The Old House: reminiscing

It’s been thirteen years since we lived there, but the house looks the same. Even the vertical blinds at the windows don’t look any different. The place has that half-familiar look, as remembered places do. A brick semi, with a small tarmac front yard surrounded by a perimeter of unruly shrubs liberally sprinkled with empty whisky and methadone bottles and syringes.

I know the streets were this busy when we lived here, but I seem to see all the traffic as if for the first time. Why did we choose to live somewhere so congested? But I know why, of course. It was the garden.

The street-front gives the passer-by no clue as to the possibility of a garden. But it was the garden of our dreams. It was because of the garden that for two years we put up with the ridiculously high crime-rate, the constant sense of insecurity, the dark gloomy house, and the heavy traffic.

In case you think I’m exaggerating the crime: the day we moved in, a guy down the street shot his wife in the street, then himself, right in front of their teenage daughters. I know that’s more of a family tragedy than a crime, but it didn’t bode well. Within two weeks we’d been burgled and had our car vandalised twice. Eggs and bottles were thrown at the house. My husband was on first-name terms with the local police officer by the end of the first month. We saw a woman thrown out of a moving car. Truly. We saw another woman repeatedly kicked and punched before she limped away, screaming profanities from a bleeding mouth. We found syringes, empty bottles and condoms scattered in our front yard regularly. We had a man stabbed literally on our doorstep as he leaned on the doorbell at eleven o’clock at night. We had the police come to the door and tell us to stay inside as they were after someone sheltering in our back yard (my precious garden!). Someone tried to snatch my money as I stood at the ATM putting my card away. Drunks were heaved almost senseless out of the pub to sleep the drink off on the pavement outside. My teenage daughter was followed home by two men who tried to grab her. Good thing we lived literally fifty yards from the bus stop where she’d got off. And that she had a good pair of lungs.

But the garden…Oh it was a slice of heaven. One hundred and thirty feet long, and thirty-odd feet wide. That’s huge by inner-city standards. The top twenty-five per cent, nearest the house, was a patio, unevenly paved, and populated with plants in pots. Tiny solar lamps indicated the edge of the patio and the start of the lawn. The lawn took up about fifty per cent of the garden, and was uneven and veined with ancient tree roots and edged by borders containing ugly plants behind even uglier mini-fencing. I know it’s not sounding great at the moment…

Dotted across the lawn and in the bottom twenty-five per cent of the garden were several old apple and pear trees, and a cheery tree. There were two small sheds, all but falling down, and an oval flower bed intruding into the top part of the lawn. The final section at the end of the garden was fenced off and badly overgrown. Paving slabs had been loosely laid, perhaps n an attempt to curb the growth of the weeds, but they presented a grave danger to ankles and toes as the slabs tipped up as soon as you stepped on them.

We gathered these slabs up into two stacks. Then we cut back the trees and shrubs to a tidy and manageable size. We dug up the weeds and created veggie patches and a herb garden. We filled tubs and pots with sunflowers and cosmos and anything that bees or butterflies might like. It was a secret, sunny spot, seemingly miles from the house and the noise of the road beyond, hidden away from prying eyes.

We often used to see a fox snoozing in the sunshine on top of the slab-stacks. Or at night, I’d hear a sound and look out to see three or four fox cubs chasing each other around the lawn or hopping back and forth over the plant pots and yapping at one another. I’m not one of those who believes wild animals are there to be shot or poisoned. I’m definitely a bleeding-heart liberal and proud to be so. My family and I derived great pleasure from watching the birds, the foxes, a squirrel, and some hedgehogs enjoying the amenities of our garden, drinking out of a plant saucer full of rainwater or foraging amongst the bushes.

Our neighbours on either side were very elderly and their gardens had been left untouched for years. The neighbour on the right-hand side had a World War II Anderson shelter at the bottom of her garden, and this was where the foxes lived. The neighbours’ gardens and ours created a little oasis of wildlife-friendly space in the city, and the wildlife seemed to be thriving there. I hope they never bulldoze that block.

The area had once been an orchard. The trees in our garden were donkeys’ years old, and our neighbours had a number of equally well-established fruit trees. The trees were huge, too, due to their great age. I’ve never seen fruit trees the size of woodland oak or beech trees. I suppose normally when orchard trees reach a certain age, they are replaced, to ensure maximum yield.

It was the kind of garden that made us strive to overcome all the other obstacles to living happily in that location in our attempt to create a home. It was the kind of garden you long to pick up and take with you.

That house was never a home, and we were so glad to leave it. But the garden belonged to another age, and another plane altogether. We still drive past the house regularly, the house itself so dimly remembered, and yet we continue to rave about the perfect little world hidden away behind it.

Yes, that is my cat, in a deep blissful sleep in the middle of the rather long grass – never seen her so carefree as she was here.

***

Deleted scenes two: more ‘outtakes’ from The Spy Within

I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Dottie Manderson’s latest outing, The Spy Within, book 6 in the Dottie Manderson mystery series, was quite a lot longer than I’d anticipated. Because of that, I had to cut out a large number of words, two or three major scenes in fact that I felt muddied the waters and delayed the action a little bit too much.

But as scenes, I felt they worked really nicely. Authors are often told to ‘kill their darlings’ – for me this isn’t so much about killing off a beloved character but chopping a scene that works really well, earns its wages and yet in spite of everything, just doesn’t belong. It is often with great reluctance that I cut out a scene then have to find another way to bring in the information the reader needs to figure out what’s going on.

This next scene is a case in point. If you haven’t read The Spy Within, or the previous books come to that, maybe you should browse elsewhere for the next ten minutes or so – spoilers abound!

So in The Spy Within we see William Hardy – police inspector – and Dottie Manderson – amateur sleuth – discussing Dottie’s beau Gervase Parfitt (boo, hiss!). William has been asked to investigate allegations of corruption and other possible crimes lodged against Gervase Parfitt who is an ambitious assistant chief constable. William has also been told to enlist Dottie’s help in finding evidence, as his superior officers know she is a friend of William’s, and is on the point of becoming engaged to Parfitt.

