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  • The Older Author

    Is it too early in the year to do a blog round-up? Am I the only one who feels like they’ve already had enough of 2020? And to think that only a couple of months ago I was saying that 2019 had been ‘the year that never was’.

    I hope everyone is keeping well and just as importantly, staying sane, in these very weird times. At Chez Allan, we are all fine. The hubs is outside now the weather has improved and doing manly things like banging the living daylights out of a piece of wood. If I had a hammer…

    …I’d probably brain someone with it.

    There’s a reason I write crime fiction.

    Yes, in case you missed it, easily done in this world of megamarkets and worldwide internet shopping, I am a writer of mystery books, and in the case of one trilogy, murder-not-so-mysterious (she tells you what she did and how…).

    I’ve always loved murder mysteries. I also love romance but not the really gut-wrenching, heart-breaking stuff. I like it light and fun. I am not a fan of too much reality – I have enough of that in my life, I want to escape to somewhere happy. Or as happy as you can be with a corpse at the bottom of the stairs…

    I started just as many other criminals writers start, reading Enid Blyton etc as a small child. I mean really reading. I read well by the age of four, and was unstoppable when it came to books. I still have a VERY large collection of print books, and now eBooks too. (Of course the beauty of eBooks is you can have hundreds and hundreds and your partner doesn’t even know about them!)

    From Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Secret Seven and other series, I went on to the wonderful and very under-rated Malcolm Saville’s books. Then it was just a hop, skip and a jump to the books I have loved for about fifty years: those of Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth.

    So it’s not entirely surprising that my passion for books and words should make me turn to creating my own stories back in the days when you had to wait a year or more for your author to put out a new book, instead of every three or six months. I just used to like putting my thoughts down on paper. The power you have as a writer, to make the elements of life you don’t like disappear, and to put better ones, more exciting or glamorous, in their place!

    I never thought I would be published by a ‘real’ publishing company. Quite the opposite. I did a short creative writing course to round off my degree, and the tutor spent as more time telling us we had more hope of going to the moon, than of being published by a publishing house than she did actually teaching. This did not boost class morale, I can tell you. But I had by my late thirties developed a dogged arrogance that I was going to keep writing, no matter what. (I destroyed all my writing once when I was about 28 or 30, because someone told me what I was doing was wrong, selfish, immoral, pointless and self-indulgent. I regretted almost immediately being so gullible. And that (probably awful) work is gone forever. The world won’t miss it, but I do, like an old friend.) I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

    You might think then that it was clear I would have to self-publish. but I didn’t even consider that for many years. In fact it was 2012, when I was 52, that I finally thought, you know what, maybe that is a good idea. There was more stigma attached to that, because then even more than now, people saw it as ‘not real publishing’. If any fool could put their own book out there, well, what value was there in your work?

    But I don’t write to prove I have some value. And I freely admit some people hate my work. But–and this is the bit that astonishes me even now–some people love it. And they say nice things to  me like ‘I can’t wait for your next book’ or ‘I love these characters’. That’s amazing, and that’s what keeps me going.

    If you look at great writers, or popular writers (not always the same thing) you will see some awful reviews for their books. I mean, we all think of the prolific and successful writers as ‘great’ in some sense, and yet they have their fair share of bad reviews. So it’s no surprise that a wannabe like me would have some bad ones too. You have to develop a thick skin, and send your tough journalist/critic persona out there to read your reviews and engage with reality, don’t let your sensitive, insecure creative persona go out into the big world, they will be crushed.

    This has been rather a woolly, waffling blog post, I know, but I just wanted to say all this again, to talk about how you can come from nowhere special, with an average or below average education, income etc, and with determination and by learning a few skills, you can be a writer. It’s not quite as easy as I’ve made it sound, and it might be years before you make any money, but what have you got to lose? Give it a go. I also feel compelled to say this: it is not too late, you are not too old. Writing is one of the few careers where you can start at any age, and you don’t have to retire at sixty-five if you don’t want to.

    There are a ton of writers out there who are old gits, I’m not the only one. Here is a link to an article about older authors:

    https://www.thoughtco.com/bestselling-authors-who-debuted-after-age-50-4047864

     

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  • Embrace the chaos

    This is a shamelessly rewritten blog post from a couple of years ago, mainly because it seems very appropriate for how things are right now, and partly because I was stumped for ideas. 😉

    A while ago, I blogged about routine and how I think it’s essential to productive creativity. But what do you do if your routine goes to pot and everything is unsettled and out of sync? (Like now!)

    Answer: Just go with it.

    I’m thinking of that song by Scott Walker about a million years ago, ‘Make It Easy On Yourself.’ That’s just what you should do.

    If you allow the stress of being disorganised to get to you, you will become depressed, anxious, you will feel guilty, and become increasingly non-productive, you’ll be snappy and mean to your loved ones, then you’ll get even more deeply depressed and even less productive. So allow yourself the room to just do what you can manage, and don’t sweat it. Do what you can and don’t beat yourself up if you feel you’re not achieving as much as you think you should, or you planned to achieve.

    My planner is a mess of crossed out items that I have not achieved, or not within my self-imposed deadline. That used to send me into a bit of a panic – I love to feel in control, that’s my security blanket.

    But now I’m learning to accept and adapt. Or at least I’m trying to. To begin with, I found it quite difficult to have first my husband then my daughter at home all day every day. But now I really like it. We’ve spent so much more time together. (I know, not always a good thing, right?) And the house and garden are starting to look a lot neater now I’m not the only one doing it.

    And I’ve seen how hard it is for them to get used to having no colleagues for the usual office banter, or just making work-related catch-ups easier. Thank God for Skype, Facetime, etc! (Seriously if you have colleagues who live alone, check in with them – they might be really lonely and finding it hard.)

