November exits the stage and the end of the year is approaching…

Recently released: A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1 and coming soon – 9th December 2022 – Rose Petals and White Lace: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 7

Well, well, well…

Looking back over the year, now that the dust has (almost) settled, I realise it was quite a productive year after all, though sometimes I wondered if I’d achieved anything in 2022.

I am filled with gratitude at the moment. It’s partly displayed as relief at finally finishing another book, one that’s been in the offing for two to three years now (Rose Petals and White Lace) and partly surprise that I’ve finally done it.  So I want to say a big thank you today to some wonderful people. Love you all and thank you so much xxx

Today in the USA it’s Thanksgiving. That’s not something we ‘do’ in the UK, but there’s always a reason to be grateful, isn’t there? Oh yes, we have Harvest Festival in September which is a similar kind of thing, though it’s largely only observed by schoolchildren – a thanks to God for the safe gathering in of the harvest, guaranteeing another year of enough food. I think that’s pretty much the same idea.

Thank you to my dear family. Especially my poor husband who is constantly told, ‘I can’t do XXX, I’ve got writing/editing/rewriting/polishing/editing/rewriting/proofreading to do.’ He thought when he retired we’d have more time to spend together. Sorry, darling. On the other hand, it does mean he has more time to pursue his hobbies!

Thank you to my dear friends, especially Emma Baird, Angy Lloyd, Debaleena Mukherjee for the alternate pat on the back and kick up the bum to keep me moving on.

A huge thank you to Lila Dawes, contemporary romance author, daughter, best bud, and betareader supremo – you’ve been brill, sweetheart. Thank you!

And grateful thanks to two wonderful ladies, it’s been a privilege to work with you both for the last couple of years. Thanks to you, we now have FIVE books out in the German language, with plans for more (spoiler alert!)

So thank you, Stef Mills and Heike Wolf, expert translators, proverb-wranglers, vernacular-interpreters, morale-boosters and editors extraordinaire. It is thanks to you both and all your hard work that I have been able to release Der letzte perfekte Sommer von Richard Dawlish (Dottie Manderson: Buch 4) and coming on 16th December, Der Diebstahl von St Martins (Dottie Manderson Buch 5)

Vintage collectables #vintagestyle

Saw this recently at a Mill near us that is now a wedding venue. I’d love one of these!

I’ve got a guilty secret. Are you ready? Don’t tell anyone…

I love to collect old stuff. Whether it’s clothing, or jewellery, old books or magazines, accessories or postcards or new stuff recreated using old images or styles, I just love to sit and stare/gloat over it.

Birthday postcard, with 1920 postmark.

Part of the reason I write mysteries set in the 1930s and 1960s is because I love history and especially social and cultural history. As one of my characters in A Meeting With Murder says, my interest and pleasure is to be found in… ‘…Not the kings-and-queens type of history, no. What I liked was how ordinary people lived. What everyday life was like for normal people hundreds of years ago. I loved seeing the old kitchens, the bathrooms and even the servants’ quarters…’ And because of that, I’ve gradually accumulated a few vintage items.

1920s cloche hat made of navy felt with a beige cloth ribbon.

Happy shoppers in Jeannie’s store, getting ready for the 1940s weekend in Sheringham, Norfolk, Sept 2022

When we were on holiday in Norfolk last month, I found a shop called Colour Me Vintage in Sheringham, quite by chance, and I spent ages browsing and chatting with the owner, a lovely lady named Jeannie Read. I reluctantly resisted the urge to go really crazy and buy myself a WRENs uniform or a ballgown, but I did manage to nab this cute little 1920s cloche hat when my other half was looking the other way.

For me the most fascinating thing was that Jeannie sells ‘new’ vintage clothes. She is in touch with a fashion design student, a lady named Holly, who makes clothes from vintage patterns and sells them in the shop. I am thrilled that ‘vintage’ is so popular that people are buying these items to wear at parties or even for everyday wear. Unfortunately there wasn’t anything in my size, but still, my imagination was captured. It’s amazing to think that so many people are in love with styles that were old long before they were born.

Coty compact with powder puff design by Rene Lalique. (Yes, THAT Lalique, the glass bloke…)

You can get vintage bags, shoes, hats, other accessories such as jewellery and of course, make-up. Vintage-style new make-up is also quite the thing these days. I think designers and packagers realise that if we are going to spend our hard-earned cash, then we want something that is more than just functional, we want something that looks beautiful too, ‘eye-appeal’ so very important these days. We see something, we love it, we want it, it’s that simple. Bland and functional is OUT.

It’s not only older people who enjoy vintage styles!

