Night and Day: the Dottie Manderson mysteries are reaching out to new audiences

At the beginning of this year, with sales doing better following the release of book 5 of my Dottie Manderson mysteries series, I decided it was a good time to branch out to non-English translations. Partly it was because of the increasing sales from other countries, and partly it was because Amazon had made some changes which made it easier to reach, in particular, readers in mainland Europe.

So I’m very proud and pleased to announce that book 1 of my 1930s mystery series (with a heavy side helping of romance) will be released in German and French on 25th June. Other languages may follow, at least I really hope so! The books are already available for Pre-order, if you or someone you know are interested.

No, before you ask, I will not be embracing languages such as Klingon, Dothraki or Valyrian. Sorry. Es tut mir leid, je me regrette, przepraszam, lo siento.

For more information and a teaser of the French version click here:

For more information and a teaser of the German version, click here:

Huge thanks for the hard work and patience of French Translator/Editor Eden Rébora.

And huge thanks too to Stef Mills, translator and editor, for all her hard work on the German version. You can find out more about Stef on her website here:

To those lovely people who have shown interest in books about a young woman from Britain in the 1930s, and all the scrapes she gets herself into: thank you so much, I really appreciate your support.

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Reflections on a visit to an exhibition

I couldn’t find an image featuring a red garment, so in my book, the mantle is in shades of green.

No I haven’t been to an exhibition. I have barely been out of the house for seven weeks! So I’m trawling through my old blog posts and notes to find something to rehash ahem, to look at from a new perspective.

Back in January 2017, I was about to start writing book 2 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries. The book was called The Mantle of God, and featured an ancient clerical vestment, a mantle, that is to say, a kind of cloak for priests. This topic had been triggered by a TV documentary I saw about Medieval English Embroidery, called Opus Anglicanum (English Work), that was on sometime over Christmas I seem to think. Anyway, a bit of research on the old interweb showed me that the V & A museum in London were holding a special exhibition, so thither went I post haste. Actually it was by Midland Trains but anyway…

I had to see it for myself. The enthusiasm of the narrator/presenter of the documentary (which I’ve forgotten the title of, and also the name of the presenter – I wish I’d made a note) made it seem so relevant, so real. Of course, life gets in the way sometimes, and in fact the exhibition was almost over so I nearly missed it but I am so glad I finally made it.

Due to it being the off-season, the number of visitors wasn’t quite as large as usual, and the organisers were happy to allow everyone to wander around and browse to their hearts’ content, and also due to the exhibition being busy but not cheek-by-jowl crowded, I was able to perch on a bench and gaze fondly at the Butler Bowden Cope, which was the main item I had come to see ‘in the flesh’, amongst many other copes, mantles, chasubles, altar cloths and more. Being a writer, of course I had come armed with notebook and pen (and bought several more in the gift shop). I was able to sit and make notes without feeling a need to hurry along and make way for others. The items were fabulous, far beyond what I had expected, and beautifully displayed. Here is a little of what I felt and noted:

‘The red velvet background was, as I expected, greatly faded away to a soft, deep pinky red although here and there it remains fresh and vibrant, and the threads of the velvet fabric were worn and even almost bare in places. As is typical, tiers of Biblical scenes and characters are interspersed by smaller tiers of angels, and twining branches form vertical barriers between sections.

‘The figures are more or less uncoloured now, but their hair still shines softly gold or silver, and here and there a vivid patch of blue cloth has retained its glorious colour. Lions peer between branches of oak, their heads realised by spirals of tiny pearls, for the main part still intact after, what, almost 700 years? 700 hundred years – I can hardly believe it.

‘Actually, I feel rather in awe. Of the creators, their skill, and even of the measure of inspiration they enjoyed, and the careful, devoted execution of the work: it all touches me, and I feel grateful, even tearful as I look at these beautiful garments and draperies. Who knows how long it will be possible to move these often fragile items and take them to other audiences? And then, when they are gone… all we will be left with will be photographs and facsimiles. Somehow it isn’t enough just to go and look, I feel a need to record my experience, to capture it for the future.’

As you can tell, I was lost in the moment. As were–I noticed–almost all the other visitors.

The cafe, too, is well worth an hour of contemplation! The stunning blue delft tiles on the walls, the lovely ceiling and windows… Entrance to the main part of the museum is, as ever, free, but the specialist exhibitions such as the Opus Anglicanum, have to be booked and paid for. But this is surely a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I certainly didn’t mind paying the price of £12. I also spent an age sitting in front of the permanent exhibition in the hall of Flemish tapestries. Absolutely beautiful – and HUGE.

