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!

***

A World Of Their Own: the character universe

When I was a child, I thought that the characters who appeared in the stories I read and loved all knew each other. More recently, I read (somewhere…can’t remember where) that it’s common for small children to think that way.

I thought Winnie-the-Pooh knew Ratty and Moley, who were in turn good friends with Timmy the Dog from the Famous Five. I didn’t understand why Snow White and Cinderella couldn’t join forces, the two of them together easily defeating all the wicked witches, sinister stepmothers and evil queens in the world.

As we grow older, in a way it’s sad that we come to realise none of these characters are real, that they exist only in a little pretend-world snapshot. If we found our way into their worlds through a magic mirror or a gateway in a stone circle, or by any other mysterious means, we would not find ourselves face to face with the story-world. I can remember carefully examining the back of my wardrobe. But no, to my disgust there was no Narnia hidden away. I’d put on my anorak and wellies for nothing.

Yet we–whether author or reader or both–people our world with fictional characters. I’d love to know the psychology behind that.

Some say storytelling is to do with conveying history or traditional or moral values to a younger generation. Some say it is purely for entertainment, keeping the kids quiet in the back of the cave whilst they wait for their dinosaur steaks. Some say it is to explore concepts and ideas beyond our own direct experience, or to combat loneliness, or to relieve stress.

Whatever the reason, we love our stories. We love our imaginary worlds and the characters who live a life that we cannot.

Heroes–storybook people–don’t age. I mean, writers can make them age, but the writers are in complete control and it isn’t inevitable. Sometimes heroes just are ageless, forever young. And characters suffer, yes, but only within the realms of the story. They don’t live their whole lives with unanswered questions, or with serious flaws of their personalities. We don’t watch them decline into old age. (Usually, though. I’m thinking of Wallander.) They remain perpetually young and golden.

This way you can read their story when you are yourself young, and again and again over the long passage of years, then again when you are old and changed, experienced and maybe a little bit cynical. But their bright outlook and determined hopefulness  remains unchanged. They walk through our lives beside us. They are there before we are born, and will continue long after we are gone. They are eternally young, preserved in the pages of memory and written and spoken works.

But we long for them to meet one another, to bring their own strengths and successes to benefit the lives of others.

And with creative works, we can do that. So we have superheroes popping up in each other’s stories. We have mash-ups, mix-ups and collaborations. It’s always interesting to see how this works. Maybe Inspector Barnaby should pop out to the Caribbean for a holiday and help out the Saint Marie police force in a Death In Paradise/Midsomer Murders extravaganza?

And spin-offs are popular: capturing and extending the audience for each side. Morse leads to Lewis and then to Endeavour. We love our characters to work together; we love to see their lives played out; we want to meet all their family and friends. Miss Fisher’s niece arrives on the scene to carry the torch forward in Miss Fisher’s Modern mysteries.

I was interested this week to see that authors Lee Strauss and Beth Byers have come together to produce a crossover work featuring their respective main characters, Ginger Gold and Violet Carlyle, in a new short work Mystery on Valentine’s Day (due out on 11 February this year). I’m intrigued. I will definitely buy that book!

And also on the wonderful internet, I came across a number of books that are ‘about’ books, or an authors work, being a guide to the author’s books, best reading sequence and all the characters. I was astonished to discover there’s a market for that!

With invented realities, the possibilities are endless. Fans of different series welcome the meeting of their favourite characters, I’m sure. It must be the next best thing to meeting a character yourself, to read about or watch a character you love being met by another character you love, and so setting in motion a whole new series of stories in the bookiverse.

***

No-more-blues-Monday.

When we look at the news it’s so easy to get really depressed. So often it seems that only terrible things are happening in the world; ecologically, politically, financially, economically, even in the arts or in entertainment, there is often bad or sad news. The winter days are cold and dreary, sunlight seems to have forgotten us, and Spring and Summer seem so far away.

So I thought I’d find a few headlines that might cheer people up a bit as we head towards what has been called Blue Monday: apparently tomorrow, Monday 20th January, is known to be the most depressing day of the year. Although it’s widely believed that Blue Monday is a ‘real thing’, it was created by psychologist Cliff Arnall back in 2004 as a way of boosting holiday sales at a time of year when exterior factors such as weather, work, mid-month financial strain and the return to work after the Christmas/New Year break are supposed to have us in their grip.

If it’s not a real ‘thing’ then we can shake it off, right?

We can do that by: having some fun (without spending the money we won’t have for another week and a half), talking to our friends and family, going for a walk, weather permitting, staying in with a loved one and snuggling in front of the TV, the fire, curling up with a book, baking a cake, planning holidays and trips for later in the year, planning DIY projects. All these life-affirming activities boost our moods and help us to remember that life is good and worth living. Feed the birds in your garden or if you haven’t got a garden, at the park. Look for signs of Spring

arriving: new growth on trees and shrubs, daffodil bulbs emerging, the slightly longer days.