But what the higher-ups don’t know is that the relationship between William and Dottie is far more complicated than that and there is quite a lot of baggage that needs to be resolved. William tries to get out of asking her, but is told he must. Reluctantly he tries to find a way to tell her that Parfitt is under investigation – which he believes will devastate her – and yet still be able to gain her trust and get her to help him.

In the final version of this book, William has a couple of attempts at doing this. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that he has passively allowed his old fiancee back into his life, and both women are jealous of one another from the outset. The conversation becomes an emotional minefield for both Dottie and William.

You will also see some of my notes to myself in the midst of the scene – I often leave myself reminders or notes when writing my first draft; these serve as signposts when I come to revise the manuscript later.

Here it is:

William arrived at a quarter to three. He had invited her to meet him at three o’clock.

He had felt that the conversation might go better if they met at the Lyons’ corner house nearest her fashion warehouse. For one thing, after their last meeting, he didn’t really expect her to turn up at all, or if she did, he thought she’d likely be very late. He was fully prepared for her to still be furious with him. So long as she didn’t look at him with that bleak, defeated look, it should be all right. Rage he could deal with, but he doubted he could cope with that cold misery. Or tears.

At least if he was in a Lyons’, he could just order more tea and cake whilst he waited, if she came very late. Or, if she was furious, he thought—or hoped, might be more accurate—she might keep her temper in check in a public place, whereas in her home, or his, she could very well pick up the teapot and throw it at him. Not that, given the current situation, she was at all likely to offer him tea, he realised now. In any case, he hoped she wouldn’t do that in Lyons’, though he was by no means certain.

She arrived five minutes early. Punctuality was important to her, he remembered belatedly, and besides, she was a busy woman these days with a business to run, which by all accounts, she did very well.

She had pulled out the chair and sat down before he had a chance to leap to his feet and pull it out for her. She glared at him.

‘Well?’

Clearly she was, as expected, furious. He forgot every word of his carefully planned, meticulously crafted speech, and stared at her, dumb. She raised an elegantly curved eyebrow.

He said, ‘Er…’ and executed a kind of half-rise together with a sort of bow and bumped his knee on the leg of the table, making the vase of flowers jump. He swore loudly at the sharp pain that went through his knee. Several other patrons tutted and shook their heads. Dottie frowned and looked away.

He removed the end of his tie from his saucer, wiped the dribble of tea from his shirt and bent to pick up his wallet that had fallen on the floor, only narrowly missing hitting his head on the edge of the table. Dottie had to conceal a smile.

‘Damn thing,’ he said as he replaced the wallet in his pocket. More tutting and head-shaking from an elderly lady at the table behind them.

Dottie noticed that the leather was rather shiny and new looking. His initials, W F H, for William Faulkener Hardy, were embossed in gold on the front of the wallet. Dottie preferred the old, battered wallet he had had for years.

‘Did she buy that for you?’ she couldn’t help asking.

He paused in the middle of dabbing at his shirt. ‘What, the wallet? Oh, er, yes.’ He blushed. Everything was going wrong. ‘She said the old one was too shabby.’

‘It was,’ she said. ‘Although I preferred it.’

She was looking at him now less as though he was a bug that wanted squashing and more as a smelly dog that needed to be put outside in a kennel. He felt it was progress.

‘I can’t get used to this one. And it’s bigger, so I can’t keep it in the inside pocket I kept the old one in, which is why I keep dropping it all the time.’

It seemed the subject had run its course, as she made no reply.

‘Tea?’ he asked. She shook her head. The hovering waitress frowned and stalked away.

‘What do you want, William?’

At least she’d used his first name rather than his rank and surname. Another point for progress, he decided.

(note to me: when has he told her about his doubts about Gervase and the fact that he is tasked with investigating him???) ‘I thought we should talk about Parfitt, and how I would like you to help me.’

She made a little grunting sound, more or less an affirmative. Then she turned and flagged down the waitress. ‘Just a pot of tea, please.’

‘Certainly madam, and for the gentleman?’

William was about to order tea, but Dottie said, with a fierce look at him, ‘He’s not having anything. He’s about to leave.’

‘Very good, madam.’ The waitress bobbed and returned to her area to make the tea.

William said nothing, deciding not to push his luck. He quickly outlined what he wanted her to do. Before she could comment, the waitress appeared with the pot of tea, milk jug, and cup and saucer.

There was a long pause as Dottie dissolved a sugar lump on her spoon then stirred it in. He thought it odd, and wondered when she had started taking sugar in her tea. As she set the spoon in the saucer, her hand trembled slightly. Only now did he realise how upsetting this all was for her.

In a very low voice, one that only she could hear, he said, ‘Dottie.’ He tried to take her hand but she snatched it away.

‘What would Moira think?’ she snapped. ‘You can’t go around holding girls’ hands now you’re engaged.’

Heads turned once more. Dottie’s temper subsided. She sat back in her chair, her attention fixed on her hands folded in her lap.

He felt he should apologise, but didn’t, couldn’t. The silence stretched between them until it had gone on far too long for him to apologise. In the end, he simply spoke from the heart, but quietly.

‘What a bloody mess.’

He watched a tear roll down and splash onto her skirt.

‘Yes.’ She didn’t dare look at him.

He reached for her cup and took a drink of her tea. Waited another minute, then said, ‘Well, we’re stuck with it, and it’s all our own blasted fault.’

‘Yes,’ she said again. But this time she reached for a handkerchief and discreetly blotted her eyes. Only as she put it away did he see, first that the white cotton handkerchief was a man’s, and next, that the monogram in the corner was WFH. (in my rough notes for this scene I’ve got William Edward Hardy – so I need to check whether I’ve given any of these middle names out in my books so far – obv need to keep to that.) It was one of his own handkerchiefs—one of several he’d given her over the year and a half of their acquaintance—that she was using.