    At home, we have none of the fancy amenities of the corporate office. Our internet is sloooooooooow. We haven’t any of those comfy swizzle chairs that support your back. There’s ALWAYS someone else in the loo when you’re busting for a wee. No oggy van comes to our place. (Hot snacks and confectionery food van) (Non-Brits, Oggy is a slang term for a Cornish Pasty.) (Here’s a link to the Cornish Pasty association, you can find out how to make an authentic pasty, much better than typing up that report!)

    But it’s not all doom and gloom. Meetings are more bearable when your bottom half is in your jammies and fuzzy socks, and only your top half has to look work-ready. We have three cats on hand at all times to help with difficult calculations or to open up a line of conversation with a prickly client. You can have your choice of music playing in the background, sit in the sunny garden for lunch, and your commuting time is down to 30 seconds. You NEVER get stuck in traffic! We are saving a small fortune in petrol.

    I don’t advocate, as some have suggested, drinking shots every time you read some email that begins ‘In these troubled/challenging/difficult times’. That is not a good plan. I would be off my face by lunchtime.

    Once adjustments are made, I can see that a lot of people will come to love this life.

    Do what you can, go with the flow, and gradually normality will reassert itself.

    If you only write a small amount, remind yourself it’s a step forward from yesterday, and any progress, no matter how small, is good. You may even find, as I am beginning to realise, that it can be a normal part of your creative process.

    I usually start strong, like most writers. I have a good idea of where the story is going, I know what it’s about. But for me, again like many writers, the problems arise about halfway or so into the story when suddenly I realise a) I’m useless at writing, b) my story sucks, and c) it’s never going to be ready in time. This is all the more difficult when you can’t give 100% of your concentration to what you’re doing because you’ve suddenly got more people around you and a mad scramble for bandwidth and table space.

    Over the years there have been a few times that my routine has been vandalised by circumstances. The first couple of times, I found it too hard, I struggled to keep my usual impetus and as a result, I gave up on the story. But gradually I’ve learned that I can work through the mess, embrace the chaos and finish a book.

    This current crisis is a stressful one, and pressures can take their toll. Old anxieties may resurface, undermining your determination and your control of everything in your life. It becomes harder to push them away and carry on. But that’s what I’m going to do. And that’s what you are going to do. Because what choice do we have? Do we want to give up writing? NO! 

    So now, we will embrace the mess, and work with it, secure in the knowledge that, regardless of our feelings and the muddle that is our so-called routine, we can do this. It might take a longer than expected, and it might be baby steps all the way, but we will get there, and finish our book.

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  • Anyone for Mock Turtle soup?

    So in these weird times, when we are told to keep three feet away from everyone or to stay at home, and your dodgy neighbours down the road have now acquired two years’ supply of toilet paper, I thought it would be appropriate to see how an earlier generation dealt with this kind of upheaval.

    I immediately started thinking about the rationing our parents/grandparents endured during the war years. This week, even the Queen has announced that she will ‘do her bit’ and has urged everyone to adopt a ‘blitz spirit’ of the usual muddling through that we do so well in this country.

    My German pen-friend’s dad, when I was 17 (going back into the mists of time, more than forty years ago) told me proudly that they survived war-time rationing by eating daisies from the lawn. I told him that my grandparents had eaten dandelions in salad. It felt a bit like a competition as to who had it the hardest. If I’d known a bit more about it, or had the guts to stand up to this guy, I’d have said that people dug up their lawns to plant vegetables. But it didn’t seem a good idea to have a Germans versus Brits conversation about the war. (He brought it up!) I’m guessing it was a terrible time for everyone, whichever side of the channel you happened to have been born on.

    But leaving aside the actual trauma of death, injury, destruction, and uncertainty, there was, it can’t be denied, a sense of ‘all pulling together’ which only conflict with an outside enemy can bring, no matter where you are geographically.

    So it’s not surprising that many older people look back with almost fond memories of the war, hopelessly idealised, of course, with dance band music, dreary clothes and an urgent sense of seizing the moment that we just don’t experience today. We hear about our grandparents or great grandparents meeting and marrying within weeks instead of months and years, of 48-hour pass honeymoons in Brixham or Bognor rather than the Algarve, and the uncertainty of ever seeing one another again after that. Is it any wonder that wartime romance, of all things, stands out as a bright moment, like a jewel on a dirty piece of string?

    I have a number of reference books about ‘life during the second world war’. Here are a couple of the most interesting, bought from the shop at Cosford Air Museum: If you enjoy browsing through reproductions of the actual information supplied to people’s homes, then these are for you as they contain dozens if not hundreds of ads, advice booklets and articles.

    Above right is the back of a railway ticket – with the usual warning to not gasbag in public. And I think most of us have heard the ‘coughs and sneezes’ slogan (probably courtesy of Tony Hancock) featured on my favourite item: this post card (top). I blame footballers for the fact that these days everyone thinks it’s okay to spit on the ground – a revolting habit once punishable by a hefty fine for the way it (possibly) contributed to the spread of viruses and bacteria.

    When we think of roughing it during the war, the main thing that comes to mind has to be rationing. Now kind of back in force at the moment in an attempt to stop greedy or panicking people from buying far more than they need, let’s hope the current rationing doesn’t continue for too long.

    Here is a reproduction of a ration book: with the name and address of the recipient of the ration on the cover, and inside, the name of the specific merchants who were to provide the family with their food or other items.

    If you were going to stay with someone out of your area, your auntie for example, or future mother-in-law, you had to take your ration book with you – or they wouldn’t be able to feed you. Not legally anyway! This is the kind of detail I love that crops up all the time in Agatha Christie’s books, and others of that era.

    The government produced thousands of leaflets at that time to explain to people how to make their food ration last, and how to make sure family members got enough nutritional value from the diet to be healthy.