Surround yourself with caring people.

Take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It’s not selfish to nurture yourself as well as others. It’s just the sensible thing to do. Treat yourself, little and often.

Count your blessings–an old-fashioned but useful way of deliberately looking for the myriad of big things and small that make your life a good one: your loved ones, the roof over your head, the bills you’ve paid, the opportunity to pay more bills in the future which means your life is full and busy and you have grown up and taken on responsibilities, the dog, the cat, the colour of the sunset, the old lady who smiled at you in the grocery store. Turn it to the positive.

Take note of the small, the mundane stuff that usually is overlooked in the busyness of life. A minute here, a minute there will not massively mess up your deadlines, but it could make a huge difference to your well-being.

If you still want to read the news, but don’t want to get depressed, here are some uplifting stories from the last week or so:

Not all retail parks and human environments destroy habitats and ecosystems, some are being used to encourage and even nurture wildlife: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-51050547

A dad helped his daughter revise for her school exams, and saved his own life: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-51081957

Generous and caring people still exist in communities: anonymous donors leave money for those in need: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-51093623

And here’s a picture of Malcolm – he’s a happy chap, and a glance at him having a snooze will always put me in a good mood. I advise looking at this picture three times a day after meals and once before bed.

I’m hoping that with all these little things, you–and I–will have less of a Blue Monday and more of a Rosy Outlook. Wishing everyone a good week.

***

 

Shakespeare’s English?

Sometimes people say annoying things like, ‘There’s no point in studying Shakespeare–it’s completely out of date and has nothing to do with life in the twenty-first century. It’s a relic, dead and dusty. It’s a waste of time.’

If you’ve been living on Mars for your whole life, you might not know this, but Shakespeare (Bill to his friends) lived from 1564 to 1616(ish). So yes, it was a long time ago. But I firmly believe his work is still relevant today.

Why? Well, many movies and books, and other creative arts continue to be based upon or inspired by the plays or poems of William Shakespeare. More than that, so many words he created are part of our everyday language. Although experts continue to disagree about just how many words he actually ‘invented’, whether it’s 1000 words and phrases, or 3000, (or whether all his plays were in fact, his plays), there is an even greater number of words and phrases that you and I use in our ordinary speech which were commonplace in those days but were not recorded in written English until Shakespeare first put them down on the parchment.

Not that Shakespeare was the first person to write in what we call ‘modern’ English–there were many writers in the  hundreds of years before who wrote in the English language: the language of the poor, and working classes, whilst the wealthy well-educated spoke Latin, then French. But I’d argue that Shakespeare was the first to really use the language in a vitally creative way, adapting it to his audience and the form he was writing in.

A quick comment: English is a relatively new language. It’s a mixed up thing, using elements from many other languages. Its words were ‘borrowed’ (but we won’t be giving them back, so it’s more like theft) from the Celts, the Romans, the Greeks, the Norse, Old German, Old French, Latin, Japanese, Yiddish, Native American languages, Chinese languages, Indian dialects, Arabic dialects, Dutch, Icelandic… or all of the above, English as a language is something living and breathing, it evolves, changes, it has trends, adaptations and corruptions. Igloo. Veranda. Wanderlust. Safari. Samovar. Loot. Cookie. Anonymous. Ketchup. Avatar. Telescope. Doppelganger. Genre. Cafe. Lingerie. Kindergarten. Rucksack. Glitz. Schmooze. Guerilla. Macho. Patio. Chocolate. Moccasin. Karaoke. Karate. Typhoon. Moped. Paparazzi. Siesta. Gherkin. Quartz. Horde. Schmuck. And many more…

You only have to compare Englishes around the world to see the changes that have occurred to the ‘common’ language. If it wasn’t so, you wouldn’t need dictionaries of American English and British English, to explain us to one another. Pants and pants. One is underwear, one is trousers (outer wear). And now, it’s a word meaning bad or terrible, as in: ‘My morning at work was completely pants.’

If someone said, ‘Yeah, baby, that’s out of this world, it’s fabulous, man,’ you’d know they were giving you a crash course in 1960s idioms. Once upon a time, if we were satisfied with the way things were, we said things were cool. Then we started saying people should chill out. How quickly words are assimilated into our language these days. They are often not new words at all, but simply known, ordinary words being applied in a new way. Which brings me back to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was a genius at taking words we already used and using them in a new context. For example, he often used nouns as verbs. These conjured up vivid mental images, making his plays, for example, colourful and immediate. In a play, already heavily leaning on words for context and meaning, to use words in different way was to bring the spoken word to life.