He reached across and took her hand. She didn’t try to stop him. ‘I want you to know I’m so, so sorry. For everything. Dottie, I so deeply regret…’

She pulled her hand away now. Her voice wobbled as she said, ‘What use is that now?’ She sighed, then added, ‘It’s all right, William. It’s my fault, I know that. I should be the one…’

The waitress went past, and Dottie broke off. She sipped her tea. It steadied her. An elderly couple pushed past to find a seat. William looked about him, surprised to see how quickly the place had filled up in the last few minutes.

But the short interval was enough to allow her to compose herself. When she spoke, it was in a more measured, firmer tone.

‘Are you absolutely certain about Gervase?’

Parfitt’s name was like a splash of cold water in William’s face. But it was as well to get back to marginally safer ground.

Remembering that she had once—briefly—thought she was in love with the man, William said gently, ‘Oh yes, quite certain. There’s no doubt, I’m afraid.’

She nodded. Leaning forward, she gripped her teacup in both hands. ‘Tell me what you want me to do.’

***

The ‘other’ WIP

This is what happens: you get your notebooks ready, and your pens. You dig out all the scraps of paper you jotted down notes on over the last six months or so. You read them carefully and get yourself back into the 1930s, maybe put on a little Al Bowlly to create the mood.  Then you carefully read all your other little bits and pieces – the entry in your journal that you wrote two months ago talking about how excited you were to start your new book. You’ve been playing around on Canva creating a book cover, then you killed half an hour here and there creating mock-ups promos on Book Brush.

And then it happens. There’s a slight breeze in your office, the curtain stirs, the pages of your notebook riffle at the corners. You hear a sound. You hold your breath listening hard. Yes, you hear it, softly at first but growing louder, more insistent.

It’s the siren song of the Other WIP – like the other woman/man in a romantic relationship – it’s sole purpose is to try to seduce you away from your current  WIP with the promise that you will be happier with them, and trying to lure you away from your ‘one-true-love-WIP’, who, it says, doesn’t understand you and isn’t fulfilling your needs.

It’s hard to resist the call when it comes. Every little argument you raise up in rebuttal it knocks down flat with tempting scenes you could write, or snappy names for the characters you are refusing to bring to life. You hear snippets on the TV or the radio and the siren says, ‘Oh that would work very nicely in chapter 7, where…’ Or potential cover images throw themselves in your path every time you have to quickly pop over to Pixabay or Shutterstock. Everywhere you look the universe seems to scream out in favour of the Other WIP, and no matter how often you say the magic formula: ‘It’s not your time. You’re not until June and July!’ the words grow weaker and less convincing every time you utter them. You refuse to look at the little pile of notebooks lying ready for your attention later in the year. Oh dear, there’s a fine film of dust on them. You feel a twinge of guilt.

Because.

Oh how pretty, how fresh, how alluring the promise of the new story is. How bright the ideas are. The promise of ‘happy ever after’ is there, and the story vows it will be everything you’ve ever wanted to write.

As you glance back metaphorically over your shoulder at the sulking form of your Current WIP, you can only see the problems: the plot holes, the saggy bits where it won’t quite gel, where the characters do whatever they like, or they won’t do anything at all.  You see all those repeated actions, once so sweet and appealing, now just irritating. It feels as though you’ve been writing this book for years instead of just a few months. You tell yourself you’re just tired, and that if you work through this bit, things will be easier, more fulfilling.

But then it calls you again…

How do you choose? Stay on the straight and narrow road, sticking to discipline and your (slightly vague and woolly) plan? Or go for a joyous run ‘off-piste’ – pantsing it from morning to night? Yes, you know you’ll regret it come revision time, and you’ve got no first draft to revise, but there’s a tiny suspicion lurking in the back of your mind that maybe it could actually be worth it.

Decision time!

***

 

Persistence is futile – I mean – essential

 

I think I may have written about this topic before, but I feel it’s one of the most under-estimated skills any writer can have. (Persistence, I mean, not repeating yourself, I do that all the time. Actually that is useful too, for helping me to remember things through repetition…)What is persistence?

To me persistence means a dogged determination to the point of stubbornness to keep going, overcome resistance in yourself and the world around you, to press on towards a goal you have no tangible proof you will ever reach. It means turning your back on discouragement, detractors, self-doubt (which most writers have in abundance?, laziness, weariness, even pain and illness to MAKE yourself achieve something specific or reach a certain goal.

The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Why is persistence a useful tool to have in your arsenal? What does it contribute to your life or work?

Persistence:

  • is character-building – you come to realise you are capable of more than you may have believed initially.
  • is prioritising – you realise that the most important things in life don’t come without you working hard for them.
  • you learn to persevere, and build resilience and inner strength.
  • you learn to trust yourself and believe in yourself.
  • you come to value the results of your hard work.
  • when times are tough, you have previous experience to draw on to get you through.

How to be persistent:
  • Eat well, sleep well, take care of yourself, allow yourself down-time.
  • Develop a routine. Routines can enhance creativity, rather than block it or stifle it. A routine means you are mentally prepared at a certain time to undertake a specific task. that means half the work is done already!!
  • Keep a journal to record your feelings, even the negative ones. Allow yourself to rant or wail if need be. Don’t forget to record your successes, though, as these will keep you going during tough times when you feel like nothing is working.
  • Talk to people who understand and support you. You don’t need to be alone in the middle of your struggle.
  • Set manageable goals, even if it means doing a larger number of smaller tasks rather than a few big tasks. Breaking a large task or goal into small pieces is the key approach. By chipping away at a large task bit by bit you will make progress – it may not be easy to see the results right away but it is easier to work this way in the long haul, and achieving many small goals is excellent for your confidence. This is also a great way to talk yourself into tackling what feels like an impossible or overwhelming job.
  • Don’t listen to your negative thoughts. Learn to recognise then ignore your inner critic who tells you things like: ‘this is a waste of time’, ‘you’ll never be good enough’, or ‘it’s too hard for you’, and that old favourite, ‘not everyone is destined to succeed’. This is probably the hardest thing to overcome, and really requires you to laugh at the inner voice or negative thought and say ‘so what, I’m going to do it anyway.’
  • Roll up your sleeves, grit your teeth, and get on with it. Don’t wait until you are ‘in the mood’ or feel inspiration strike. Nine times out of ten, inspiration waits for you to make the first move. Show the universe – and yourself – that you are going to do this.
  • Reward yourself and feel proud of your achievements. And don’t whatever you do, punish yourself if you feel you have fallen short of your goal. Remember too that pride in a job well done is not a sensation that you necessarily get right away. If you have been engaged for a long time on a demanding project, it can take quite a while to recover, then feel a sense of satisfaction. Be patient, be kind to yourself.