    This tiny booklet contains a number of ‘healthy’ or ‘economical’ recipes for the housewife to use. But don’t expect anything exciting! A quick glance through will show you a heavy dependency on potatoes and for desserts or baking, dried fruit especially dates. I can only imagine the excitement people would experience of some ‘exotic’ food such as tinned fruit, or dairy products, or biscuits and chocolate. In many ways, it is a healthy diet – I’m pretty sure if I worked on the land five or six days a week and ate Ministry food, I’d be half my weight – definitely a good thing. But remember, rationing in Britain didn’t end until July 1954! Can you imagine eating this way, living this way for fourteen years? It must have been incredibly difficult, until after a while, it just became normal. I think many people would have been quite slow to go back to buying whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted once the rationing of food ended.

    Some of the recipes make me feel so grateful I didn’t live through that time. Many of us today eat a very different diet to those of that of most Brits in the 1940s. Tripe and Liver Hot Pot? Eww! And as for the Mock Turtle Soup I’ve read about in various novels of the era… surely mock turtle soup has to be morally and gastronomically superior to actual turtle soup??? It must have been a very desperate person who decided to try eating a turtle. (Turtle soup: to prepare, first catch your turtle…)

    In Eat For Victory there are also recipes for Potato and Cheese Flan (potato, cheese, celery and onion), Potato Stew (potato, onion and a tiny smidge of bacon), Potato in Curry Sauce (potato, apple, ‘one small tomato’, and the inevitable onion), Potato Sandwich Spread (??????????), Potato and Bacon cakes (patties I think they mean, there’s no icing on this guy), Irish Potato Cakes (same as above but without the bacon), Potato Soup (essentially just a potato, boiled but not drained…), Potato and Watercress soup (pretty that’s grass) (or dandelions).

    So I’m guessing things got a bit mundane. No wonder everyone smoke and drank so much. I think I would have too. Try drawing a straight stocking seam up the back of your leg after a dinner consisting of potato soup and two glasses of 1930s cooking sherry.

    But now I’ve whetted your appetite, here are two versions the famous Mock Turtle Soup, not at all a recipe for wartime deprivation as I imagined, but very heavy on meat and grossness and originating in the 18th century. Feel free to share.  And here is a brief history of that soup. 😦 I would definitely rather eat daisies or dandelions. Or Sainsburys’ Petit Pois and Ham, with a very buttery slice of toast – om nom nom.

    Take care people and share your loo rolls, please.

    ***

  • A writing assignment from years ago.

    This week I thought I’d try something a bit different. So I’m sharing a piece that was an assignment for a course I did a number of years ago. I had lost this piece for a long time, then found it again last week – which has made me really happy!

    The requirement was, to write a short piece about a topic from a list. I chose ‘A derelict building’. The first piece was to be a descriptive piece to set the scene. Then, we had to write a longer piece, developing this idea into a short story. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, we had to write a reflection, a short piece again, to explain why we wrote what we did and made the decisions we did about setting, point of view etc. This is pretty much a classic assignment in any writing course. I’m giving you here the three pieces, more or less unedited, and a tiny ‘now’ reflection on the work. Sorry – it is quite long!

    A derelict building:

    With my single step the dust flurries and settles again. A bird, startled, in turn startles me as it flutters away, my heart is in my mouth at the sound, sudden, unexpected. I am fixed on my spot for a moment then move on again, this time stepping more carefully, more softly. I do not want to disturb those that live here—creatures of the secret uninhabited places, or the shadows, those who are impressions left behind when the building closed, snapped shut on a half-drawn breath as the lights went out.

    The shadows, the pigeons, the rats, they are all shut up in this place, hiding from the sunlight in the grey dusty corners. I can hear scratchings but cannot divine the source. I hear the creaking of wood, the groaning of heavy ancient timbers, and the wind sighs through the broken teeth of the windowpanes, and my goosebumps prickle up.

    Dust. Cobwebs. Broken oddments of undistinguishable furniture, stranded like the rocks when the tide goes out, poking out of the sand.

    I wipe strands of cobwebs from my face, but my skin still remembers the touch even though they’re gone, and I have to wipe and wipe again at the spot. The smell is dry, yet sweet, stuffy and somehow dull, as if there is no remaining scent or fragrance here.

    My foot rolls on something on the floor, half-hidden in the mess. I pick up a biro, filthy, but when I test it on the back of my hand it writes in bright blue ink.

    I find the stairs. It is darker here in the stair well, and I pause, wondering. Do I really want to go up there? Is it even safe to use these stairs? It’s dark up there, all I can see as I peer upwards is darkness and waiting shadows.

     

    And now, the longer piece, I’ve called it Simon:

    I could see them from my corner behind the staircase. I hunched down into the shadows, making myself as small as the mice that run along the ledges in the early hours of the morning.

    A man and a woman. Smart suits. Briefcases. The man had a clean white handkerchief folded to his mouth and nose. Like he was going to be sick or something. The woman laughed at him and I heard her say, in her posh city voice, ‘Oh Jonathan, you’re so silly!’

    Jonathan, his voice was posh too, but he said a bad word back to her.

    If I’d said a word like that, Dad’d take off his belt and hit me with it. And Mum, she’d have said, ‘Simon, you shut your ‘ead.’

    The woman was looking round her. She looked this way, looked towards the stairs but she didn’t see me. My face is the same grey as the dust in here now, and I’ve got cobwebs in my hair. They itch me a bit. I kept real still, and she was clattering about in those high heels of hers, scaring the pigeons in the roof. They whooshed past her and Jonathan, and made her scream with the suddenness of it, and their wings being so nearly silent—that was funny. I wasn’t scared. I was expecting it to happen—it happened last time when that old alky came in the other night when the rain was battering on the roof. Any time anyone comes in, them pigeons go off.

    And, if anyone’s coming, the mice hide. So you know if they’re not around you’ve got to watch out, could be someone out there.

    They’d take me away if they found me. Make me go back to the social people. They’d make me go and live with some clean people with a dog and a big garden. And I’d have to go to school.