Here’s a little list of words and phrases, either new or adapted, that can be found in Shakespeare’s work:

Bandit (Henry VI, Part 2)

Critic (Love’s Labour Lost)

Dauntless (Henry VI, Part 3. 1616)

Dwindle (Henry IV, Part 1)

Elbow (the noun used as a verb, King Lear)

Friend (the noun used as a verb, Hamlet)

Green-Eyed (The Merchant of Venice) to describe jealousy; previously or commonly, jealousy was considered to be orange! (Much Ado About Nothing: ‘The Count is neither sad nor sick, nor merry, nor well;/But civil Count–civil (play on the word Seville) as an orange,/And something of that jealous complexion.)

Lacklustre (As You Like It)

Lonely (Coriolanus)

Skim-milk (Henry IV, Part 1)

Swagger (Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Unaware (poem: Venus & Adonis)

Uncomfortable (Romeo & Juliet)

Undress (Taming of the Shrew)

Unearthly (A Winter’s Tale)

Unreal (Macbeth.)

 

Maybe it’s time to bring a bit more Shakespeare back into our everyday language? There is nothing the Bard did so well as a good insult. Try these out at the pub:

Villain, I have done thy mother (sounds surprisingly modern – and completely validates my point!)

Thou Painted Maypole (for a tall woman)

Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish

Thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows

Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon

Poisonous bunch-backed toad

I am sick when I do look on thee

The tartness of his face sours grapes

I was searching for a fool when I found you (my favourite!)

I do desire we may be better strangers

He has not so much brain as ear-wax.

You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness

Her face is not worth sunburning

Thou hateful wither’d hag!

Thou art unfit for any place but hell

Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain

You are now sailed into the north of my lady’s opinion, where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard (Of which I think we can all agree, the best response is, ‘What?’)

***

A quick recap of 2019.

So that was that! Here we are (almost) at the end of December, traditionally time to look back and reflect on the passing year.

Brexit loomed large in many people’s thoughts. I was dismayed by the outcome of the election. Again. I voted. My family voted. It didn’t work, and now there’s nothing we can do but get on with our lives. When I was a child, they used to say of naughty boys, ignore him and he’ll get tired of showing off and go away. So that is my new strategy with regards to Brexit, and Boris. Onward and upward, guys, and let’s hope for better things next year.

This year, I’ve published two books. I released a stand-alone novel (never a good idea) called Easy Living. I’ve written a lot of books over the years. Some of them–okay, a lot of them–too dire to be inflicted on the reading public. But Easy Living has a very special place in my heart. And even though I knew it would only sell in small numbers (very small, actually), I wanted to release it anyway, just for myself. If you’re interested, you can find out a bit more about Easy Living here.

Then just a few short weeks ago I released The Thief of St Martins. It’s book 5 of the Dottie Manderson 1930s murder mysteries, and I’m so pleased to be able to say it is selling quite well, and a few people have said some wonderful things about it, which is so encouraging. It took me the best part of a year to write. I know these days we are all supposed to write between four and six novels a year, plus write blog posts, and put together special free giveaways, but I just can’t achieve that level of output–and I don’t know if that amount of pressure is healthy.

I do blog–see, look, I’m doing it right now–although I admit I’m not always sure what to blog about. I feel embarrassed talking about my books all the time, thinking that might be a big turn-off for readers. We Brits don’t cope well with self-promotion–from a very early age, we’re taught that it’s bad manners and is boastful. So I try to write about things I’ve discovered during my research, or I write to help or support other writers, because that’s writing what I know, as writing coaches (mistakenly) tell us to do. But I try to come up with something most weeks. I’m rewarded by lovely comments and conversations with people, and by seeing the numbers of my blog followers gently rising week on week.

What else have I done this year? I’ve read quite a lot. I’ve done some editing and proofreading, a lot of social media promo, and I’ve spent hours playing on Canva and Bookbrush, as I love to create simple graphics, and find it quite therapeutic and relaxing. I’ve also started drafting several novels and novellas, some of which may never be seen or heard of again, and some of which you (hopefully) will read next year.

What shall I do next year? I’ll be blogging again, of course. And reading, as always. And then I plan to release two novels in 2020, at least one of which will be a Dottie Manderson book. I’m starting serious work on The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6 in January, and will hopefully finish the first draft by the start of March. If that seems a long way off, can I say that I’ve already written four chapters? Only another 18-20 to go…. I’ve got other ideas too, but who knows what will actually happen? There just isn’t enough time for all the ideas I want to write about. I might watch some TV. I’ll keep on with my Polish lessons. I might do a spot of gardening. Housework will come in there somewhere, way down the list. Maybe I’ll travel? Who knows?

So now all that’s left is for me to say a massive thank you to all my readers, to my friends and family, for the incredible, jaw-dropping support and encouragement I’ve received. I honestly couldn’t have done 2019 without you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Now, where’s the alcohol and chocolate?

***

The bath that came in from the cold: the rise of the modern domestic bathroom: part 2

A baby bath now used for logs for the fire

I’ve been re-reading a great book about domestic life: ‘If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home’ by Lucy Worsley. I highly recommend this book for a fascinating, very accessible history of the home. Of bathrooms she says, ‘Bathrooms are now…the only rooms…with a lock on their doors, yet the activities that take place within did not always require privacy’.