Basically persistence is being super stubborn, and refusing to give in or back down. Find what you want to do and do everything in your power to do it.

Just remember, you can do anything you set your mind to, but it takes action, perseverance, and facing your fears.

Gillian Anderson

***

 

The colour of numbers

Now here’s a thing. I thought this was something only I did, and that it was (yet another) symptom of me being slightly unhinged (well I’ve got one working hinge but the other two are a bit shonky).

But it turns out it’s a real thing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Can you tell I’m excited slash relieved about that?

Because I have something called Ordinal Linguistic Personification. Basically, I see numbers as having a personality and a gender. Yes. Numbers. I know it’s a bit ‘out there’, but it turns out that people other than me have been doing this in one form or another for years. It was first noted back in the 1890s. Presumably as they slammed shut the asylum door on the poor woman.

People who have this – well I can’t call it a problem, or a gift, but what is it? A method? That implies they’ve planned it and worked on it, so let’s just say they have a ‘bent’ – just a quirky view of things – these people are called Synthetes. Sounds like a Greek philosophical sect from 500bc. Anyway, these are people who ascribe attributes to inanimate objects and scientific concepts that would not usually have a personality or character traits. For example, they may associate a particular colour with a number or a sound, or associate a particular colour with the name of a month or a time of year. In some ways we all do this, as we will usually associate winter with cold colours (if you live in the northern hemisphere especially) or autumn with warm, russet colours, and spring with bright and pastel shades. You can do a test online where you see a name of a month or a letter, or hear a sound and are asked to ascribe a colour to it.

Except that for me, January is yellow. Obviously. And May is turquoise. October is white… (ooh it’s just occurred to me that the birthstone for October is opal – and they are often white… coinkydink?)

I don’t give numbers colours. But I do give them genders and personalities. I first noticed this when doing sudoku puzzles. I see 2, 5 and 8 as female. 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7 as male, and 9 as either/both genders. I also see them as having a personality or a character, although some are better defined than others. And it’s only the numbers 1 to 9.

For example, I see 8 as a duchess type character, the older woman, past her prime but still powerful, though vulnerable to enemies who seek her position (note to self: does this mean I see numbers as able to somehow spontaneously change, or are they fixed in a perpetual state of ‘about-to-happen’?)

5 is a martyred matriarch, self-sacrificing but resentful, always looking over her shoulder to preserve her position. But on the positive side, she holds everything together and keeps things running smoothly. Weird, I know.

2 is a young woman. Beautiful. Ambitious but with a heart. She can work with either 5 or 8 but is often out on her own, working to fulfil her own aims. She can also be dutiful and supportive.

1 is the young upstart, brash, impetuous, full of himself, selfish, not taking anything too seriously. 3 is his sidekick, but a kind of watered-down version. 4 is the shark, he is ambitious, super ambitious, demanding, hungry for power, loving no one but himself.

6 and 7 I see as paternalistic or avuncular males, they are the backbone of the ‘family’, working away silently in the background, not brilliant, not charismatic but solid, dependable, carrying the weight of the puzzle and more or less capable. Of the two, 6 is the older, more experienced, and more dominant. 7 is not taken all that seriously by anyone (me!) but he’s a decent chap and useful in a crisis. (What kind of crisis does a sudoku puzzle have, you may ask? It’s where there are very few other numbers and 7 is the only one you’ve got to start you off. although this can apply to any number they happen to put in the grid…ah, my ‘theory’ doesn’t work. Oops. Good thing I write fiction.)

9, as I said, for me can be any gender, and is either the arch-deceiver or manipulator, unknown, lurking, dangerous, or can be the detective/saviour, rooting out all the secrets that everyone frantically tries to conceal.

Can you see how for me as a mystery writer, these ideas can develop nicely into a plot with actual human characters? It’s a kind of cross between a board game and a number puzzle.

I think more scientists should be penguins.

This ties in quite well with what I was talking about a few weeks ago when I discussed the concept of the manageable cast. A book such as a cozy mystery needs to have a finite range of characters that give breadth and depth to the story without overwhelming the reader with too many characters to remember. I think between 9 and 12 characters is enough, though I have to admit my books regularly have twice that number and more. I used to add a list of characters in the front of my books, to help readers to keep track, but I stopped doing that.

Scientists have studied the phenomenon of this strange thing of Ordinal Linguistic Synthesis, and have suggested it may be due to different parts of the brain interconnecting. one part of the brain deals with facts and figures, and scientific concepts, and another part deals with imagination and creativity. To me it sounds like two people sharing an office and occasionally picking up the other person’s notebook or phone. Wires get crossed, and ideas that are usually separated can converge.

I’m not too bothered what it is, it helps me with my writing a little bit and I find it intriguing. and it entertains my creative mind whilst my prosaic mind tries to solve the sudoku puzzle.

what is this woman even on????

***

March: an odd time of the year

Malcolm aka Malkie Moonpie, in happier times, chilling with his blue mousie

I’ve been busy with a number of writer-things, but life gets in the way sometimes, as I’m sure many people have discovered. This pandemic isn’t helping of course, as we all struggle to stay in command of our mental health or to establish and keep to new routines that work around different circumstances.

I usually set aside March and April to write the first draft of my latest Dottie Manderson mystery, which I will then revise, rewrite, edit, revise, rewrite etc until it is published in the autumn, usually October or November, occasionally not until December. This year I plan to release book 7 – Rose Petals and White Lace – towards the end of November.

But my writing in the first half of March hasn’t gone too well, and I feel that I’m a little behind schedule, though I’m fairly confident I can pull that back – this week is already going quite well.