    But I like it here. It’s my own private place. All mine. Well, mine and the beetles, mice, pigeons, bats and that. We share it. They don’t bother me and I don’t’ bother them.

    It’s quiet. It grubby but a bit of dirt won’t hurt you. And there’s loads of room. You have to be a bit careful on the stairs, ‘cos they’re wood and two of them in the middle have gone soft and crumbly. You have to jump that bit.

    That Jonathan’s found my pen. It must have fallen of out me pocket, and now he’s stepped on it and found it. he looked at it, then he tried it on the back of his hand. It’s still working, I can see it from here. It was a good pen, that.

    She’s just laughing at him again. Said it’s ‘obviously’ been there ages as it’s filthy. He’s chucked it down, he looks like he feels a bit thick. She’s really bossy, her. I bet no one ever give her the belt when she was a kid. I’ll get that pen once they’ve gone. It’s a good one.

    I wish they’d go. I’ve got half a burger I want to eat. I found it this morning on the pavement outside the chippy. It had just been thrown down, still warm it was. The bloke got in a van and drove off. I want to eat it, I’m starving. It’ll be a bit gritty by now, I bet, ‘cos everything I bring in here, after a while it gets that gritty taste. Mind you, sometimes that’s ‘cos I get cobwebs on things—there’s loads of spiders in here. All different ones. Good thing I like spiders and mice and that.

    She’s sneezing! Five in a row, then a quick gasping breath and then another five! I almost laughed. It’s all the dust. They’re stirring it up, moving around the place. She scared the pigeons again—which gave her another fright too! And all the noises they make are big. They all sound like the building will fall down.

    They’re really scared. Just because it’s a bit dark and it keeps creaking and all that. I bet they think it’s haunted.

    Now he’s just told her to stop being so stupid. More bad words and now you can tell she’s pissed at him.

    They’re going to go upstairs, they’re coming over this way. I’m hunching down small and hiding my face. I hope they don’t see me. They’re still looking up the stairs.

    ‘It’s a bit gloomy up there,’ said Jonathan.

    ‘That poor little boy might be up there, though,’ she said. ‘We’ve got to make sure. What if he’s hurt?’

    ‘My suit is ruined. Dry-cleaning won’t fix this, Candida!’

    She clattered up the stairs, and I waited to see if she’d fall through but she noticed the rotten steps just in time.

    They were up there ages before coming down again. Both cross this time.

    ‘Told you!’ he said. ‘Bloody waste of time.’

    ‘We had to be sure, you idiot,’ she said.

    Anyway, another quick look round and then they left. I heard the door creak as they went out. I hear the engine of the car start up and listened as they drove away.

    It was a few minutes before the pigeons settled again. Then a couple of mice ran across the floor. I knew it was okay to leave my spot.

    The stairs creaked as if someone was on them, but I knew it was just like an old man stretching or cracking his knuckles—just getting comfy again. A breeze moaned through the broken windows.

    And I tiptoed out of my hidey-hole over to where I keep all my stuff in an old biscuit tin. The burger wasn’t warm now, but I was too hungry to care. I’m going to sit on the bottom step and eat my burger in the peace and quiet, my back against the post.

    Reflection:

    In my freewrite, I pictured the scene from my own point of view, using the first person to set myself in the derelict building and try to see what was there. But for the main write I wanted to see myself as a visitor, observed by someone else, someone who observed my reactions to the building. I thought about who might be there and settled on the idea of a teenage runaway as the narrator, and I wrote as if he were recounting or recording the episode.

    I tried to combine the boy’s resilience in the face of difficulties with the experience of the people who were there to search for him, a boy who has been reported missing. The police officers are the visitors, the outsiders, and the boy gives us his observations of them, alternating his wry humour with his fear of being found and sent to live with strangers, and his growing sense of hunger and thoughts of his scavenged burger.

    I tried to see the building as not only a derelict empty shell but also a refuge, a place of relative safety, and an autonomous kingdom where the youngster is the ruler of a domain only he knows.

    I tried to avoid too much pathos, I don’t think the boy would see himself in a pitying way, as one of life’s victims. Rather I feel he is happier to live this way, and I feel sure that if he evades the authorities, he will be able to survive there as a squatter as long as he needs to. I wanted the feel of the piece to be more positive than negative.

    New note:

    With the benefit of hindsight, one of my main quibbles with this piece is that I now realise that plainclothes detectives with suitcases and high heels would not be despatched to look for a missing teenager in derelict building.

    And I feel that the boy’s situation is not maintainable in any meaningful way. And there is quite a lot I would change if I was editing it now. But, oh well, as a creative piece it fulfilled the criteria of the assignment. And here and there, it has its moments.

    It’s interesting to think about things—plot ideas, for example—from different points of view. And freewriting is a great way to explore your created world if you’re stuck and unsure how to move your story forward, or if you just want to play around with an idea.

    ***

  • Roadworthy: more on driving in the 1930s

    These days we put a destination into our satnav, drive to the garage, fill up with diesel/unleaded petrol, stock up on in-journey catering (M & S vegan Percy Pigs, HIGHLY recommended, or failing that, a couple of rolls of those chewy mints, plus a bottle of water), find Heart fm or Absolute Radio and off we go, singing happily along from one traffic jam to another until we reach our goal.

    If we break down, we can, variously, call our mate Steve who has a truck, call our Mum who has a credit card, or if we are very organised, we call our breakdown service of choice, usually one of three in the UK, the first two being, the AA and the RAC, the third being Green Flag. There are no doubt others, but I think these are the most common ones.

    And what else do we do? We call everyone we know – or rather text them. ‘OMG can’t believe I blew a tyre and now I’m stuck at the side of the road, LOL, face plant emoji, yawning emoji, emoji of a little car with smoke coming out of the front.’ (I made that last one up, though there may well be one of these. If there isn’t, there should be.)

    It’s not a big deal. These days the majority of breakdowns and delays are relatively minor.