The full immersion of the body into water was more of a ritual for spiritual purposes or for political allegiance than it was to do with getting clean. Soldiers would cleanse themselves before going off to the crusades – it was a setting aside of the physical and the spiritual self for the express purpose of going into battle for God. Knights bathed before receiving the    conveyed upon them.

The concept of a room set aside (more or less) for the sole purpose of cleansing the body is a relatively new one. Previously, bathing was a communal, social activity. In the medieval times, both sexes enjoyed bathing in public bathhouses. It was not done to cleanse the body but for fun and relaxation. You could even get a meal sent in to you, and a few pints of ale from a nearby inn. Unfortunately the bathhouses where you could bathe, drink and be merry rapidly acquired a reputation for naughty sexual shenanigans, and it wasn’t long before bathhouses became brothels, pure and simple. There were other concerns too: sharing water with a large number of other people meant that bacteria lurked, and bathing became more likely to infect your body, not less. Bathing began to be regarded with suspicion and distrust, and consequently, people stopped doing it.

This gave rise to the private wash in the bedroom. We have probably all seen the large jug sitting in a matching china bowl on a washstand, a vital piece of furniture. Hot water was carried up from the fires of the kitchen or scullery by panting maids who must have had biceps and shoulders like a modern action movie hero. These days we still see these jug sets in homes, guest houses and boutique hotels, no longer for daily use but for decoration, used to convey a sense of homely comfort and traditional values.

But with bathing out, the emphasis was on the wearing of clean clothes. Underwear was invented, and it became the norm to change the clothes more often. Washing was done in the dim recesses of the servants areas of the large country house, with households employing one, two or sometimes a whole team of laundresses for this particular work. Labour was cheap, clothes were not.

And it wasn’t all about the nasty germs that you might pick up from bathing, nor about having enough staff to fill a bath or run up and down with hot water. From the middle of the nineteenth century more than half of Britain’s population were living in cities. The sheer logistical demands of bringing fresh, clean water into the cities was a nightmare. Remember these places still had open sewers until the beginning of the 19th century. Water, when piping began, was often rusty, or tainted, or just not available due to the inefficiency of the system or the lack of proper distribution. Piped water was often only available at set times, so households had to either manage without, or get used to collecting and storing it until needed. This all required management and planning.

But from the Regency period onwards bathing, at home and beyond, again began to be seen as an important part of everyday life across all social strata. If you watched the new adaptation/reimagining of Jane Austen’s unfinished work, Sanditon on TV recently, you would have enjoyed the sight of gorgeous young men emerging from the sea after a swim – naked, of course, but perilously close to where the ladies are bathing from bathing machines in a ridiculous array of clothing to swim in. In Jane Austen’s wonderful work Pride and Prejudice, the precocious Lydia says, ‘I’m sure I should love to go sea-bathing,’ whilst her mother responds with ‘A little sea-bathing would set me up forever.’

There were still concerns about the dangerous effects of the action of the sea having a stimulating effect on women in particular, as ‘everyone’ knew that women were hysterical creatures at the best of times, and any kind of physical enjoyment was to be strictly controlled. I wonder if the birth rate went up nine months after a trip to the seaside? I guess that depends on whether or not ladies spotted someone like Sidney Parker (aka Theo James!) ambling out of the sea with not a stitch on.

Jane Austen’s works are so popular these days.

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland travels to Bath with Mrs Allen to take the waters for their health, and in doing so, they are participating in the huge trend that was sweeping the nation: it was once more a good and healthy thing to do, not to mention a vital aspect of the social calendar for the well-to-do. To go to Bath, to see and be seen in the various rooms of the spa was on everyone’s to-do list. Science – or natural philosophy as it was then called – touted the benefits to mind, body and spirit of warm water containing salts and minerals. They didn’t just bathe in it, either. It was drunk by the pint.

But what if you were too poor to be able to be seen at a trendy spa?

The poor, or even middling wealthy, could of course, always swim in the sea, or lakes and rivers, and were arguably less at risk of the rapid rise and fall of fashionable opinion. New coastal resorts sprang up from the Regency era onwards, and from the middle part of Victoria’s reign the railways took even the less well-off to the coast for a day’s relaxation, walking swimming and sandcastle building. But even at home, the tin bath would come out and be filled with hot water for getting off the week’s grime and starting a new week fresh and clean. Ish.

Faith played a part here. Religion determined your bath night. Did you believe that Sunday or Saturday was the sabbath? Was the start of the new week Sunday or Monday for you? Because that dictated which day of the week your family had their weekly bath. For many, the end of the week was Sunday, and that was bath night, but there were large numbers for whom Saturday was the last day of the week and Sunday the first, so they had their bath on a Saturday night. Scandanavian languages still carry this concept in the everyday word for Saturday – in Swedish it’s lördag, in Danish and Norwegian it’s lørdag, and in Icelandic it’s laugardag (which is the closest to the language of origin). But they all mean the same – pool or bath day. There was also a sense that bathing was a social duty – one had to consider the people aroudn one, and the idea of smelling bad to others was abhorrent.

