to amenities of any type. But, what did they have that we have lost or lost touch with in our easy lives?

LJ- I am from a working-class background. We didn’t have very much at all and we certainly didn’t have expectations. We didn’t have a family car until I was fifteen and we didn’t have a telephone until I was in my twenties. Writing, The Girl From the Workhouse reminded me of what we did have - communities, and neighbours were called ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles.’ We played in the street and had hobbies costing nothing. We have a saying – keeping up with the Jones’s – or keeping up appearances, to show you are doing as well as your neighbours. It’s difficult to do that when everything you possess is second-hand.

JMR- Last question. What does this nomination mean to you as a writer and how has it affected your writing career? 

LJ- I am over the moon with the nomination for the Award. It’s akin to passing an exam you never thought to take. I didn’t know that people like me wrote books. The Girl From the Workhouse started life as a short story I wrote a couple of months after joining my local writing group. I read the story out loud and, at the end, someone said they thought it would make a great novel. It all started from there. Being a contender for the Award is like the icing on the top of a fantastic cake. The nomination means that an author has been through the Romantic Novelists Association New Writers’ Scheme and achieved publication. I can believe in my achievements and that more will follow. My second book is due out early next year and I can honestly say - I can because I think I can!

Meet Nominee Maggie Richell-Davies author of The Servant

About the author:

Maggie’s debut novel won the Historical Writers’ Association 2020 Unpublished Novel award this spring and is published by Sharpe Books. It is also currently a contender for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Diamond Joan Hessayon Award.

She was born on the north-East coast of England and has a first class honours degree with the Open University.

The Blurb from The Servant:

      London, 1765

Young Hannah Hubert may be the granddaughter of a French merchant and the daughter of a Spitalfields silk weaver, but she has come down in the world. 

Sent as maidservant to a disgraced aristocrat, she finds herself in a house of mysteries, with a locked room and auctions being held behind closed doors.

As a servant, she is powerless, but – unknown to her employers – she can read. And it is when she uses her education to uncover the secrets of the house that she realises the danger she is in.

Help might come from Thomas, the taciturn farmer delivering milk to the neighbourhood, or from Jack, a friendly young man apprenticed to his uncle’s bookselling business. Yet Thomas is still grieving for his late wife – and how can she trust Jack, when his uncle is one of her master’s associates?

It is then she discovers damning evidence she cannot ignore. She must act alone. But at what risk?

Maggie talks about her book:

The blurb for my recently published thriller, The Servant, hopefully transports you straight to the streets of Georgian England. Yet it so nearly never progressed beyond the slush pile.

During years of submitting work, I’d had short stories published and also been longlisted and shortlisted with earlier novel attempts. But this story, set in eighteenth-century London, was different. It wouldn’t let me go.

Inspired by a visit to London’s emotive Foundling Museum, I couldn’t get the heart-breaking stories to be found there out of my head. The bits of ribbon or lace or coins left by desperate mothers in the hope they might, one day, be able to retrieve their precious child made me both sad and angry. The struggles of the female working poor were largely unseen. Women today openly question how a patriarchial society can be allowed to rule them, but in the past protesting was virtually impossible, especially for those with no education. It could even be dangerous.

This was a story I wanted to tell, so I researched, and wrote, and researched again until my book was written and I could start the submission process.

I received gratifying encouragement from top London agents, but not one offer of a contract. Clearly I still wasn’t quite there with my story, and since agents are inundated with submissions and can’t spare time to give much, if any, feedback. I was on my own.

Rejection can be dispiriting. Your writing group say they love your story: though you know they would say that, anyway. They’re loyal friends. Nobody else seems to care – or care enough. Yet I refused to give up.

My novel was a necessarily dark read, so I realised it needed a strong and compensating love story. Who better to turn to than the Romantic Novelists’ Association. The RNA's advice through its wonderful New Writers Scheme where – in return for the membership subscription – one of their published authors will provide a critique to the first 300 applicants who have not had a full length novel or serial published. And since The Servant included a love story, a naturally essential ingredient, it qualified.

Last winter I therefore began stalking the RNA website, waiting for them to invite entries to their Scheme in the New Year. And their acceptance of my submission not only gladdened my heart, but made the crucial difference to my book.

My anonymous mentor not only provided an extremely comprehensive report on The Servant, but obviously cared about Hannah’s story. With the greatest tact, she (I presume it was a she) pointed out that a minor character who died of measles half way through the book was somehow happily alive again by its end. She also pointed out that an important plot element involving an inheritance would have required an Act of Parliament to have taken place. Clearly the RNA had chosen someone who knew their history as well as how to write.

She also suggested that my love story could be better fleshed out, giving constructive suggestions as to how this might be done.

But, perhaps most importantly, she also said a few things that made my heart sing: 

“This is a hugely accomplished novel with beautiful writing and an inspiring central character.”
  “…an absolutely lovely character and a very appealing hero…his steadfastness in his love for her is really beautiful…”
“…a very accomplished novel and the suggestions I am making are simply to polish it even further…”

With increased confidence, I felt my book was finally ready. So, when the Historical Writers’ Association launched a search for a new writer of historical fiction this spring, I submitted The Servant to them. To my utter delight it won not only their award, but a generous cheque and a publication deal with Sharpe Books. It is available on Amazon and gaining five-star reviews.

Not only did winning the HWA award confirm my conviction that people would care about women on the side lines of history, it also validated me as a writer – and to any writer that is the most precious thing of all.


Congratulations to all the nominees of this years award and good luck! Readers if you are interested in purchasing Girl from the Workhouse or The Servant, click the link on the book covers above, it will take you to Amazon, where you can read more about the books. 

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