    In the 1930s, even though people had been driving engine-propelled vehicles for pleasure and work for thirty or forty years, there was, I imagine, still an element of the unknown, of setting out a great voyage of discovery and possibly great personal risk.

    So you definitely had to let people know where you were going, what time (or day!) you would be arriving, and the approximate route you were taking.

    In the ’30s, there were no motorway services every five miles. Nor in fact, motorways. There was no breakdown – oh wait, what’s this? RAC and AA? In the ’30s? Wow!

    I think I thought everything started in the 60s, when I myself ‘started’. So I was quite surprised when I discovered that there was already a very strong AA and RAC presence in this country in the 1930s. If I asked you who came first, which way would you jump? RAC? Or AA? I had vaguely thought it was the AA. No idea why. But I was wrong. It was the RAC. And they began an incredibly long time ago, or so it seemed to me, having been founded in 1897, with the AA not appearing until 1905. (more about that)

    As for comfort breaks, well I suppose if you were caught between posh hotels or at a pinch a country pub, you’d have to wait until you were in a secluded area then nip behind an obliging bush or tree. There were campaigns for more public toilets, but these tended to be part of wider issues than merely a place to relieve yourself on a journey.

    So I think as my main character Dottie pops out in the car, she will need:

    a warm rug,

    a map, or book of maps, because even in this day of equality, I think we all know women can’t fold maps.

    a flask of tea/coffee (she likes both), maybe a bar of chocolate just in case she breaks down and has a long wait for help to arrive.

    The tommy is the plain bar – who knew????

    She will want a snuggly car coat, specially cut to reach to the hips, so you don’t strangle yourself when you sit on the ends of your coat…we’ve all done it.

    There will no doubt be a can of spare petrol in the back of the car, if not two. And, according to the owner’s manual of the morris minor car (stating that their cars are ‘the very acme of economical motoring’.) come with a tool box under the near-side passenger seat which contains the following: a jack with folding handle, tyre pump and wheel brace, three tubular box spanners and tommy (what on earth is a tommy?), three double-ended spanners, a cold chisel (a shout-out here to the Australian band!), a half-round file with handle, 9 inch adjusting spanner, 6 inch steel punch (why????), a screwdriver, an ignition spanner, a high-pressure lubricating pump for chassis oiling system, a pair of pliers, a hammer (because if something isn’t working, you whack it with a hammer, right?), a carburetter spanner, a sparking plug box spanner, a cylinder head box spanner, a tappet spanner with feeler gauge, (thank goodness, we wouldn’t want to be without our feeler gauge), a tyre lever, and last but by no means least, an oil can.

    the feeler gauge is that fan-shaped thingy

    Dottie might also want a nice hat, because you need a proper travelling hat, don’t you? I notice that the early hats resembled those leather helmets World War I flying bods used to have. The main reason I want her to have a hat is to restore my own equilibrium after that bewildering range of tools in the tool box. If I had been driving in the ’30s, probably the most worrying thing for me if I broke down would be which spanner did what.

    On the whole, it’s probably a good thing that driving and cars have moved on a good deal since then. I know we complain about our satnavs taking us the wrong way or leaving us in the middle of nowhere with a triumphant ‘You have reached your destination’. But it really does sound quite tricky, doesn’t it, getting from A to B with only a tommy and a feeler gauge to help you if things went wrong.

    The Aussie Band, Cold Chisel

    ***

  • Maid or Chef?

    This is definitely what I look like in my kitchen!

    If you were rich, if you suddenly acquired somehow a fortune, who would you hire first? A Maid? Or a chef?

    Now I’m not judging here, I’m not worried about all the possibly spurious ways you might amass this fortune. I’m just saying, if you bumped off someone and got away with it, and you inherited their millions, it would mean a change in lifestyle wouldn’t it? I mean, when people win the lottery they say it won’t change them, but it always does, I’m sure. How couldn’t it?

    Housework is so medieval, isn’t it?

    What do you most hate doing? The cleaning? Yes I get that. The endless pointless dusting – only to have to do it again a few days (weeks/months) later. Why bother? Almost immediately the clutter and grime you so carefully removed begins to make a stealthy return. In my house, I empty the rubbish bin. And within mere hours, there is stuff in there again. Nothing makes me crosser than to spot something in my freshly-emptied bin. Yet I know (deep down) that is the purpose of the bin. So????

    And don’t get me started on meal prep. Once upon a time, I used to enjoy cooking. Then I had a family and had to do it EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I mean – meals, right??????? And no one ever wants the same thing. AND, one wants something healthy and someone else wants something naughty. The relentless cycle of chopping, dicing, cooking, washing dishes, putting dishes away, then chopping, dicing… Sometimes I want a chef more than chocolate, and that’s saying something.

    Those of you with younger children, pre-teen or teen, would doubtless prefer a chauffeur to take them to all their after-school social commitments. But mine children are grown-and-flown, and more often than not are the ones doing the chauffeuring. So that’s not a problem I have.

    And I only iron about twice a year, so again, that’s not an issue for me, though when the children were younger, and when my husband had to wear formal shirts to work, I had a lot more ironing to do and therefore would have killed for someone to come in and do that horrid chore for me. My mum used to iron everything, including underwear, table and bed linen, and even towels. She spent the whole of Sunday evening ironing. You won’t be surprised to hear that I iron only one or two smart shirts, that’s it. Everything else is dried, folded, and that’s it.

    But would I really want a complete stranger, someone I don’t know, coming into my home several times a week to clean, or every day to cook meals for me and my family?

    Hell yes! Then I could get back to doing what I’m good at. Sudoku and those Codewords puzzles. And reading. And drinking coffee and eating biscuits. Would I have a maid or a chef? It’s so hard to choose. Really I’d have to have both. Plus a gardener, and a chauffeur, and a resident handyman. And someone to answer the door and the phone. Ideally then, I need a full complement of household staff. Something like this, from a photo I took at Calke Abbey last Spring/Summer. I think I aspire to be a Duchess , or something.