That long ditch in the middle of the street is the communal open sewer

For most people who were brought up C of E (Church of England/Anglican) Sunday remained the day when you had your weekly bath. And there was a strict order to who got to have the bath: starting with either the eldest or the ‘man of the house’ or main bread-winner (usually all three would have been the father of the family), and proceeding down the chain to the youngest. All using the same water. Can you imagine the state of the water by the end? There is a reason we have an old saying ‘Don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water.’ I’m guessing the water was so murky it would be hard to tell if anyone was left in there, though I sincerely hope no mother would accidentally leave her baby int he water and forget about it. (Said the woman who once took a picture of her baby in her new coat, then left the house, and was halfway into town before remembering the baby was still lying on the sofa… sorry, Darling!)

In 1918, a law was passed in Britain to the effect that all new houses had to have hot and cold running water to a bathroom. But of course, this had no impact on the millions of older homes. Only as finances allowed would bathrooms be added to the terraces and villas across the nation. These days if you buy a Victorian home, you will find either a bedroom or two have been sacrificed to provide bathrooms, or a bathroom has been added on as a built extension to the back of the house, often downstairs.

Fast forward to the Second World War, and hot water was rationed – or rather the coal that was usually the means of heating it, and individuals were only supposed to use a depth of four inches of water per day in their baths. I’m not sure how anyone hoped to regulate this, or how much it contributed to the war effort, but like a lot of things at that time, it gave the community as a whole a sense of ‘doing our bit’ and made people think they were helping their nation to win the fight.

So that’s it, from there we went to actual baths in actual designated bathrooms, and the concept of a daily shower quickly became a normal part of our cleansing ritual.

I want to close with this lovely item. I took this picture at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. It’s a portable or travelling shower bath. The bamboo supporting canes can be removed, and the water tank at the top taken off, so that the traveller is left with conveniently-sized separate sections that can be readily reassembled on arrival at the destination. Always supposing you haven’t left vital screws, nuts or bolts etc on the dining room table at home. I like to think of it as a kind of IKEA device, with a Scandanavian-sounding name. Maybe The Lördag?

next week – the loo!

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The rise of the domestic bathroom: My childhood in the 60s

As you will know if you’ve been to this blog before, I’m a bit of a history nut, and in particular I love the history of the private home. I mainly write mysteries set in the 1930s, although I set my books in other eras too from time to time.

But the few short years between the World War I and World War II bewitch and intrigue me. These were the years that really created the world as we know it now, and the legacy of those years is still widely felt and experienced today. (To read a bit more about how I see this era, please click on this link to read a blog post from last year)

Because of my daft preoccupation with the first part of the twentieth century, I visit a lot of English country houses and I take LOADS of pictures. I’m particularly interested in the more ‘basic’ aspects of life. I want to know about how meals were created, how houses and clothes were cleaned, and how people cleaned themselves. So I thought I’d tell you a bit about my childhood, and also next week, a bit about the rise of the modern domestic bathroom.

I was born in 1960 in the South of England. Contrary to many peoples’ view, this was not a time of universal comfort and modernisation. Not that I was particularly aware of it as a child, but looking back now, I can see we were very badly off by modern standards. Yet we were not alone, and I doubt if our experience was a rare one.

From when I was about three, or a little younger, we lived in what can only be described as a bedsit, though in those days we gave it the grander name of a one-room flat. Mum and I slept, cooked, and relaxed in that one room in an old house, with many other such rooms. If you read books written in the 40s, 50s and 60s, you will often come across mention of these grand old houses gone down in the world and divided up into flats or bedsits. Larger private homes became unmanageable without a staff to run them, and after the first world war, wages rose, and labour was scarce, lured away by the higher wages and often shorter working weeks in the factories. We lived in one of those grand old houses, a handsome very square, white-washed Georgian villa over four floors.

We were on the first floor ( second floor to you guys from the States), and our room faced out the back where there were the remains of a beautiful garden. Our neighbours on the same floor were two men sharing a room. They were British but called themselves Pierre and Rene, and they worked as hairdressers. They were young, noisy and seemed to have a lot of fun. They gave me gifts and sent postcards whenever they went away. I realise now they were a gay couple. But not then. Then, we thought they were just good friends. Really good friends…

Next door to them was ‘Uncle’ Harry, an elderly refugee from the former Yugoslavia. He’d been living there for fifteen or so years, since the war ended. He gave me tinned fruit and cream as a treat, and told me stories. I think he was lonely. He had lost his family in the war. He proposed to Auntie Zonya regularly but sadly she always turned him down. It was normal for children to call adult friends Auntie or Uncle, even if they were no such relation.