As William Morris, designer, social activist and founder of the British Arts and Crafts Movement so famously said:

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

It’s not enough for ‘things’ to be efficient, fit for purpose or utilitarian. We want glamour, we want gorgeous colours and lovely styles. We want to surround ourselves with items that please the eye and make the soul glad.

Don’t we?

Jones sewing machine. Gorgeous!

***

The Language of Flowers #flowersinbooks #literaryquotes

Flowers. They are always mentioned in books, right?  Whether they are a metaphor for the transient nature of life, or for resilience, or else portrayed in a more traditional way as indicating someone’s feelings or emotions, they are the writer’s favourite motif.

In one of my books, they represent something sinister–a kind of veiled threat, when Cressida received dead flowers from an unknown source. But flowers have been written about for centuries by some of the world’s greatest authors.

Do you recognise all of these quotations? There’s no prize, but you can feel very proud of yourself if you do! Hopefully after reading a few of these, you’ll feel as though you’ve had tea in the garden on a sunny afternoon.

“If a kiss could be seen I think it would look like a violet.”

L. M. Montgomery: Anne Of Avonlea

″‘Really, there’s nothing to see.’ Nothing… only this: a great lawn where flowerbeds bloomed…”

Philippa Pearce: Tom’s Midnight Garden

“How extraordinary flowers are… People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.”

Iris Murdoch: A Fairly Honourable Defeat

“A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.”

Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass

“In joy or sadness, flowers are our constant friends.”

Okakura Kakuzo: The Book of Tea

“Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,

The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;

And ’tis my faith that every flower

Enjoys the air it breathes.”

William Wordsworth: Lines Written in Early Spring

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

“All day in grey rain

hollyhocks follow the sun’s

invisible road.”

Basho (translated by Harry Behn)

“Have you blossoms and books, those solaces of sorrow?”

Emily Dickinson: Letters

 

“All the men send you orchids because they’re expensive and they know that you know they are. But I always kind of think they’re cheap, don’t you, just because they’re expensive. Like telling someone how much you paid for something to show off.”

Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

“You can see the goldenrod, that most tenacious and pernicious and beauteous of all New England flora, bowing away from the wind like a great and silent congregation.”

Stephen King: Salem’s Lot

 

“And over walls and earth and trees and swinging sprays and tendrils the fair green veil of tender little leaves had crept, and in the grass under the trees and the gray urns in the alcoves and here and there everywhere were touches or splashes of gold and purple and white and the trees were showing pink and snow above his head and there were fluttering of wings and faint sweet pipes and humming and scents and scents.”

Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden

“There has fallen a splendid tear

From the passion-flower at the gate.

She is coming, my dove, my dear;

She is coming, my life, my fate.

The red rose cries, “She is near, she is near;”

And the white rose weeps, “She is late;”

The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear;”

And the lily whispers, “I wait.”

Alfred Tennyson: Maud Part 1

***

Focussing on the rewrites

I wrote my first draft of the new book A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1 in the first half of the year. In fact I started it towards the end of last year, but well, life, I guess, got in the way, and so here we are, eight weeks to release date and I’m still rewriting.

I’m not too worried at the moment, I know I have plenty of time. But it’s a weird experience reading your own work and shaking your head, alternately in despair or pride, thinking, ‘Did I really write that?’ Sometimes my word surprise me – I didn’t know I knew that word – other times I think ‘Ugh, this is awful, it makes no sense at all.’

One of the useful things ot pick up is the consistency, or otherwise, of language. I want the characters to sound as natural as possible and not too stiff and cardboardy. I’ve also realised I need to create a bit more tension and a sense of mystery. And I’ve spotted a biggish plot hole – it’s a relief to have spotted that now and not six weeks after the book is published!

I’ve got notes all over the place reminding myself about a range of things from character names to remarks along the lines of ‘need to bring him into it a bit more’. I love a sticky note. Unfortunately they don’t always stay in place and tend to gravitate towards one another. So now I have a jumble of sticky notes pertaining to several different books. I tell myself I will remember which is which, but I think I’m probably just kidding myself on that score.

I’m wrestling with what to leave in and what to take out. As this is the first book of a new series, there’s a certain amount of telling not showing (the opposite of what is usually recommended), of scene-setting and introduction. I will need to revisit the opening chapters a few times to see if I really need all that background info.

Then there are my old bugbears: repetition and too many qualifiers. I repeat so many words and phrases. Sometimes it’s a really good one:

Mrs H had been virtually drooling over the news, her gummy mouth open in a wide grin, her large loose lips wet with bubbles of saliva in the corners of her mouth.

I really like this phrase, but unfortunately I’ve used it about six times in this book and it’s lost its power. So I need to decide which is the best place to use this, and the most ‘eww-inspiring’. So five of those have got to go!

I also realised (from the read-through) that I use some words much too often. I found that I’d described everything as little – the little village, the little house, the little street, the little sitting-room. it was all too little. So the red pen had to deal with those.

