Legend of Black Shuck inspires nurse’s first novel

Tell us about your career before you decide to pursue writing full-time…

I worked predominantly as a registered nurse specializing in orthopedics, to later train as a plaster technician.

Although enjoying aspects of this work, I always felt I hadn’t yet discovered my true purpose.

I felt there was something very creative within me, but it didn’t expose itself in the many avenues I explored. I have always invented stories but not in written form, and so didn’t see the connection to creative writing until I was guided that way by life’s journey.

I worked around the needs of our four children and so, as their ages span from 11-31, parenting has been a huge part of my life.

I am now blessed with grandchildren too and so, as our colorful and diverse family continues to grow, there are many important considerations that need to be given their own energy.

Jeni Neill with her first novel, The Devil’s Dye.
– Credit: Brittany Woodman

What was the catalyst for you deciding to pursue writing?

I had a niggle for many years of the subject that I wanted to write about but had no idea how to move this forward and develop it until I began a creative writing class at Wensum Lodge in Norwich in 2019.

There were two things that pushed me to this. Firstly, the death of my mother a couple of months earlier.

She had told me several times that she wanted to write a book, and knew her subject, but had never pursued it.

I felt compelled to now write my own imagined story before it was too late for me.

Secondly, some weeks later, our youngest daughter began her English literature and creative writing degree and, having been inspired at her university open days, this too encouraged me and became a powerful catalyst.

I recently thanked Margaret Johnson, the teacher of the writing class, for her inspiring lessons in which I could suddenly see my characters and with focused energy my story had become clear.

She told me: ‘You had the blue touch paper and match ready for me to use’ and it did feel like this.

Please give us a snapshot of what The Devil’s Dye is about, and what inspired it…

My father would tell us the Suffolk Black Shuck story when we were young, embellished I’m sure, and the tale made a lasting impression on my imaginative mind.

I wanted to find historical fiction of the evil black dog and the recorded events and, never discovering a novel, I felt strongly the legend warranted one.

Moving to Norwich 15 years ago, I became intrigued by the references in the city to the immigrant Strangers and wanted to visually enter their lives but, again, I could find no historical fiction on this important and true event.

When I realized that the Strangers came to Norwich in 1566 and the pamphlets dated the day of Black Shuck’s terror in 1577, I was excited.

These two bookends could form a story and, plausibly, within the lifespan of a dog and so forming the Black Shuck tale I had always wanted to find.

The Devil’s Dye blends this local historical fact with the folklore, creating a fictional family saga set in the 16th century.

The De Hems are Strangers who have a wayward but talented young son, Jowan, whose reckless actions threaten the safety of the family and their need to settle in their new land.

An entangled love story develops and, although Jowan travels far to source the elusive indigo dye, much of the story is set in East Anglia and will be familiar to local readers.

Jeni Neill has swapped her career as a nurse to become a full-time writer.  Pictures: Brittany Woodm

Jeni Neil
– Credit: Brittany Woodman

How long did it take you to write The Devil’s Dye?

I sometimes feel embarrassed to say that from start to finish this work took a year.

So often you hear writers talk of taking many years and that somehow gives the impression of weight and credibility.

But I felt driven, and my writing was all-consuming.

The characters talked in my head continually, there with me as I tried to rest or do all the other jobs in life.

There was no set aside ‘work time’, it was constant.

My family were most gracious and accommodating and I am incredibly grateful to them for gifting me the time I needed to submerge myself and be lost to them.

I think, in hindsight, this was therapeutic as I often felt close to my mother while writing.

I honor her maiden name by using it as my nom de plume, as her mother too made up imaginative tales.

But also, I think Covid influenced me, in that we were suddenly confronted with our own vulnerability and time has never felt more precious.

I chose to self-publish in September 2020 for this same reason, and so that I could use my uncle’s artwork for the cover.

Do you find the writing process enjoyable?

Immensely. It’s not something I feel I must do routinely, and I can leave it for long periods of time if not consumed by a particular project.

But I get kind of emotional urges to go and write and then an excitement comes to me and an energy which I hadn’t realized was there.

Then I love it, and it takes over as I am absorbed into another place. It’s a mental freedom, I guess.

Please tell us about your short story collection, Fen Roads…

There are 12 short stories in Fen Roads, which are best read in order, as some characters reappear in other stories despite the links being tenuous.

The subjects are eclectic, but the atmosphere of the Fens that I knew creeps into the stories and establishes them very much as their own.

They are further merged by their characters’ need to find where they belong, to feel accepted and at peace.

I like my short stories to eavesdropping: you can’t ask for more, but you’re left with threads that you can mull over and develop into your own thoughts.

Jeni Neill has swapped her career as a nurse to become a full-time writer.  Pictures: Brittany Woodm

So far Jeni Neill has published a novel inspired by the legend of Black Shuck and a collection of short stories
– Credit: Brittany Woodman

Why do you find the Fens so inspiring?

I didn’t appreciate the Fen landscape that I was raised in.

The endless flat fields and rivers and roads to nowhere but the same, depressed me.

I couldn’t see my connection to it until, years later, I began to share my writing and our teacher pointed out that the Fens hugely influenced my prose.

This was intriguing to me, and I began to develop a new respect for the land, and all that it had once been.

The lonely theme in Fen Roads, like that of the Fens themselves, is of real interest to me.

I value John Steinbeck’s proletarian writing, exposing the viewpoint of the working man (person), and writers like Gloria Naylor who identify those in society less considered; a kind of side-lined people that are given a voice.

Through their writing we get vivid, earthy prose that has meaning and substance. Soul. Writers like Jackie Kay and Zora Neale Hurston’s are also favorites of mine; their accents so strong in their lyrical prose that to read their work is like having them sit and talk to you.

What are you currently writing?

I haven’t immersed myself in my second novel yet as I am still trying to visualize the complete plot.

I have written the first four chapters in the hope that the opaque part will expose itself but, as yet, it hasn’t.

I believe everything has its time and that now is simply not the right time for this.

But, when it is, I’m excited by the story. I know the outline and the characters well. It is set in the 1650’s Fen; a time of the Fen Tiger, witch trials and the civil wars. The huge unrest, social inequality and religious turmoil of this era intrigued me, as does the marsh that was the Fens.

You give talks too…

Yes, I’ve been giving talks throughout the region in libraries, historical societies and to other interested groups.

I think these have been well-received because they are very visual, being a PowerPoint presentation, and are full of the local history and landscape that inspired The Devil’s Dye.

I also take listeners on my writing journey, from realizing the idea to bringing my book to the marketplace and I know that this has been inspiring to some who are doing this themselves.

It’s been an unforeseen opportunity to share and listen to other peoples’ experiences and I really enjoy this. I guess these links to what I loved best about my nursing days, connecting and sharing journeys, even if for a snapshot of time.

Jeni’s next talk is at Dunwich Museum on April 22 at 7.30pm. Tickets can be reserved by emailing events@dunwichmuseum.org.uk. Jeni keeps her blog from her, jenineillauthorcom updated with forthcoming events.

Jeni’s books are available at Jarrold in Norwich and Cromer and Roys in Wroxham, Waterstones and on Kindle through Amazon. Fen Roads can also be bought from local distributor Bittern Books, either directly through their website, bitternbooks.co.uk or via Amazon.

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