Across the hall was Auntie Zonya. I adored her. She was a strong influence on my early years. I have written a number of short pieces about her, including Jazz Baby, Patrick’s Irish Eyes, Big Knickers, and others. More importantly, she bought me my first cat.

There were others too, who were out for most of the day or kept to themselves, so we didn’t know them so well as these four. Upstairs in what used to be the servants’ quarters in the attic, was Miss Lilian, who was the owner of the house, and I was always told to behave and be polite when she came down to our floor, as she had the power to throw us out onto the street. I remember her as seeming incredibly old, with very white wavy hair, and not much taller than me. I’d love to know more about her life and whether she remembered the house in its prime, when it was all for one family. There’s never a time machine around when you need one.

There were people who lived downstairs in the basement too, but I only slightly knew the couple with the little girl who I played with occasionally. They had windows that were below the level of the garden, with little dug-outs around them to bring in the light. These were presumably the old kitchen, scullery etc of the house when it was in its heyday.

There was a shared bathroom on each floor. I remember we shared our bathroom with at least three and sometimes more other families, though usually these families consisted of single people or couples.

It wasn’t unusual to be on the loo or in the bath and someone else needed to use the facilities. It wasn’t unusual for there to be no hot water because someone else had used too much for their own bath. (No shower!) Most of the time when I was having a bath, someone would come in to shave, or wash, to rinse some clothes, or to use the loo–not a pleasant experience for either of us!

One friend in the house–my Auntie Zonya–used a chamber pot until well into the late 60s. I found it (empty I hasten to add) under her bed once and thought she was putting out cups of tea for an invisible giant. (I was an imaginative child) I only found out what it was when I asked her where the saucer was, as the ‘cup’ was shaped and patterned just like a huge teacup. I’d say that the fact that I didn’t know what it was shows that usage of chamber pots was in decline by the 60s, although clearly not completely done away with.

Even when we moved from there to a house–one bedroom upstairs and a kitchen/sitting-room downstairs, with a toilet in the backyard under a lean-to roof and with no light and loads of spiders–we still had no bath of our own. That was around 1966 or so. But it was private, and cosy, and I remember I loved that house. I was about 6 when we moved in, and only about 7 when we left, so we weren’t there as long as it seems in my memories. It’s gone now: that and the house next door–that belonged to a blind gentleman who was a piano-tuner–were bulldozed to create something a bit nicer. Auntie Zonya lived in the house after us, when we moved on. She said the piano-tuner’s house was haunted. Then again, she said that about everywhere.

Hot water had to be boiled. Baths were not available at all–we didn’t have one of those old-fashioned baths you see in period dramas. We had a plastic washing-up bowl and used to put hot water in it, stand in it and wash ourselves down. I had long hair. Washing that was a nightmare. We used to take a torch out to the loo when we needed it. As a lean-to shack, the loo had no light, no windows, and was freezing cold – even in summer. And the spiders…

When we moved into a council flat (again, for those from outside the UK, I mean an apartment complex in social housing/government housing for the needy/low-income families) we had a big dining/sitting room, a separate kitchen, two bedrooms. AND–drum roll please–a bathroom!!!!!!!! Not to mention under-floor heating. (That was blissful) We had to go to the flat to clean it the week before we moved in as the previous occupants had left it dirty, and this gave us the perfect excuse to have a hot bath, which seemed to us the height of luxury and I can remember it even now, more than fifty years later.

The most exciting part of this house, apart from the bathroom, and the two bedrooms, was the coal door next to the front door. Basically if a thief timed it right they could get into the flat through this coal door and take whatever they wanted (not that we had anything!) and leave by either the front door or the coal door. Not a great feature from a security point of view. As an avid Famous Five reader, I loved the idea of the coal door giving absolutely anyone access to our home.

From there, we entered the modern world of running hot water, central heating and baths, then showers, of washing machines, then tumble driers, fridges, freezers, microwaves, toasters and colour television, computers, the Internet, eBooks and self-publishing…

But long before I came into the world, the common approach to washing, going to the loo, and in personal grooming had undergone massive changes. Read more next week!

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Woohoo…NaNo2019 Funsies!

At this time of year, everyone starts putting out their ‘Tips For NaNo’ blogs. As I didn’t want to be left out, I thought I’d add my voice to all the advice aimed at writers planning to participate in this year’s (Inter)National Novel Writing Month through NaNoWriMo.org in November.

What do you mean, ‘what is it?’? It’s second fourth only to Hallowe’en, Christmas and Valentine’s as the most celebrated season of the year. Whether you are a seasoned author or a newbie who’s never written a whole novel before, this is a great way to challenge yourself to write a complete novel—though it could also be non-fiction, if that’s your bag, baby—by taking the challenge to write a whopping 50,000 words during the month of November.