Other words I use far too often:

So

And

He felt that/She felt that

He thought that/She thought that

The next morning…

And it’s not just words – I use far too many ellipses, dashes and emdashes. The writer in me loves to qualify, over-explain and enhance everything, the editor in me says ‘Ok, I’ll let you keep three of each…’ Out comes the red pen again.

I’m still only halfway through. Here’s hoping I can keep to my deadline and somehow bring this book to completion in time for releasing on an unsuspecting world.

***

 

Interview with a Footballer – a short story

‘That new striker for United is here for the interview,’ came the message. Geena sighed and dragged herself to the reception area. Another inarticulate footballer with a repertoire that entirely consisted of the usual three phrases: ‘The lads done good’, ‘We’re training hard’, and ‘It’s a game of two halves’. It wasn’t exactly the hard-hitting journalism she’d dreamed of as a student.

In reception he looked up from FHM as she approached. He unfolded himself from the seat. He was tall, he was blond, he sported a diamond stud in one ear. He wore an expensive suit as if it were a cardboard box and he was the gift inside. Wow, he’s gorgeous, Geena thought, and she slapped a smile on her face as she stepped forward, her hand outstretched.

‘Hi, Justin, so lovely to meet you, sorry to keep you waiting,’ she said.

Her hand was grasped firmly and released. No sweaty palm, no prolonged contact, he didn’t even stare at her boobs. That was a huge surprise. A good start, she was forced to acknowledge.

‘I’m so grateful to you for sparing me some time today,’ he began in a smooth, public-school voice. ‘I realise you have a somewhat hectic schedule and I was fully prepared to have to wait a few days but as I’m sure you’re aware, the publicity is always very welcome.’

She blinked at him. ‘Oh – er – well, it’s – er…’

He smiled again. Sexily. Gorgeously. White even teeth. Good skin, not as orange as celebs usually were, and he didn’t appear to be hungover. She led him into her office, invited him to sit. And he sat. Not lolling, but actually sitting, ninety per cent upright at least. Amazing.

She positioned her dictating machine and with a smile, indicated they were beginning. ‘Well, Justin, perhaps you can tell me a little more about your move to United.’

He smiled again. It suddenly struck her he was here alone: no entourage, no agent, no coach, no WAG. Just Him. Wow. Again.

‘Well Geena–I hope you don’t mind me calling you Geena? I saw this as an excellent opportunity to further my career by playing for a high profile, high status club, but at the same time I really believe it is good for the club too, because I’m confident I can bring an element to the team’s game which has been a little lacking in the last season or two.’

‘And have you met your new teammates yet?’

‘Yes, we’ve had two practice sessions together, and of course, I’m researching the footage available. I have great faith in my colleagues–they’re all keen and talented athletes, and I feel that this move will be mutually advantageous. I intend to work very hard to justify the manager’s faith in me and the huge transfer fee they have invested.’

She caught a whiff of his designer cologne as he leaned forward to take a sip of his designer water. ‘Tell me about team tactics,’ she suggested.

‘One thing I really believe is that the game can be won or lost in the mind as well as on the pitch. I think it’s a wise man who comes out of the dressing-room after half-time and views the second half as a new game, a fresh opportunity to test himself.’

Quite so, Geena thought. It was two hours before she realised he’d said what they all say: ‘We’re training hard’, ‘It’s a game of two halves’ and ‘The lads done good’. He’d just said it in a posh voice with big words and a nice smile.

*

2012 © Caron Allan

 

A quick catch-up with Criss Cross

I self-published my first book in January 2013, so  nine and a half years ago.

(note to self, you should have waited until January 2023 so you could do a 10-year anniversary post.)

(note back to self from self: I might still do that, no one will remember that it was only six months earlier that I did this post, will they?)

The book was Criss Cross, and it was the first book of a trilogy called initially the Posh Hits Murders then I changed that rather clunky title a few years ago to the Friendship Can Be Murder mysteries.

Why did I self-publish?

I finished the book in 2012, (congrats, self, it’s been ten years…) and finding that people were still rather scornful of self-pubbed books – and still are today, btw – I tried to persuade around thirty publishers and agents to take it. The responses varied from dusty silence for months on end with tumbleweed rolling by, to responses two or three weeks later of ‘Sorry it’s just not for us, so sorry, but no,’ to responses by return of mail, saying, in effect, ‘Hell no!’

Some people said, ‘We enjoyed it but it won’t sell, it’s not commercial enough. It doesn’t fit into a genre.’ (True)

Lots of them said, ‘Good luck with that.’

And so that was why I thought I would ‘give it a go’ as a self-published author. Whilst waiting for replies from the latest victim, I had read quite a lot about self-publishing and thought it sounded like something even I, technologically challenged as I was, could do. So I did.

