'After I lost my husband I knew that I owed it to him to finish my novel'
Anne Doughty, who is originally from Armagh, tells how she first met love of her life in brief encounter at a railway station
Writing has always been a labour of love for author Anne Doughty and her latest novel - dedicated to her late husband Peter - has had a lifetime of love poured into it.
Anne (76), who is renowned for her much-loved Hamilton series of stand-alone historical Irish fiction, had started to write her new book with Peter before he died three years ago.
Deciding to carry on and complete the novel in his memory has helped to carry her through the pain of the last three years, as she struggled to adjust to life without the man she loved and with whom she spent 44 happy years.
Anne and Peter's story reads like a romantic novel. He was a Cambridge graduate who met Anne at a railway station in Northern Ireland in 1969 while on a brief visit here.
The couple fell for each other immediately and just a year later Anne says Peter came back to Northern Ireland "to fetch me" and take her to England.
Bombs were going off in Belfast city centre as the young couple waited for their ferry to take them to England in 1970.
She says: "Peter loved Northern Ireland as much as I did, but if we had stayed, he would have been at risk. He was English and looked like a soldier, so we weren't taking any chances.
"When the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, we both thought 'we can go home now' as it would be quite safe. Peter always thought of here as home and we came back to Belfast."
Anne grew up in Armagh and studied at Queen's University, Belfast. After she graduated she became a geography teacher and worked in Princess Gardens Grammar School and then Bloomfield Collegiate for 10 years before meeting Peter.
Peter was also a teacher and the couple settled in Hampstead close to his job in the University College, London.
They then moved to Manchester for 12 years and finally settled in Norfolk before returning to live in Belfast in 1998.
Anne had been writing since she was four years old and it was Peter who encouraged her to pursue her dream to become a novelist when they started their life together in England.
Even when the rejection letters kept coming, Peter was her greatest motivator and, with his support and belief in her, Anne continued to write for 23 years before she finally got a publishing deal.
Much to their joy and surprise, her first novel A Few Late Roses was long-listed for the Irish Times Fiction Award.
This was quickly followed by her next two novels Stranger in the Place and Summer of the Hawthorn.
After returning to Northern Ireland, she started to write her series of stand-alone novels that make up the Hamilton sequence.
Her latest book, The Blacksmith's Wife, was one which she and Peter had discussed together before his death.
She says finishing the book for Peter has quite literally been a life-saver: "Peter and I had a very close relationship and I will never stop missing him.
"He gave me so many gifts. The reason for my supreme articulacy today comes from the fact that he and I talked and talked and talked.
"We had discussed the opening of the novel and after I lost him I just thought, 'I can't turn my back on all that, I owe it to him to write the book.' I think if I hadn't had it to focus on, I might not have coped so well without him."
Peter died three years ago, aged 79. He had suffered from a pain in his chest for 44 years but had always dismissed it as an old injury caused during his days rowing as a student at Cambridge.
Tragically though, it had been his heart and he was lying beside Anne when he suffered a fatal heart attack.
She says: "The poor love had this pain for years and he died beside me on the bed as I was rubbing his chest to try and shift it, as I always did. He died in seconds."
It is a bitter-sweet achievement seeing her new book in print, but Anne knows how much Peter would have delighted in the fact that she has continued her writing.
Ironically, the first copies arrived on the third anniversary of his death, on April 26.
Her simple dedication inside says it all: "For Peter, friend, editor, husband. November 20, 1933 to April 26, 2013. As promised."
Anne had been writing in her head since she was four years old and it is a passion which never left her: "I used to get in trouble for filling all my jotters. You had to buy them yourself back then and they cost tuppence ha'penny.
"I have spent my life looking for paper to write on and as I sit here at my desk I have five reams of it under my desk; it is funny the things that never leave you.
"I don't know where my love of writing came from, as my parents weren't story tellers - although we did have a professor of journalism and a reporter in the family.
"I couldn't spell at school and they dropped me from the 11-plus class for bad spelling and then let me back in again because I could do mental maths faster than the teacher.
"Peter encouraged me to write and I remember when we left Northern Ireland he said going away and getting perspective was an important thing to do and he was right. I wouldn't have written the novels I have, if I had not gone away."
In her first years in England, Anne became interested in reading Irish history. She left just as the Troubles were erupting here and when she started to write she felt she wanted to show a different side of life in the province from that which was being portrayed on the news because of the violence.
Without realising it, she was carving a niche for herself as an Irish historical novelist.
She says: "My novels are set before the Troubles, partly because I wasn't there to experience them and also because of the headlines at the time and this vision of Ireland being presented both north and south through the news.
"My attitude was 'What about the ordinary people?' - people like my grandparents who were blacksmiths and mill workers, and so I wrote about a time before the Troubles which starts in 1861 up until 1961.
"I also wanted to write about the famine in the north. There has been a certain element of whitewash about it, as there wasn't supposed to be a famine in the good Protestant north, but people here suffered desperately because of the famine. My new novel is set during this period of history.
"I was writing for 23 years before I got published and I had three novels in my bottom drawer. Part of the problem was that they didn't fall into any slot. I didn't know I was an Irish historical novelist until they told me."
Anne's latest novel, The Blacksmith's Wife, is her 13th and is a prelude to the successful Hamilton series.
It is set in her native Armagh in 1845 and takes place during the first two years of the Great Famine in Ulster.
It was on the second anniversary of Peter's death that she took a notion to visit the historic manor house of Castledillon in Armagh, which is now derelict.
That visit, together with a trip to the uninhabited remains of her great-grandfather's forge on Drumilly Hill, provided inspiration for the home and workplace of the main character, Sarah Hamilton. At that point the writing took off. The novel was finished four months later.
She says Peter's influence was with her throughout: "He always said everything he had was mine and he taught me about the importance of research, about using my own experience, my love for Ulster and my home county of Armagh, which are all in the book.
"He made me aware of so many things which were just fugitives in my mind, which he helped me to make tangible and real."
- The Blacksmith's Wife is available now to pre-order on Amazon and will be released on May 19