I’ve done it several times now, and still haven’t quite made up my mind whether or not to go for it this year, as I’m just doing a final proof of my latest novel which is out at the end of this month, and I am, frankly, exhausted. But I do have some ideas I’ve been mulling over, so who knows, I might—just might—do something rash and go for it.

Even if I decide to do the smart thing and take a break, I can say unreservedly that NaNoWriMo is a great idea and I really believe it’s a valuable writing experience. If you’re not sure whether to do it, then I say, maybe give it a go, what have you got to lose?

You could gain a complete first draft!

Even if you don’t manage to complete the challenge, you will have achieved something – if you only write 10,000 words, or less than that – hey, it’s 10,000, or 1,000 or 250 words more than you had in October.

So here are my top tips for a great NaNoWriMo:

  1. Prepare. Yes, make sure you do. Even if you see yourself as a ‘pantser’, make sure you hit the ground running on November 1st by having a good idea of what your story is about, who the main characters are, and key plot points. You will need to write a little over1600 words per day every day to achieve the 50,000 word target by the end of the month. Reread any notes you have, and get your Word docs or word processing files, or your Scrivener files ready on your computer of choice. Do any essential research necessary NOW, don’t leave it until November.

I recommend setting up 30 files, dated: 1 Nov, 2 Nov, etc, so they are in the correct order time-wise, type up your story every day. Have another file called something like ‘Whole Thing’, and every day you complete, copy and paste that day’s work into the Whole Thing file, so you won’t have to do this at the end.

If you struggle to get going each new day, leave yourself a few words of direction at the end of your writing session, so when you come to start the next day, you’ve got a starting point.

It is a marathon. And like a runner in a marathon, you will have to learn to overcome ‘the voice’ in your head that tells you to give up, that you can’t do it. It’s not just athletes: you will find that voice also tries to trip up writers. You must learn to be stubborn, bloody-minded even, and refuse to give in even when everything in you and around you says you will fail and that what you are writing is terrible. So what, you will say, I’m going to do it. Carpe Stilum. Seize the pen! (I think…Latin is not my strongest skill)

If you get really stuck, go back and reread what you’ve already written, try to figure out what your original vision was and how you saw the story developing. If that isn’t working for you, try writing isolated scenes , conversations between your characters, events, try writing description of the setting in your story. Anything to keep going. Collect some images that will help to inspire you or give you a push forward when things are tough. You can find some wonderful images for free on Pixabay. Create a folder of these images to look at when you need something to spur you on.

  1. Keep your daily writing typed up. This is important if it’s your first time. Type your work into a computer file, don’t only write in longhand. Because at the end of the month, you need to copy and paste all your writing into the NaNoWriMo counter to get your achievement verified. And if it’s only written in notebooks, no matter how neat the writing nor fancy the notebook, it just—doesn’t—count. So don’t do what I did two years in a row (argh, the pain! Why am I so forgetful???) of writing mainly longhand then not leaving enough time to type up my work before the end of the month. It’s no good telling NaNoWriMo you’ve successfully completed the challenge if you don’t upload your ENTIRE 50,000 words for verification by their robot. In addition, remember their robot may not count quite the same as you, so ensure you’ve got a couple of hundred words over the 50,000-limit ‘just in case’. Don’t fail because you wrote exactly 50,000 words.
  2. Don’t get distracted. There is so much to look at on the NaNoWriMo site, and so many useful talks, motivational speeches, helps, suggestions, support groups, discussions and so on, not to mention the merch, but DO NOT spend time looking at this stuff if you haven’t done your daily word count. It is so easy to become distracted and to think, I’ll just write a bit extra tomorrow. Then the dog breaks its leg, and you’re at the vet till midnight and before you know it a week has gone by and you’ve got to write 3,500 words a day just to keep up. So don’t get on that slippery slope. Write first, have fun later.
  3. Be realistic. The aim here is not to write and publish a great work by Christmas. Okay, I’m sure some wonderman/woman will do exactly that—there’s always a handful of literary stars. But most of us will be aiming to simply write a complete, or almost complete, first draft during NaNoWriMo. Don’t write your 50,000 words then think the work is over, that your book is ready to be unleashed on a waiting world. This is simply the end of the beginning. Once you’ve finished your first draft, pat yourself on the back because it’s a wonderful achievement. Then request your winners’ certificate from NaNoWriMo.org and take a well-earned break. Put your first draft away. Then get it out in a month or six, and begin the process of rewriting, crafting, polishing. Work on it alongside the NaNoWriMo revision camps and workshops, and take pride in getting it as good as it can be. And—while you wait—write another book!
  4. Keep going through the tough days. At first it’s exciting. It’s fun. You feel a wonderful sense of achievement, and as you reach the end of week one, you survey your 5,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 words with pride. It’s all so easy, it’s all so wonderful. You should have done this years ago, why do people say writing is tough? BUT…often, (and it won’t just be you who goes through this) you can hit a brick wall. You struggle to wring 400 words from your imagination. Things happen in life and it can be hard to find the time. Suddenly the blank page is staring back at you, in what can only be described as a hostile manner, and you begin to feel like giving up. Now, yes, now it is hard. Maybe it’s not worth it, your inner wimp suggests.