I love this image though I’m starting to see similar ones everywhere. Should be released in Summer 2021.

But I’ve had some issues. I have a subscriber email list through Mailchimp, and I had loads of problems with that, which took over a week to resolve, (though the bods at Mailchimp were very helpful) meaning that my newsletter went out over a week late – no big deal really, but things have a knock-on effect.

And then I had issues with this blog – I have another blog too (ooh big secret) and that one was overwriting everything I did on here, and seeing that this one is my priority, that was not good. Again it took several days to sort out, and at one point I was on help/support chat for almost two hours as they and I tried to figure out what to do. Again, the lovely ‘happiness engineers’ (yes that’s what they’re genuinely called) at WordPress were absolutely wonderful, but it all takes time out of the working day.

This was me and technology this week and last. Not a happy pairing.

I write in one of three places at the moment. I might write at my desk, with or without my computer, or I might write longhand sitting at the dining room table, or maybe I will huddle up on the sofa with my feet on a pouffe, my notebook on my lap and a cup of coffee precariously balanced on the arm of the sofa. Possibly with half of a sneaky early Easter egg on the side. (We always buy Easter eggs early before supermarket stocks dwindle, then can’t resist their siren call and end up buying a second lot.)

You’ve seen this pic hundreds of times. I didn’t used to be one of those people who snaps everything they eat but then I began to see it as useful blog material! Looks like I was writing The Thief of St Martins when I took this one.

Once upon a time I used to write in cafes. Yes, I’m one of those. You see them, don’t you, or used to. Cafe writers. Huddled in a good spot in a quiet corner where they can see the counter, and the door, and are close to the loo but not too close. A notebook, maybe two, several pens in case the first three run out, a large frothy muggacino and a tempting crumbly pastry nearby, a paper serviette careful deployed to protect both notebook and jeans. Perfect. I love to sit in a cafe and write. There’s something quite relaxing about being silent in the midst of bustle, where you can observe but not participate. Plus it’s given me plenty of blogging material in the past as I watch those around me living their lives. I can’t wait to get back to that. This month has been tough.

As some readers may know, our beloved tabby cat Malcolm was poorly and died last week, which was an emotional shock for us as a family. If you’re not a dog/cat/mini hedgehog/micro pig lover, then you may be rolling your eyes now and saying ‘What the bleep, this woman is so wet!’ But it’s horrid to lose a companion you’ve had in your life for 13 years just when they appear to be making a good recovery. On the upside, we still have 23-year-old tortie, Mabel, who we never thought would outlive both the bigger, stronger boys.

Subject to tweaking at a later date – can’t decide whether to keep the white background bit or lose it.

Consequently, I’ve got a bit behind in my writing. By rights, I should have half of a first draft for Rose Petals written, and be eagerly anticipating moving onto another book which at the revision stage of production, namely Miss Gascoigne Book 1: A Meeting With Murder, which I had hoped to publish in the summer. I’m hoping that will still be done on time, I know my schedule and what I am able to take on, and let’s face it, working as a writer, I don’t need to stick to office hours only.

March is an odd time of year. It’s a wait-and-see time of year, neither winter and the time of rest and recharging, nor summer and the time for growth and expansion. I feel impatient to be moving on quickly, yet I can’t go any faster. I feel a bit frustrated at what I see as a failure to meet my targets, but I know that any progress is better than none, and I have always been too impatient.

Stay strong, everyone. Soon you will be able to go outside, and even – hooray – hug your loved ones. Or write in a cafe.

Mabel. 23 years old (that’s 98 in cat years) frail, wobbly on her legs, half the time doesn’t know where she is or what she’s doing, hardly any teeth, yowls ridiculously loudly between 2am and 5 am, and still more resilient than Malcolm or Maurice.

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Gender in the mid-1900s

In 1918, the Great War was over. There were an estimated 40 million casualties, a little less than half of whom died, the rest were injured, many very seriously. 40 million. How could such an incomprehensibly vast sum of people die in the space of just a few years? Is it any wonder that people, especially the young, were a little bit crazy, a little bit over-exuberant in the 20s? Yet even in the early 30s, there were already the rumblings and murmurings that would lead to a repeat of the disaster.

While their menfolk went to war, thousands of women left their homes to take on their jobs. For many, working outside the home was a new and liberating experience. But when the war was over, the men came back and they wanted their jobs back. The newly emancipated women were in many cases reluctant to go back home to cook, clean and have babies.

And let’s not forget that millions of men simply never did come back, and their wives, sweethearts, mothers, daughters and sisters had to become their own breadwinners. It has often been said ‘working class women have always worked’ but even they tended to be mainly working in a domestic or a factory setting.

Factories, so often decried as a nightmare of modern life, in fact brought new freedoms to many women. They had their own money for the first time, they mixed with other women and learned new skills, often embracing possibilities that had never been available before. How could they give all that up? On both sides of the gender divide, there was social tension over the conflict between a desire to maintain the status quo, and a desire for freedom, equality and progress. This continued to grow and as we know, gender equality is still an issue today.

For the majority of the middle classes it was all new. Many of them had never done anything like that before, having been daughters at home, then married women who were by default homemakers. But they had to have a living, so they went out and got jobs, and undertook training and they learned how to function in the job market.

It’s not very surprising that they also wanted the same advantages as men in terms of pay, sick pay, working conditions, opportunities for advancement and education, and pensions. Women had won the right to vote in 1918, following many years of campaigning by both men and women. But the right to vote was only for women over 30 who were married. (Or who were voted representatives, an almost, but not quite, impossible task) Was it presumed, as was often said, ‘Your husband will tell you how to vote’? It wasn’t until 1928 that everyone, regardless of gender or marital status, was allowed to vote, but it wasn’t until 1967 that this came down to everyone over 18.

Jewellery and other accessories in the colours green, white and mauve were a sign of solidarity and support for the women’s suffrage movement.