It was a long and difficult process as I had never done anything like that before. I knew very little about editing, or formatting of manuscripts. I was still working full time, so I had very little time to do anything ‘extra’, and I had no spare cash to pay anyone to do anything for me. In those days I didn’t know any other writers either so I had no one to ask. I learned it all from a book. and from research on the Interweb.

And then apart from the technology, I had another issue: I was really really scared!

What if people didn’t like it?

What if I discovered that I was genuinely a terrible writer?

What if the publishers and agents had been right and it was a huge failure? Well that one at least wasn’t too much of a problem – if it flopped, who would know or be worried apart from me?

It took a while to overcome my fears and just go for it. But eventually I got tired of wondering ‘what if’ and just – did it.

And yeah, it’s not made me a millionaire. I sell something like 100 of my Dottie Manderson mysteries to every one of the Criss Cross books I sell. But every month I sell a few, a nice little handful of eBooks and paperbacks and even large print paperbacks.

And yeah, not everyone likes it. One of my earliest reviews – which could have stopped my writing career right there if it wasn’t that I am super stubborn and contrary, was a one star review that said ‘This is the worst book I have ever read.’

Quite honestly they did me a favour. Because that was exactly what I had been dreading all that time, so once it came, everything else seemed okay. And by that time book 2 was out, followed by book 3 and book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries.

I think most writers dream of getting an offer from a publisher to publish their works. That’s never happened to me and I don’t know how I would feel or what I would say if it did. I kind of just kept on with the self-publishing as it seemed pointless to waste time trying to place my books when they could be ‘out there’ within a day or two. I make a nice living now from my books. Currently I have ten books published and two more about to come out later this year. I’m not a millionaire. To be honest I’m okay with that. I love the creative control of my books and I enjoy working with other authors to edit or proofread their works or to offer ideas or support.

And I have received so much help from many lovely authors. Now, I quite often get emails or message from readers telling me they like my books. I usually apologise first. then thank them.

Readers, you have no idea how amazing it is when someone tells you that something you came up with out of thin air has given them pleasure. Thank you, wonderful readers, for your kindness and support too.

What’s the book about?

So what’s Criss Cross about?

Loosely speaking, it’s a murder mystery. But it’s written in the form of diary entries by the protagonist, Cressida, and is from a limited-ish first person point of view.

(And those are some of the aspects of it that were not commercially viable for a publishing house.)

She’s terribly posh and entitled, and has a plan to kill off her mother-in-law who is making her life a misery.

I can’t really say it’s a mystery as quite a lot of what happens is told to the reader directly by Cressida. But of course, she herself doesn’t always know what’s going on, so there is that element of mystery. But there is a strong chick-lit vibe, and there’s romance.

(More reasons why it’s not a good choice for a publishing house.)

As the story moves on, the body count piles up, because stuff just happens, as Cressida quickly discovers. Outwardly self-sufficient and uncaring, she is really a fairly lonely person who builds herself a family, and it is these relationships that she wants to protect at all costs.

It’s humorous, a bit snarky, but warm and occasionally poignant. Each story leads on from the previous one, these don’t quite work as stand-alones, I’m afraid.

If you fancy reading a bit more, you can find a sneak peek here.

NB – just to let you know, I’ve been toying with the idea of continuing this series, so who knows – watch this space, it might end up a series.

***

Van Gogh and the need for models

When Vincent van Gogh wrote to Emile Barnard in 1889 from the asylum in which he had voluntarily placed himself, he said he was ‘suffering under an absolute lack of models’. He was not talking about people to pose for him to paint, he was talking about people to look up to, professionally, role models, people he aspired to follow and to learn from. He was faithfully working on his painting, turning out canvas after canvas, but had no one close by who could help him grow as an artist.

Alice Walker, in her collection of essays entitled In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (such an inspirational book, I still have the battered copy that I bought in 1989 in London’s Tottenham Court Road at a bookshop specialising in feminist and womanist works) quotes this moment in Van Gogh’s life, and discusses it in “Saving The Life That Is Your Own – the importance of models in the artist’s life”. She highlights the need for writers–and all artists–to find worthy and strong role models to help us grow and develop our skills. Her book helped me hugely as an aspiring writer in my late 20s.

There have been a number of special books which have influenced me as a writer over the years. Here are some of them. (Some of them are quite old now, but I think you can still get them…)

In her 1934 masterpiece Becoming A Writer Dorothea Brande said, “A writer writes” which writers hear everywhere, and you may think it’s an obvious statement to make, but think about it for a few minutes, it’s deeper than you think. It’s not about writing being just a one-off event, ‘I wrote a book’, but an ongoing, permanent relationship with words. This book is considered a little out of date by some or a bit patronising, but for many writers, Brande’s book is the seminal work aimed at writers who are right at the start of their writing journey, or who have lost their creative impetus and need a fresh perspective.