    ***

     

  • On The Road in the 1930s

    In the most recent book in my cozy mystery series set in the 1930s, The Thief of St Martins, I gave Dottie Manderson a car. I thought as she was almost 21, it was time she had her own car. She’s a busy girl with a life to get on with, and a career. So she needed a car. I ‘gave’ her a 1931 Morris Minor in a stunning blue. She loves it!

    Some of the scenes I wrote made me need to carry out research. I needed to know, did cars in the 1930s have a rear view mirror? I needed it for the many sneaky glances Dottie and William sent in each other’s direction at the end of the book, and I’m sad to say that even though William is a police inspector, his mind really wasn’t on the road:

    (BTW in case you didn’t know, Dottie is sitting in the back of the car, and in the front William is in the driving seat with Dottie’s mother beside him.)

    His eyes flicked up to the mirror again and met hers. He slowly winked at her. Such a small thing, but it made her heart sing. They were still friends! She beamed at him.

    If her mother had not been in the car, Dottie would have liked to touch the back of his neck. Unless she looked in the mirror, that was all she could see of him. There was a gap of perhaps two inches between the top of his collar and the start of his hair, very short and very fair at the nape. She wanted to put her fingers there, stroke the skin, feel the bristles of the short hairs against her fingertips. Perhaps push her hand up a bit so that her fingers could really tangle in his hair, draw him in closer to her, close enough to…

    There was a muffled curse as the car suddenly veered wide and he had to bring it back to the right side of the road. He mumbled an apology, just as her mother said sharply, ‘Really, William, dear!’

    So you can see how important rear view mirrors are! I also needed to discover if the doors of cars in those days locked with a key like they do now (ish) and as far as I could tell, they didn’t. But I did quite a lot of research about cars and driving in general for that era.

    A few ‘firsts’ to do with roads, driving and traffic.

    First driving test:

    Driving tests were first introduced in Britain in June 1935. I imagine a lot of people tried to quickly learn to drive before that! We used to have a family friend who had a license even though he had never taken or passed a driving test. He was granted a license for driving a motorised cart on a farm, and when it was renewed at the post office ‘back in’t day’ the clerk missed off the T from ‘cart’ and – hey presto! Shh – don’t tell anyone! (It’s okay he’s been dead for years so they can’t touch him for it…)

    First traffic lights:

    There were a few attempts at creating a traffic light system in Britain. You can judge for yourself how successful this one was:

    This was London, 1868 – far earlier than I’d imagined. You can read a bit more about it here: 

    I can’t help wondering if this was inspiration for H G Wells, as a newspaper at the time carried this caricature of the new technology, and naming it ‘the terrific apparition’.

     

    As you can probably guess, these were created by a Nottingham railway engineer by the name of J P Knight. The problem with these, apart from the war-of-the-worlds look, was that they had to be operated by hand, and were a bit unreliable. This one exploded due to a leaking gas pipe and the policeman operating it was injured.

    But the modern traffic light as we know it today was not available until the early 1900s. A red and green traffic light was installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914, and we never looked back. In Britain, it was Piccadillly Circus in London and Wolverhampton in the West Midlands who got the first all-singing, all-dancing red and green automatic traffic light in 1926-27.

    First zebra crossing:

    I was a bit surprised by this. Although pedestrian crossings had been marked by iron studs in the road and later, flashing Belisha beacons at the sides of the road, it wasn’t until 1949 that the government began to introduce ‘Zebra’ crossings, first trying out blue and white, then red and white stripes before finally in 1951 sticking with the black and white stripes we know and love today. The first one was in Slough. And to help people learn how to use these odd inventions, there was a public service film which you can view here, to make sure your zebra-crossing-usage is fully up to date. Who knows, maybe you’ve been doing it wrong all these years.

    First traffic wardens:

    The first traffic wardens hit Britain’s streets in 1960. Did you know there’s a dedicated website to British Parking? Me either. But here you can read a bit about the introduction of traffic wardens, and see some great pics.

    First speed limit:

    Our flirtation with speed has been a chequered affair (pun fully intended). To begin with, in the 1860s, any road vehicles were only allowed to travel at the whopping speed of 4 mph in the countryside, and 2 mph in urban areas. And, like the first trains, a man had to walk in front with a flag, to let everyone for miles around know that a beast of engineering was approaching and that they should clear the way.

    I’m guessing that a) people very quickly got hooked on the thrill of speed, and b) it took a while for people to understand the stopping distances and braking speeds of road vehicles, just as it did when trains first came along. legislation quickly began to move with the times and the demand for road vehicles.

    First the flag was done away with (clearly due to a national flag shortage???), then the man walking in front was dispensed with (or run over???), then speeds gradually increased across the nation, always faster in the countryside than in the city, due to the denser populations. Loads of inquiries were instigated to find out why so many people died each year, and reports were issued, with the resultant changes in the law. By 1934, the normal limit in urban areas was 30 mph. Speedometers were not compulsory until 1937.

    First speeding offence:

    The first speeding conviction was that of Walter Arnold of East Peckham, Kent, in 1896. Walter was the owner and driver of a horseless carriage, and was caught travelling at a speed of 8 mph in a 2 mph area! It just had to be a guy from my native Kent, didn’t it?

    First drink/driving conviction:

    From the Licensing Act of 1872 onwards, drivers of any kind of vehicle on the road were always expected to be sober and in full control of the vehicle. But legal limits on alcohol intake were not established in Britain until 1967.

    Actual news report concerning one of my ancestors, Alfred Mercer. It sounds as though he was lucky to get away with such light injuries. This report appeared in the Whitstable Times and Herne Bay herald, Sat 8th Nov 1873.

    I hope you’ve enjoyed this little step back into the early days of motoring. Next week, I plan to share a few more ‘gems’ about one of our favourite pastimes.