In the 1930s there was still the sense of something new, something experimental, and many women either didn’t want the responsibility of political decision-making, or lacked the information they needed. Women began to move into political life, but still very much in a supporting role. Nancy Astor was the first British MP to take her seat in Parliament in 1919, with Margaret Bondfield, a Labour politician becoming a cabinet minister in 1924. By the 1930s things hadn’t changed all that much but there was a sense that it could change. Looking back at that time, an MP named Edith Summerskill said, ‘Parliament, with its conventions and protocol, seemed a little like a boys’ school which had decided to take a few girls.’ Only 2% of MPs were female, and they were—of course—white and wealthy. But in 1931 there was an election where female candidates took seats from other females, a first for Britain in that there were more women entering the political arena and even more being voted into office.

As far as gender went, though, until very recently there were only two acknowledged genders, and only one acceptable sexual orientation. Crossdressing, as it was called, was viewed as laughable, ridiculous or of dangerous and perverse tendencies equated with mental derangement.

Homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1967. Before that, there was a risk of imprisonment if you were caught in the act. But the changing of the law did not change attitudes overnight and for many, their experiences didn’t change a great deal. Homosexual relationships were still condemned as sinful, shallow, transient and perverted. Even if there were merely suspicions that you were anything other than heterosexual, career prospects could be ruined: gay people could not serve in the police force or the armed forces, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers, as recently as the 70s, the scandal surrounding the exposure of gay MPs who then were forced by public opinion to step down, their careers over. Homosexuals who kept their orientation a secret and enlisted in the armed forces could face prison or at the very least a dishonourable discharge from military service, which would cause scandal and disgrace not just to those immediately involved but to family members and known associates.

I’m so glad things are changing. Although let’s not forget that in many nations, it seems as though attitudes are going backwards rather than forwards with societies becoming less tolerant and less accepting as homosexuality is outlawed and discriminated against, and even actively, often violently, oppressed. I wonder if, within my lifetime, we will ever see true equality in terms of gender, sexual preference, skin colour, age, or any other perceived difference between person number 1 and person number 2. It’s been said that it takes 100 years to change an attitude. I think that, sadly, it’s a lot longer than that.

Admittedly this is from the late 1800s rather than the 1900s, but I’m using it anyway! 🙂

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Everyday life in the 1930s – part 1

I’m fascinated by the 1930s. That’s why I write a series of detective novels set in the 1930s and featuring Dottie Manderson, a young female amateur detective, as the protagonist. I write cosy mysteries, or cosy crime, and therefore there’s not a lot of space for too much social reality. Besides which, life is already tough enough, we all could do with a bit of escapism now and then, right?

I wanted to show just how different life was back then for everyone, not just women, in the 1930s. I’m writing from a British perspective, as that is my own nationality and my research and my writing centres around this.

Loretta Young, the actress whose soulful expression gave me the character of Dottie Manderson

I often portray the glamour of the era–the fashion, the socialising, all the dancing in long flowing gowns, the polite flirting with gentlemanly fellows in smart evening wear who offered one a drink or a cigarette and didn’t (most of the time) immediately pinch our bums. This glamour and glitz is what I love about it, but even I as a die-hard romantic idealist would have to admit this is the stuff of dreams—of the wonderful cinematic fictions of the time. It’s largely a gloss put over real life to get us through tough times and keep us keeping on. In reality we didn’t dance down to Rio or sip champagne, we were too busy trying to put bread on the table and keep the rent man happy.

So let’s go back to Britain in the 1930s. What was life like for the majority of people?

It was very much a time of transition. Things were still getting back to normal after the war. Attitudes were poles apart with very liberal ideas sitting at the same dinner table as conventional, very reactionary, right wing beliefs. And these differences would grow to a huge divide that came to a head in the 1940s, although as many other things, many of the same issues still rumble on today.

To set the scene for this inter-war period: the gaiety and extravagance of the 20s was over. The harsh reality of the 30s set in with mass unemployment, vast financial meltdowns that would devastate the economies of the richest nations and wipe out many fortunes leaving plenty of millionaires bankrupt and desperate. For the poor, things went from bad to worse, with job cuts and losses, and the increased mechanisation of tasks previously done by human beings left many without work and therefore without the means to feed themselves or their families. But for many middle-class families—those with money, skills and professional qualifications and the less demanding costs of keeping up their homes and lifestyles, things were not too bad at all.

Gary Cooper, irresistibly ‘cool’.

The Great War, as WWI was known, was becoming more of a distant memory, and the Second World War was as yet undreamed of. In fact, there was a common consensus regarding the Great War that ‘it could never happen again’. It was ‘great’ in the sense of huge and terrible, not in our modern sense of brilliant and something admirable. Even language has changed since then! It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of lives were changed forever.

There were an estimated 40 million casualties, a little less than half of whom died, the rest were injured, many very seriously. 40 million. How could such an incomprehensibly vast sum of people die in the space of just a few years? Is it any wonder that people, especially the young, were a little bit crazy, a little bit over-exuberant in the 20s? Yet even in the early 30s, there were already the rumblings and murmurings that would lead to a repeat of the disaster.

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Brisbane – some memories

The blue-tongued skink I mentioned last week – about a foot to eighteen inches long, and snake-wide! These guys love Comfort Spring Fresh laundry softener…

As you no doubt realise, I sometimes get a bit stuck for ideas on this blog. Last week I talked about where in the world I would like to sit and write, if I could just choose. And I chose a certain little high-set house in Brisbane, Australia.

So this week, I thought I’d share some memories of that time. We lived in Australia from 1997 to 2002, so back in the dark ages now, but it still seems so vivid to us, mainly because it was a life-changing experience.

What I remember mainly about Brisbane and our time there is the wildlife.

So many things happened while we were there, the four of us, what with my hubby working away from home so much, and the children going through secondary school, and me, meeting people, doing courses, going to the Writers’ Convention on the South Bank, but all that seems to fade by comparison with the wildlife we shared our back and front yards with, our streets and parks and school yards with—many of them new to us, some of them frightening, some of them weird, some beautiful.

Lorikeets and a Rosella in the back garden.