Writing a book can be compared to climbing a mountain, and the higher you get the more scary it feels if you stepped back from the process to look at what you were doing. So, as Mary Wibberley in her book To Writers With Love said, ‘Don’t look down!’ – just keep moving forwards until you reach the end. Or should that be, THE END. She also commented that finding your story is rather like creating a sculpture out of a block of stone. It takes time, and you shape the story roughly then polish and hone, several times. This book was another huge help to me as a new writer.

Alice Walker taught me that in spite of this need writers often have to be alone to concentrate on their writing, we also need others to look up to and observe and learn from, to share our journey with, to laugh with, to cry with, and everything in between. I–and you–cannot grow or function in isolation. And life’s journey is too hard to spend all your time alone.

It has never been easier than today to find others for inspiration and support. Many of my closest friends are other writers I have come across through conversations on social media. And they have got me through so many tough times, times when I felt discouraged, or felt like giving up, or felt like nothing seemed to be working. I am so grateful to them. If I ever win an award, my ‘Without whom…’ speech will be long and tearful. The internet is full of tips, hints, writing websites, blogs, epublishing platforms, how-tos and advice, writing circles, book reading groups, as well as technique and knowledge webinars. My advice is to dig into these writing groups, make friends and be kind. We all need the human element. There is no need to suffer under a lack of models any more.

It is an odd thing, being a writer, because just like other ‘normal’ jobs, sometimes you don’t want to do it, you don’t want to write, or you’re fed up with everything you write: it feels stale or trite or clichéd or flat or bumpy or… ‘hard, dry…’ Sometimes you hate being a writer. Sometimes you write something so good, you can’t believe it came from you. Or you become convinced you have depleted in one sentence your entire reserve of ability, and that you will never be able to write again. Other times you feel as though you’re banging your head against a brick wall, desperately trying to get an idea out, and you can’t even remember what a verb is.

Van Gogh said, “However hateful painting may be…if anyone who has chosen this handicraft pursues it zealously, he is a man of duty, sound and faithful.”

All Van Gogh’s works now with free cat

It does sometimes feel as though, as writers, we are undertaking A Quest as we try to ensure our red herrings are subtle but present, and our sleuths remain believable and appealing yet somehow stand out from the crowd of other fictional sleuths. Loathing may be present for at least a third of the book. You may well come to dread the very thought of looking at your draft again. But look at it you must, for the good of the book, and your writer’s soul. And you have to make yourself do it even if you don’t want to. You can’t just sit and wait for inspiration to strike. As many well-known and successful authors have commented, if you only write when inspired, then you’ll probably never write a thing.

Van Gogh went on to say, “What I am doing is hard, dry, but that is because I am trying to gather new strength by doing some rough work, and I’m afraid abstractions would make me soft.”

Like him, we devote ourselves to diligently plodding through our notes, our research, our first drafts and our revisions. At times it feels like hard, dry work. But we cannot leave it until later. If we do, we will lose our impetus, we will forget that special key phrase, that small detail on which the whole plot turns. Therefore it’s important to keep going, keep moving forward. But you don’t have to do it alone. Join a group, make friends, open up to others and as they embrace your work, you can embrace theirs.

Be careful with your criticism. Remember their style may not be yours, their story may differ from yours, their experiences, their character – they are not you. But like you, they have a dream – so try not to trample, but to encourage. One harsh word or thoughtless comment can make someone give up writing for weeks, even months, so be kind, be gentle. We creatives are sensitive people. You may not ‘gel’ with everyone, but those you do, support them wholeheartedly. Try to keep an open mind. You may not like or agree with what people say about your work but listen to them anyway, consider what they say, don’t get miffed or precious: you need these people and they need you. And more than one viewpoint is valid. Together we can get our work drafted, revised and rerevised, edited, rererevised, proofed then put it out there into the world for the reading public, sharing one another’s triumphs as well as the doubts.

***

 

Flight and Refuge

Like many writers, I have written a lot of stuff that, for a number of reasons, hasn’t been published. It might be absolute rubbish, or it’s unfinished, or I am, as always, too busy on other projects…

That’s the case with a book of 110,000 words that I wrote in 23 days flat back in about 2005 or 2006. The story is called The Refuge. I mention it from time to time on here, and have posted a couple of extracts (click to follow the link to chapter one, if you’re a bit bored). The premise is that Britain is at war: towns are under attack from air raids, soldiers have invaded the country, and are subduing and capturing etc, as tends to happen in wartime. (Sounds a bit ‘current’, doesn’t it? And that’s one of many reasons this book is still on a shelf and not ‘out there’. It’s a bit real. )

The main characters are Anna, a journalist, and Mark who was a government advisor. They knew what was about to happen and had a few days to prepare. They move to an area near some caves, planning to hide there with Anna’s family, until it’s safe to emerge. As Anna and Mark make their escape they find it impossible to turn their backs on survivors they meet so the group quickly grows in size.