    ***

  • Sneak peek and a short extract… upcoming book The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6.

    It’s that time again. I’m working on a new book, the next in the Dottie Manderson mysteries series set in the 1930s and featuring an amateur detective Dottie Manderson. The new book is to be called The Spy Within and I plan and fervently hope to release it in July(ish) of this year.

    In case you haven’t heard of these books, I published the first in the series, Night and Day in 2015, and it’s been followed by The Mantle of God, Scotch Mist (a novella), The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish (sorry about the long and unwieldly title of that one, at home we call it Dickie Dawlish for short, even though Richard hated his name shortened) and last year, The Thief of St Martins came out.

    The main character is Dottie Manderson, obviously, she is the one the books mainly are about, and although she isn’t always the one who solves the mystery, she is nevertheless habitually embroiled in the action. Dottie is only 19 in the first book and ages gradually through the series. In the one I’m writing now, The Spy Within, she is almost 21. She is from a well-to-do family and after leaving her ladies’ college at 18, she worked more or less full time as a mannequin (model) for a Mrs Carmichael at her independent fashion warehouse, Carmichael and Jennings, Exclusive Modes, in London. Dottie lives with her parents, and has a married sister, Flora. Dottie and Flora are very close. George, Flora’s husband, adores Dottie almost as much as his wife does, she is very much his sister too.

    Unfortunately the books aren’t quite stand-alone. That is to say, there are ongoing story-lines that progress through the novels. I wish I’d though about that a bit more carefully when writing them because with book 3, Scotch Mist being a novella, and therefore cheaper to buy, people often buy it and then haven’t got a clue what’s going on. I really must revise it with a bit more explanation to help those who dive into the series at book 3. Still, we live and learn, I guess! Hopefully I won’t do that next time around.

    So what’s new for The Spy Within?

    Well, those who have read the books up to this point will be aware that Dottie has been seeing a ‘gentleman’ by the name of Gervase Parfitt for a couple of books. Sadly in the last book, he let her down rather badly by not supporting her when she needed him most. Oh, Dottie had such hopes for Gervase to begin with. But he seems to be not quite as nice as she’d thought, and there’s a rumour going round that he’s likely to be substituted.

    If you’re Team William, this could be music to your ears.

    William Hardy, police inspector and all-round good guy (most of the time) has been in the background for a while now, and if you’ve loved all the flirty looks and romantic thoughts, then prepare to enjoy some more. It’s Valentine’s day in 1935, and love is in the air. I think. Or is it? You’ll just have to wait and see.

    In other news, the Manderson’s maid, Janet is at last tying the knot with police sergeant Frank Maple in this book. They’ve been walking out together since the first in the series. Don’t expect any tears, it’ll be a happy day for all. And it’s about time they made things all above board, because as Dottie said in The Mantle of God, ‘I wouldn’t mind if they did any actual walking out. And how Mother hasn’t caught them, I’ll never know. From what I can make out, they spend all their time indoors.’

    So that’s about all I can say at the moment. If I’ve piqued your curiosity, please take a look at a draft version of Chapter One here. Just bear in mind, I might change it a bit by publication day, and hopefully I’ll remember to tidy it up and make it a bit more succinct. I hope you enjoy it.

    All that I need to do now is to say a huge thank you to my family and friends and some wonderful, loyal, encouraging and amazing readers who say nice things that cheer me up when I’m down and keep me keeping on. Thank you all. XXX

    ***

  • Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am STUCK… my ideas about Writers Block.

    I am a self-doubter and a self-regulator. I am not confident in my own abilities but contrarily I do trust my own instincts. I know a good story idea when I see it, it’s just that I doubt my ability to execute it to its finest, best, most beautiful incarnation, which makes me depressed. And I constantly question myself about whether I’m doing my best, or if I am lacking some vital skill or technique, or indeed, if I actually have any skill or talent at all.

    A long while ago I read a post on LinkedIn where someone said they had no patience with writer’s block, that it didn’t really exist, not in the case of ‘real’ writers, because ‘real’ writers ignore such collywobbles and just get on with it. Oh yes, said all their friends, absolutely, that’s so true, Writer’s block just isn’t a real thing, it’s simply a poor excuse used by wannabes for being rubbish at writing.

    I say that’s poo! (Not what I really said, but I’m trying to stay calm and be polite) Of course it’s real! Maybe these so-called ‘real’ writers have simply learned techniques to help them overcome or cope with self-doubt and plough on?

    But many, many very ‘real’, very talented writers–and people in other creative worlds–struggle with issues of self-doubt and have difficulty getting started, or continuing or concluding a project. They (I should say ‘I’ really) might get stuck in the middle of their book, bogged down by the weight of bringing together so many narrative strands to create a satisfactory conclusion. Or they might be stuck trying to move on to a new project after finishing something. Or they might be unsure which of several possible endings is the best one to go with. Or ideas might dissipate like a summer mist ten thousand words into a novel. There are many reasons why a story won’t progress to order, and may leave a writer stranded on the rocks.

    So how do you cope? Or stay calm and get on with your work? There’s no perfect solution. Sorry. And there’s no universal fix that suits everyone.

    Just know:

    a) Real writers do get lost with their projects and struggle. Don’t listen to those ‘experts’ who say real writers don’t cry, I mean, get blocked.

    b) It’s ok to struggle, and not see your way forward with a particular work.

    c) There are ways you can learn to cope with a lack of progress.

    d) You will come out of this and move on to be your wonderful creative self again.

    Here are some of the things I recommend. They’ve helped me from time to time.

    Take a break. Maybe you’re just mentally and emotionally exhausted? We can so often pout ourselves under so much pressure. it’s wonderful when readers say ‘Loved it, can’t wait for the next one!’ but that can’t be your driving force. Readers are voracious and though we love them, they want far more than we can give them, like baby birds. Take a week off and look after yourself. Have fun, eat well, sleep well, forget about the book. Enjoy your life.