Like the possums that lived in the roof of our first home, in Farm Street, in the suburb of Newmarket. Every night when we sat eating dinner or watching television, we would hear it above our heads, the slow roll of a stone from one corner of the roof to the other and sometimes back again, sounding just like a marble rolling across floorboards

And if I was waiting, alone or with the children, for my husband to come home, and sitting on the front step in the fifty seconds of twilight we only seemed to get in Aussie, we would sometimes see a possum come off our roof and onto the telecoms cables overhead, swinging itself along underneath the wire until it reached an intruding tree branch when it would flip upside again, amble on, then swing back under to move along the cables again.

Or the massive cockroaches that seemed ever-present in spite of all the Raid blocks we purchased and distributed in the bottom of the kitchen cupboards or in quiet corners out of the way. At Farm street, an older house, they used to run up the walls at night and terrify us so we felt like we were actually under siege, and out of sheer terror, I would splat them on the walls or floor with a long-handled spatula. It really was the stuff of nightmares. We never got rid of them in that house. We also had maggots falling through the ceiling onto the furniture including my young daughter’s bed. I hate to think what else might have been up in that roof space but we didn’t have the most hands-on of landlords.

Or the blue-tongued skinks that sprawled on top of the compost heap down the garden, gorging themselves on leftover melon, papaya and mango—they would look at me when I went out to the heap with the peelings from dinner, and I was convinced if they could talk they’d say, “So kind, dear lady, but I really couldn’t manage another thing…” They always looked exhausted. I imagined them talking a bit like Donald Sinden, I don’t know why. Or maybe James Mason? Or David Niven. Definitely a posh English accent for some reason. And if I left sheets or towels by the washing machine in the open-air laundry room under the house, chances are I’d find a snoozing lizard sprawled on them when I went back later.

the house at Farm Street – none of the windows had glass except the ones to the kitchen (back) and the sun room (front). These are the front steps where I’d love to write.

I rescued one blue-tongued skink from the oncoming wheels of a bus once. It was in the middle of the road round the corner from our lowset (bungalow) house at Lawnton, a suburb of Pine Rivers shire, about 20 kilometres from Brisbane. The bus only ran once an hour, so that left plenty of time for a dozy skink to meander into the road, fall asleep at the wheel and be in danger of becoming a traffic statistic.

I thought it was dead. It was lying there in the middle of the road, not moving. I’m certain a couple of cars ran over it. Then the bus came round the corner, and the stupid thing lifted its head. It was still alive! I let out a shriek of dismay and launched myself into the road, flagging the bus down then grabbing the lizard with both hands and shoving it into some shade under a bush—lucky I didn’t get savaged by something even nastier.

When I got on the bus, I began to apologise, but Bruce (yes, that really was his name) the bus-driver said, “Well I know you’re a Pom.” Apparently that explained everything.

Good thing he didn’t see me rescue the turtle…

That was along the road from our second home, after Farm Street but before Lawnton. We were living a couple of kilometres down the road from Lawnton at a lovely little town called Strathpine. I was coming home from the shops along a fairly quiet little road, when I spied a snake-necked turtle in the middle of the road .

Now only a few days earlier, Rolf Harris (eek!), on Animal Rescue or whatever it was called, had featured a turtle that had been hit by a car and had to have its shell patched up with fibre-glass. And I convinced myself that was the fate that awaited this chap, if he lived long enough. The young hoons—wild teenagers, to us Poms—loved to drive their cars at crazy speeds over the speed bumps down our road, and I could see the turtle was in danger of becoming yet another tragic victim.

So obviously, I had to interfere help.

I picked it up, and set off towards the creek. I quickly discovered that being a snake-necked turtle gave it an extraordinary range for gnashing at would-be do-gooders, so I had to hold the dinner-plate sized shell as far towards the back as I could to avoid being bitten, and I had to go as quickly as I could. The ingratitude! That didn’t stop me getting scratched by its huge clawed feet though. Eventually I got it to the creek and shoved it in the water. It seemed a bit reluctant to go in—maybe he’d only just left there? Another good deed done.

Snakes were the main wildlife at Strathpine. Well, those, and the spiders, bats, frogs and birds. And some fishing guys said there were often sharks in the creek, but I never went fishing.

The easement, with deluge, though partially drained away.

The birds were wonderful there—I’ve never lived anywhere so fabulously endowed with birdlife. It was because of the Easement.

The Easement was a strip of land between the park and a housing estate on one side, and another housing estate on the other side. Through the middle ran the creek. At one end, more houses, and at the far end, some farmland afforded us great view of cows with their ‘helpers’, the Little Egrets, that usually stood on the cows’ backs to – I don’t know, steer? Supervise? Shout advice slash encouragement?

The idea of the Easement is, when it rains which it does even in Australia, usually a year’s supply arrives in about an hour, and the creek very quickly bursts its bank, so the Easement is just a natural no-man’s-land to accommodate the temporary floodwater for the few days or week until it soaks away.

But on the day it rains…

The easement – sans deluge!

The whole area behind our house used to fill with water, resembling a small—and occasionally quite large—lake. Then all the birds would descend, especially if it was the first rain after a few dry weeks or even months. Cormorants, shags, ibis, white-faced blue heron, butcher birds, noisy miners, rosellas, sulphur-crested cockatoos, galahs, purple swamp hens, coots, magpies, egrets, little and not quite so little, rainbow lorikeets, even, one or twice, pelicans. It was amazing, and all I ever wanted to do was sit and watch. Sometimes I did just that, for hours. And quite often, I’d be menaced into providing the new arrivals with birdfood. (What a Pom!) It really was the most amazing spectacle. The shags used to bathe/hunt in the floodwater then hand their wings out to dry, standing like little black feathered scarecrows, for hours on end. The galahs and cockatoos would hang upside from the phone lines and flap and squawk, like footballers having their after-match shower.

Even the big lizards got in on the act (and probably the snakes too, though I don’t remember seeing them when it was wet, only when it was very dry). My hubby and I sat and watched one for ages as it swam about in the new lake, its long tail making a curving wake behind it. Not sure if this was the same enormous lizard that dug up my shrubbery to lay about 20 eggs in a big hole one day and then covered them and left without so much as a by your leave. We moved to Lawnton before they hatched—I was sad not to be there to see the babies.