I often talk about ‘closed communities’ and how useful these are in mysteries to stage the crime. But what if it’s an actual community, a village, hidden for decades, maybe even centuries from the outside world? My characters find themselves in just such a place. They and their new friends have to fit in, and adapt to a new way of life.

Research for this book really made me think. What if this really happened? If I had to leave my home, knowing I might never come back, what essential items would I take with me? I think if there are more people rather than fewer, that actually helps as between you, you can carry more.

My first thought was, obviously, food. And water. But…

Am I going somewhere where there is no food or water? If so, what am I going to do? I can’t possibly carry and keep fresh sufficient food to keep me alive for a year, let alone the rest of my life. Can I? And I’m not alone, so we need more.

So I had to ask myself, how long might we be gone for? Are we going for a few days in the hope ‘it’ will all be over by then? If we can learn anything from history, (and current affairs) it’s that these things tend to linger on much, much longer than we expect or hope.

If we’re going ‘forever’ then a couple of packets of noodles and a few bottles of water isn’t much good, is it?

So are we leaving just so we can died quietly somewhere on our own terms? Or are we going to make a new life, to support ourselves ‘forever’?

If the latter, we need:

a) more information about what ‘resources’ are at the place we plan to head to.

b) based on that, are we going to become a hunter/gatherers? Farmers? Or are we going to take refuge in a community broadly similar to our own, where there is an established supply of food and water and hopefully other amenities?

It really wasn’t as straight forward as I initially thought.

My refugees in The Refuge decided they would initially camp out until they had a chance to figure out what to do next. The important thing in the first instance was just to get away. So they planned to take tents, sleeping bags, water, water purification tablets, matches, candles, some food, a spade, a few basic tools, etc.

Being sentimental humans, they gave into the urge to rescue their pets: Anna turns up with two cats in a cat basket, and Mark arrives with his German Shepherd. No doubt the dog was a bit more useful than the two cats, but at least the cats can forage for themselves…

I’m assuming it’s a given that my family are coming with me, so I asked myself, what would I take – what were the things I couldn’t bear to be separated from?

Family photos.

Writing.

Books?

FOOD and WATER.

Not sure the baby photos, my notebooks and pens, or my reading materials would be a good idea. They’d be heavy and not actually contribute to keeping us alive, though they would give us something to entertain ourselves with in moments of leisure, or in a pinch, something to fling onto the fire…

If we had a chance to plan ahead, we could have everything neatly packed in backpacks and possibly take a few extra items that fell into that ‘not quite sure’ grey area:

Knife for veg/any cutting tasks; forks, spoons, plastic bowls, water in large plastic bottles, antiseptic or disinfectant, aspirin, loo paper (or??? I can’t decide about this one…); mirror, tweezers, scissors, plasters/bandages, clothing – just a couple of changes for each person. Some sturdy boots (on our feet so no need to carry), waterproof jackets. Comb, toothbrushes, face flannels and maybe small towels, soap for clothes and people.

Candles? Matches, definitely. Firelighters or briquettes, washing line, pegs, string, folding chairs (a luxury? But I can’t stand up for the rest of my life, nor sit only on the ground…) rope. Waterproof sheeting. Binoculars.

A screwdriver? Probably not – again – I’m just not sure, this is where I need a bloke to advise me. (Sisters can’t always do it for themselves.) A saw, hammer, nails, cutters? Am I building a shelter for myself, or…?

Large plastic bowl, kettle, small bowls to eat from, a wooden spoon? Small pans? Dried milk, tea, sugar, porridge, oil, stock cubes, dried beans, rice, tinned meat.

Tent or tents according to the number of people, sleeping bags.

These are all for our own survival. But what if, like Anna and Mark, we find ourselves in an already-established community? ‘Stuff’ might be less important and maybe psychology would be more important? What about the moment of our arrival? How would we fit in?

I think I’d feel eager to please. Eager to like everything, to approve of everything, to be accepted, understood and grateful, to be liked. Excited, keen. Then, a few months later, when difficulties arose and the ‘honeymoon’ period was over, I might feel lonely, homesick, and wonder if I should have just stayed where I was.

What about clashes of ideology? We might agree in public but at home, in private, we can say what we really think, do what we believe is right. Or can we? How private or safe are we really?