    If I’m stuck in the middle of a book, and can’t see my way forward, I put on my editing head and go back to the beginning. I start reading/tidying up until I find I have recaptured the vision, the direction I wanted to go. This can work quite well if you’re a pantser and haven’t really got much in the way of notes to lean on.

    If I have a number of alternative plot choices and I’m not sure which is best, I turn to my friends who know me and my work. I discuss my problem in depth with them and see what comes out of that. Sometimes just talking ideas through will help a choice to gel in your mind and get you back on track. If you can’t do that, you can join an online forum and ask them. You might not get the answer you hoped for, but hopefully you will find someone on your wavelength you can open up to and have a proper chat with. But bide your time and get to know people first. Otherwise, I guarantee you will get your heart trampled on by jumping in too quickly and confiding in the wrong person. Or you could just wait and see. Quite often, a situation will resolve itself as the book goes on, just because your various alternatives fall away when they no longer fit with what you’ve written.

    Write something else. I can guarantee that the minute I lose interest in a project and start writing something else, is the minute a fresh, new and amazing idea comes to me for my ‘stuck’ book.

    In a previous blog, I’ve also put together these ‘top tips’ on how to keep going with your writing. Some of these ideas may help you.

    But above all, remember, getting stuck is not a sign that you’re faking it, and yes, ‘real’ writers DO get blocked. Hang in there.

    ***

  • Dreams and journals

    Dreams.

    Dreams often provide inspiration for creative projects. I don’t mean dreams in the sense of goals or aspirations but in the sense of the crazy movies that go through our heads as we sleep.

    Remembering them long enough to write about them can be a challenge, but sometimes dreams are so vivid, you just can’t forget them, even if you wanted to. I have quite a lot of vivid dreams. I don’t usually have the appearing-in-public-naked kind of dreams. Mine are, more often than not, mysterious, complex and emotional. And I’ve used dreams to create two complete works: one is a novel that I haven’t (yet) published, though that might happen one day. The other is a short story that I plan to publish, possibly next year, and possibly in a collection of short stories, or as a freebie direct from this website.

    A lot of my dreams are centred around my anxieties. So I’ve had a lot of dreams about a place I worked many years ago before our children were born. It was an incredibly stressful job, and the hours were quite long. I dreamt about that place for at least twenty years after I left it. Any time I got stressed, I would dream ‘the dream’. I would picture myself back in that office with a large number of people clamouring for my help, and there would be a rush to get everything done in time, and a lot of noise, confusion and abuse. Even now, 34 years after I left that place of work, I still very occasionally dream about it if I’m really stressed about something. That must be the very definition of a toxic working environment: if it makes you have bad dreams thirty years after you left!

    Other dreams are centred around other anxieties, usually relating to my children. I imagine many parents, especially of not-yet-born or very young children, have dreams about them. When my children were very small, I often worried something awful would happen to them. In one particular dream, the dream-of-the-book, I was myself a child, and I was sitting on top of a perilously high and very narrowly tapered craggy rock. I was holding a doll wrapped in a shawl or a blanket. But I was also standing beside the rock, as an adult, looking at myself, the child with the doll. Of course, I dropped the doll and it fell and smashed on the ground, being one of those old-fashioned doles with the porcelain arms and head. I-the-adult and I-the-child simultaneously screamed and scrambled for the doll, knowing it was too late. When I picked the doll up, it was transformed into my baby, and I said in a plaintive wail, ‘I’ve broken my dolly!’ Then I woke up.

    Dolls, like clowns, have become incredibly sinister in the modern view!

    It takes a while, doesn’t it, to shake off the horror of a nightmare and to realise that it isn’t real. I know now that it was borne out of my own sense of inadequacy and immaturity as a mother. It was a long time before I could talk about it. However, I could write about it, and so I did, writing a novel about a severely mentally disturbed woman who is always looking for her lost dolly, that she fears might be broken. I called the story–inevitably–Dolly. Although these days I refer to it as Baby Girl, to avoid confusion with my Dottie Manderson series. Who knows, one day I may polish it and publish it. It’s quite far down on my to-do list.

    It can be cathartic to write about dreams, hopes, fears and everything else. Writing is often used as therapy. In prisons and mental health institutions, writing is used to help people to express their thoughts and feelings in a safe and private environment. If you take any kind of anger management course, or any active therapy, even if you just go on a supervised diet or fitness regime, they tell you to write it all down in a journal: how you’re felling, what you want to get out of your current situation, what is wrong with it, what is grinding your gears, that kind of thing. You are taught how to analyse yourself by reading back over what you’ve written and attempting to view it objectively.

    So it can be a huge help to write about your dreams, and to examine your fears through writing about them.

    More recently, I had a dream that I based the other story on, that I mentioned above. It’s a short story, featuring Dottie Manderson and William Hardy, and Dottie’s sister Flora and her husband George. I’m still umming and ahhing about publishing yet because it contains spoilers for the main series. That’s why I say it might not be until next year that I bring it out of total obscurity into relatively light obscurity 🙂

    This is the Artsy Bee image I’m thinking of using for my Dottie short story.

    As a writer, I’m continually asked, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ So a discussion about dreams in part explains that, too. I have often trawled through Pixabay and other stock photo/image sites, looking for images for book covers, for my blog posts etc. And I love the images one contributor Artsy Bee has on Pixabay. A series of those gave me one idea. And watching an old film gave me another. And I got yet another idea from reading something factual about the second world war, and this all led to the dream in which those elements came together. Sometimes even a horrid dream is just your subconscious or your imagination, whatever, fitting together all the elements to try to create something whole and well-rounded.

    Dreams then are a very useful mechanism for exploring your own interior world, and for creativity. You can deal with your hang-ups and fears, and at the same time, if you can remember the dream, get a great idea for a story.

    Goodnight. Sweet dreams!

    ***

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