Snakes are probably the one terror people associate with Australia. Well, snakes and spiders. Okay, snakes, spiders and crocodiles. And sharks. Don’t forget the sharks. So, snakes, spiders, crocodiles, and sharks. And jellyfish. And mosquitoes. And I’ve told you about the cockroaches. Oh, and the weevils. You have to keep your baking goods in the freezer, otherwise one hot, damp summer you, like me, will discover that your entire supply of plain flour, self-raising flour, cornflour, your bran, your wholemeal flour, your semolina, and your biscuits will be a squirming mass of weevils, and, like me you will scream in horror and disgust (mainly because you’ve just used several ounces of flour in a roux sauce and wondered naively why the resulting mix was two-toned: the top consisting of wriggling, brown weevilly-stuff and the bottom, still white, only slightly-weevilly stuff) and fling out the lot including the expensive Tupperstuff they were stored in, as I couldn’t bear the thought of washing them out and reusing them, then rush back inside to disinfect everything. No baking for weeks and weeks! It was very good for my waistline.

So snakes, spiders, crocodiles, sharks, jellyfish, mosquitoes and weevils. Not to mention the heat. And in Queensland, the humidity, which is sometimes 95%.  Apart from those few things, it’s lovely.

Australia’s most unwanted – the red-backed spider – we had a ton of them. Turns out they are partial to a strawberry planter.

At the junior school, the nice secretary lady had a little book on her desk, so that when the kids came running in from morning playtime (called little lunch) they could identify the type of snake they had just seen for the groundskeeper, and he would go out in his shorts and t-shirt, with his heavy boots and ankle-protectors, and track down the culprit and kill it. And if he couldn’t kill it for whatever reason, or he discovered there were too many for him and assistance would be needed, the playing field (oval) was closed to all pupils forthwith. But that didn’t stop the kids getting bitten by green ants—and that was a painful bite. Green ants are beautiful iridescent ants, about 1 to 1.5 centimetres long, and they have a fondness for young flesh. Okay, let’s be honest, any flesh, and their bite is like the worst stinging-nettle sting you can imagine, and doesn’t ease off for at least half an hour. So as you can imagine, play times and sports days were great fun for all the family.

I know, being the greenest Poms ever to come off the boat, we were a bit over-protective of our children. But I was still gobsmacked when the headteacher of the school sent a letter home to all the parents reminding them to ensure they always make their children wear shoes to school, and to stop sending them barefoot.

It was an amazing experience, mostly weird, often terrifying, but it didn’t kill us, it did make us stronger, and when we came back from Aussie after four and a half years, we were very sad and wondered if we were doing the right thing in coming back. We had some wonderful experiences Down Under, and we still hope to return some day, this time, forewarned!

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Anywhere in the world!

You might have noticed I sometimes get stuck for ideas for a blog post. When that happens, I usually sneakily use an old one and hope you won’t notice, or I put in an interview, or a short piece about my books etc.

BUT… (and you’ll be proud of me for this) I actually decided to research ‘what to write about on your blog’ and hey presto: Write about ‘If I could spend a month writing anywhere in the world, where would it be?’

That’s easy.

I love to write in cafes. But with lockdown the way it is, I’ve become a stranger to that. And I do have an office where I do most of my writing (picture the smallest bedroom in the house, no longer needed after the children grow up) and I sometimes write at the dining room table, or in the sitting room, snug on the sofa complete with snoring cat.

Many years ago, we lived in Australia, in Brisbane. It’s hot and sticky there, but I enjoyed it. And our first house there was an absolute hovel (sorry Aussies, but it was, honest), but when the kids had gone to school, I used to sit on the front steps with my morning coffee, a few dozen tiny lizards around half the size of a pencil, a couple of plants in pots, and my notebook and pen.

These little guys just need the water from your flower pots!

I could sit there for around two hours until the sun was so hot, I had to go inside. I used to water the plants in the pots, and the lizards would come and drink the water that ran out of the bottom of the pots onto the wooden steps. The lizards were so shy, I had to keep really still so they thought I was a tree or something. Occasionally a kookaburra would sit on the fence and stare at me, but usually it was just a pigeon or a magpie. I’ve searched my photos but can’t find the one I can picture in my mind that shows the steps and the plant pots. You’ll just have to conjure up your own image of front-step perfection, and write there.

Whereas these guys want to lie on your compost heap in the sun and stuff themselves with leftover fruit and veg

The road was called Farm Street, but I’m guessing that was to commemorate where the farm used to be before it was bulldozed to make way for the street. Neighbours would go by and wave or stop to chat. Gradually they got to know the new Brits at number 12. One guy was very sweet and kind when we were afraid to go past something that looked like quite a large snake in the storm drain by the pavement, but the neighbour explained it was a blue-tongued skink, and nothing to be afraid of. We were still pretty nervous to begin with, I can tell you.

Anyway, so I had two hours of writing most weekdays, sitting on the front steps. I can picture myself there, writing three novels in the time we were in that house, only one of which has been published (Easy Living) and the other two are very much still in the ‘I don’t know what to do’ stage of development. One was called Baby Girl and is about a well-known actress whose adoptive mother passes away and so the actress embarks on a search for her birth mother and finds a killer instead. The other one, referencing the new millennium we were about to go into (so a while ago now) was about a pensioner who goes on the run to avoid being legally euthanised because of the growth of population. Both these books were set in Australia and contain long, slightly wistful passages about my favourite cafes – Jimmy’s Uptown, Jimmy’s Downtown, and Jimmy’s On The Mall, all on the same long street in the city centre.

Life changes, and we weren’t really happy with where we were living, and we moved away. But the times of sitting on the steps and writing were as close to perfect as we could get. It was ‘very heaven’.

Jimmy’s On The Mall: It’s a lot more glamorous now than it was when we were in Brisbane over 20 years ago, they’ve added a whole top floor! If we go back, this is the first place I’ll want to go.

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