In my book, the small village is isolated, self-sufficient. It doesn’t cope well with ideas and attitudes from outside. I had to think about how relationships remained intact through the stresses and strains of everyday life in a new place. What about fallings out and antagonisms – how much do they affect everyone else?

For my people, going to the village instead of trying to cope on their own, meant:

initial relief at being with others, as this meant more support, the village was better established, more resilient, had a more structured way of life than simply living in a few tents. There was a sense of having reached a goal that seemed almost normal.

But then came the struggle to fit in when they realised attitudes, beliefs and way of life were different. It was hard to find common frames of reference. And although the majority adopted/embraced/adapted to the new way of life, a small number won’t/can’t seem to fit in.

Not all the villagers would welcome the new arrivals. There might be tension which leads to a sense of ‘us and them’, which could boil over into aggressive behaviour and even violence.

This in turn could mean that for some of the newcomers, there was a tendency to stay in the same groups and not to blend in.

And then of course, because I am a mystery writer at heart, I couldn’t resist adding a bit of difficulty of my own: the new arrivals have a gradual realisation that this is not a perfect society but is it possible or are they even morally justified in attempting to bring about change? Is it even okay to suggest change when you are an outsider, and need them more than they need you?

I had to consider that some of my characters might, eventually, feel they were not able to stay in this new place, no matter how convenient or safe it seems.

But at this the point, they may well discover the truth: no one is allowed to leave.

 

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Reading history

I was an only child and I spent a great deal of time on my own. We did not have a lot of money but we always had a collection of books, and of course library cards.

Books intrigued me. There were grown-up books with lurid enigmatic dust jackets, pictures of strangers lurking in darkened doorways, or a single outflung hand, or an image of lip-sticked women with broken pearl necklaces. These I was not allowed to read as they were ‘too grown-up’ but I liked to look at the covers.

Then there were the books that had either been my mother’s or one of her brother’s or sister’s: Enid Blyton’sThe Island of Adventure’, Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Five series. I read the ones we had again and again, struggling at first with the more advanced language of the Saville books, but not wanting to put them down – something in those stories gripped me. And when I became old enough to have pocket money, aged 9 or 10, I began to spend all my money, from birthdays and Christmas too, on any books I could get my hands on. By the time I was 11, I had hundreds.

Now more than 50 years old!

I can remember making paper models of Famous Five and Lone Pine Five stories, cutting out little people–and of course the dog–and things like tents and bicycles. I also wrote to Malcolm Saville and was thrilled to receive a letter back, signed by him and enclosing a Lone Pine Five badge—he was already in his late 70s or early 80s at that time.

I can remember writing my own stories on the back of scrap paper, and stapling them together inside a ‘cover’ made from a cereal packet which I decorated with crayons. I made dozens of little notebooks for myself.

An aunt gave me a massive book on Christmas–the complete works of Lewis Carroll. I loved that. Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, of course, but even the essays, the letters, acrostics and puzzles, and, new to me then, the magical Sylvie and Bruno stories. I read ‘Twas Brillig…’ in German—or tried to—before I even started to learn the language, and it too was magical.

I can’t remember the day when I suddenly thought ‘I could do this, I could be a writer’. I can only remember that those early books gave me something that I longed to participate in. By the time I was 10 or 11, it was a fully fledged ambition. I wrote stories and made covers for them from cereal packet carboard. My teacher took them seriously and critiqued them.

Poems that inspired me, and filled me with encouragement, a sense of story, and with awe: Jabberwocky. Daffodils by Wordsworth. I read it as a child and felt I could really see them—the simple imagery was something I could understand and relate to. The haunting opening line of Walter de la Mare’s The Traveller—‘Is anybody there…?’

The first Enid Blyton ‘detective’ story I read.

It wasn’t until I was older, in my mid-teens, that I began to see writing as something I wanted to do in a professional capacity—but I was told I didn’t have the right background, or the right education, the right skills, that kind of thing. Did it stop me? No, of course not. If you’re passionate about a thing, no one and nothing can stop you. I told myself I could write ‘just for myself’, not to try to be published. So I saw myself as a hobbyist.

Formal studies at school and through university courses made me learn to see books as works, and view them from the outside, so to speak, not just immerse myself into them as an experience. I learned to understand techniques and things like plots and motifs and point of view. I discussed meaning and learned phrases like ‘unwitting testimony’. I honed my own writing skills and learned important grammar stuff. A lot of the books I ‘had’ to read didn’t appeal to me beyond the course. But I learned so much about books and writing.

Mrs Dalloway

Wow, I was staggered by the whole concept of stream-of-consciousness writing. And this was one of those works that really made you think. I was in bits by the end.

The Colour Purple

It was the direct yet otherness of the language that showed me how to reveal pain, to gain the reader’s sympathy and it made me want Celie to find her children and be happy. It felt all-engrossing. When she finally started addressing her letters to her children and not to God, it felt like an arrival. An emotional one.