Okay, take a breath, dig deep, you can do this. Hang on in there as they used to say in the 70s. Write a page of ‘I have no idea what to write’ or ‘I am so &*%%£! off with this writing game’. Anything, just to keep writing. Just keep at it and slog through the tough times. This would be a good time to read or listen to ONE or TWO only of the motivational speeches or posts, just so you know there are others going through the same experience. Keep writing, it will come back, I promise. You can make that 50,000 words appear. It’s not inspiration, by the way, it’s hard graft that will get you through this. Hard graft, and ignoring your inner meanie who says it’s time to give up and go home. ‘There’s always next year’, your inner meanie says with a snarky smile. Kick that B*****d in the shins and write on!

Woohoo—you made it! You are a writing genius and should feel sooooo proud of your achievement. Congratulations! Print off your certificate and put it on your wall to gloat over.

One of my books came out of a NaNoWriMo draft. I’ve written a number of other NaNoNovels but they are still on a shelf waiting for some TLC. Not every NaNoNovel shines and reaches publication, and not every novel that shines and is published started life written in 30 days flat in November. But NaNoWriMo is a valuable experience, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It will do wonders for your self-esteem as a writer.

Now stop wasting time and write another book. Oh, and, please, let me know how you get on! See you on the other side.

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‘So, where do you get your ideas?’

I know I’ve written on this topic a couple of times before, but it’s one of those questions that never goes away.

Where do you get your ideas?’

This is one of the first questions people usually ask me – and I’m pretty sure it happens to other writers all the time. It kind of makes me want to groan, because it’s next to impossible to give a sincere and considered answer to this question without boring the pants off everyone by talking for an hour. The short, somewhat trite answer might be, ‘Everywhere!’

But if we really want to answer the question, it takes a minute or two longer. Because really there’s no single answer. Ideas don’t come from one unique, unvarying source. Nor do they come in the same way each time. Anything from the world seen or unseen can come to my attention and lead me to think, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting…’

Inspiration, which is what ideas really are, comes from everywhere and nowhere. A snatch of song, a news story, a little patch of colour on a card in the paint section of the DIY store, the turn of a person’s head making you think just for one split second it’s someone else, someone from another time, someone who should be dead. An unexpected view of yourself in a shop window, that odd moment before you recognise yourself, that brief second when you think, slightly puzzled, ‘I know you.’

An overheard snatch of conversation, ‘Don’t lose my hat, man, my hat’s my identity,’ and ‘Of course she never did find out who’d sent it.’ A film, a book, a taste, a smell, a memory, a story your mother told you – you’ve known her all your life yet this is the first time she’s ever mentioned this particular incident.

I have based two full-length stories on dreams, three short stories and one novel on songs, a poem on a piece of art, a novel based on a documentary I saw on TV about ancient tapestries, (Opus Anglicanum: Latin for English work), and another about the Reformation. I’ve written a short story about an arrowhead, and another about ancestral bones and the relevance they might have to a Neolithic man, about a couple of  trips to Skara Brae in the Orkneys.

I’ve written a whole series of stories about the fact that all too often people think it’s okay to take the law into their own hands. (I’m looking at you Cressida, MC of the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy!) I’ve written about work situations, about hopes and plans for the future, about family tree research, about children, and pets, and parents. About love. About the absence of love. About Faith. About fear. About books I read as a child. And books I read as an adult. I’ve written about identity and what it means to be who I am, who you are. I’ve written about death – loads.

I saw a gorgeous man on the bus many years ago and wrote a story about him, (The Ice King – still not ‘available’, but if you’re intrigued, here’s a link to a short bit about him.) I’ve read news reports and been inspired to create my own story around some of those. I’ve written in hospital having just given birth, in hospital awaiting treatment for cancer, at work during my lunchbreak when I felt so depressed I just wanted to run away and hide. I’ve written when sitting on the loo, sitting in the garden, on holiday, in bed with flu, and in cafes all over Britain, Europe and Australia. I’ve written on buses and trains and planes. I’ve written when someone I cared about has died. I’ve even got inspiration from sitting down at my desk every day and just making myself write. Sometimes I’ve written page upon page of ‘I don’t know what to write’, like lines that we had to do at school, and still nothing has come to me and I’ve gone away desperate, feeling that the well has not only dried up, but was only a mirage to begin with.

If you are a writer, you squirrel away in the eccentric filing cabinet known as your brain EVERY single thing that you ever experience, and a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle or creating a patchwork quilt, you keep trying pieces together every which way until something fits and makes a pleasing and meaningful picture. There’s not really a pattern to it, there’s not a system or a set of regulations to follow. You just do it.

That’s where I get my ideas.

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