Pride and Prejudice

It was what wasn’t said that I found touching. And also the gentle humour. I had never realised until I read P & P that ‘classics’ could be enjoyable.

The Wind In The Willows

The richness of the language, definitely wasted on children, was what inspired me. That and the busy minutiae of the animals’ everyday lives, so clearly people by any other name.

Patricia Wentworth & Agatha Christie

My cosy mystery heroines. The ‘safety’ of their stories and her worlds, the cosiness, the black and white certainty of each story is so restful and enjoyable. The intellectual wanting to know ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘who’. The satisfaction of revealing the culprit and vindicating the innocent. Christie sometimes added an extra layer of meaning, but overall I feel that her books remain cosy.

These were the books and the authors that got me started on the slippery slope! What are your book memories?

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These fragments I have shored against my ruin

I first shared this blog post in 2016. To date, it’s still my best-performing blog post. Not sure if that is because it’s one of my shortest – I am quite a waffler these days.

But I love that line. It’s line 431 from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. The first time I read the poem, when I got to this line I burst into tears, because it seemed such a beautiful summation, of the poem, of my life, everything. Words do that to me–I’m a very emotional person, I’m glad to say.

I believe that our lives are made up of fragments. We are, in essence, a walking, talking collection of every experience we’ve ever had. This includes what we’ve read. Words.

So often I am out and about–yes, I escape now and again–and I hear something, see something, smell something which provokes a memory of something I’ve read. Most often it is snatches of conversation I overhear, being nosey and a crime writer, which as we all know gives me special dispensation to eavesdrop on others. (‘I ain’t been dropping no eaves, sir, honest.’) Words seem to lead to more words.

I hear someone say, ‘The wonderful thing…’ and mentally I’ve added ‘…about Tiggers is Tiggers are wonderful things.’ (I didn’t promise it was anything erudite!) Or someone may say ‘Wherever I go…’ and I think to myself ‘there’s always Pooh, there’s always Pooh and me.’ (By the way, Winnie the Pooh is not just for kids. Just read the chapter called The Piper At the Gates of Dawn…)

It’s not just A A Milne, though. So often snatches of Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, songs, poems, plays, hymns, prayers, all sorts of words come into my head. I can’t look at spring flowers without thinking ‘A host of golden daffodils’ or ‘April is the cruellest month’. (The Waste Land again!) A tall person becomes ‘thou painted Maypole’. A mouse is a ‘wee sleekit cowrin tim’rous beastie’. (Burns of course, who else?)

If something annoying happens, I hear Miss Marple whisper, ‘Oh dear, how extremely vexing,’ or I hear someone say something stupid, and Mr Bennett’s frustrated, outraged, ‘Until you come back…I shall not hear two words of sense spoken together’ comes to mind. I share his pain. In extremis, ‘I shall be in my library; I’m not to be disturbed.’ (Not unless there’s cake or Midsomer Murders.) Or I might hear Miss Silver’s indulgent, ‘In their own way, men can be quite useful.’

Or if sorrows come in, it’s Matthew Arnold’s painful comment filled with longing, ‘Ah love, let us be true to one another,’ because he believed that one another was all we have. (Dover Beach).

Or…

There’s always another wonderful sketch of words from someone who lived many years before my time. Or a contemporary. Or the next generation. We all use and need words.

And because of this, none of us can ever come to a text, for the first time, or the tenth, ‘cold’ or ‘new’. There is really no neutral approach in the human soul. We bring with us the sum of all our experiences and emotions, our world-view and our beliefs, and those inform what we read, and mercifully sometimes, what we read can inform all those things too.

When I was studying literature ‘back in the day’, I remember The Waste Land was one of our set texts. Critics deplored it, dismissing it as a pastiche, a patchwork quilt of other peoples’ work, revealing only a good memory for quotations. Students shuddered and declared it was one of the worst experiences of their life. But for some of us, there was a sense of ‘wow, I never knew poetry could be like this!’

When I read his words, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ (line 431), I said to my tutor, I think he is saying that literature, that words, will save us in times of crisis, bolster us when we are at a low ebb. I was told I was wrong, but in spite of that, I still choose to believe this could be one meaning of these, for me, immortal words. These fragments of remembered stories, poems, previous experiences, feelings, of words, I have stored up, internalised, to use as a defence, shored against my ruin, my unhappiness, times of want, misery, sorrow and confusion. Ruin.

For me it is a reminder that many things in life are transient, passing, temporary, but I will always carry within me the sum of what I have read. Just read Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 and tell me I’m wrong. It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s got a cheeky grin at the end. It’s perfect, and all human life is there.

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