When Mantle of God came out, a couple of people said that the story was far-fetched – that no one would be prepared to sacrifice their lives to protect a clerical vestment, or to hand a piece of it down through the generations, protecting it the way I suggested in my book. But I based my idea on real evidence: the presenter discussed a similar item –  a mantle, that had at some point been cut into four pieces and later–much later–the pieces had been restitched to create one whole garment again.

So I felt there was every possibility that a few loyal families could between them take and hide one piece of a mantle. If the worst happened surely at least one piece of the holy relic would survive? They were taking their lives in their hands for their faith.

Remember, in those days, Britain was Catholic, Protestant, then Catholic, then Protestant again. It was so incredibly dangerous to be caught on the wrong side of the faith-fence by your enemies. Literally having a tiny fragment of a priest’s garment on your premises could mean death. Churches that had been beautifully decorated Catholic places of worship were white-washed–the paintings and murals often not discovered until hundreds of years later. If found, the ornaments and attributes of mass were destroyed, or plundered for the treasure chests of royalty. There’s a reason they had priests-holes in those big old houses.

If you are curious and want to read a wee bit of The Mantle of God: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 2, you can click here to go to that page.

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What larks, Pip! or How to survive a writing disaster.

I like to think I’m very organised with my writing. But I’m not. I tell myself several lies as I write: a) I know what I’m doing, b) I will remember what I was about to say when I broke off from my writing, c) I will remember where I put those crucial notes, d) I will know where I saved the various versions of my draft.

As I said, lies, all lies.

I’ve just spent about ten days trying to piece back together the draft of a novel I wrote six or seven years ago. In January I had the ‘most brilliant’ idea for it, suddenly it came to me, out of the blue, the direction to take the story in, all the background and setting, after years of pondering, fell into place and seemed so–right.

But.

It took me an hour to put all the separate chapters into one complete draft, and reading through, I realised there was a lot of material missing. I had:

No chapter 39

Or chapter 40, though I had a 40a (???)

No chapter 41

Two chapter 42s (different chapters, not an original and a copy)

No chapter 44

Two chapter 47s (again different, not an original and a copy)

And although the story ends in the middle of the action – I cannot find the ending. And for some reason, there are a lot of very short chapters in this book, so it feels like a lot to keep track of.

I always back up my works in progress (I’d advise anyone to do this) – imagine something terrible happens, your house is flooded, there’s a fire, or your computer goes up in flames… (ditto important documents and of course, photos of your babies). I back up through several methods, and whilst these are a bit haphazard, (don’t judge me!) I’m slightly more organised than I used to be. So I save my WIP onto the computer, obvs, then onto a USB stick, and then I email the Word file to myself, and I save onto ‘the cloud’, int his case, my OneDrive account. Because you never know, right?

But.

I saved all my files titles and so none of them were the same. So as I say, I’ve spent the last ten days trying to put a full draft together so I can see what I need to do with the story to make it work, and to try to make it good. This, by the way, is known as the half-baked writing system. I don’t recommend it as a process.

By the time I’d finished this on Tuesday, I was frazzled, because I’d muddled my brain trying to figure out what I already had, and what I still had missing. I had two files Windows just point blank refused to open. I had several that were basically entirely html – but with a bit of text in the middle. I’ve definitely honed my detective skills this week. I felt like I had a big uphill battle ahead of me to rewrite/replace all those missing and corrupted files. It was beginning to feel as though it just wasn’t worth the effort. I didn’t do much work on Monday/Tuesday, I was too low.

Yesterday, I started fresh, and went through everything, even the stuff I already ‘l knew’ I’d looked through. I pulled out my paper files and went through two lots of early drafts. I found my missing chapters! I went through all the back-ups of my backed up back-ups and found non-corrupted files to replace the ones I couldn’t open or that were mostly comprised of html. I still have no ending. But this morning I found a note to myself written in 2015 that says ‘Still need to do this, this and this,’ and having calmly sat and worked through everything, I realise I do have a ton of notes signposting the way I planned these missing chapters to go.

I only hope the end product will be worth it. I’m planning a new series. Did I mention that? This book will be the first of those, and I hope it will be out in the big wide world in 2021. That seems quite close now, even though we’re still only in April 2020. this has been a weird few months, hasn’t it?

To find out a bit more about this series please click here;

If you can bear to, I’ve put a couple of chapters on here, so you can have a read. The book will be called A Meeting With Murder: book 1 of the Miss Gascoigne 1960s mysteries.

Thanks for putting up with me. I hope everyone is safe and happy. Live Long and Prosper, as our childhood hero Mr Spock says. 😉

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How to make a first draft: a list of ingredients

A lot goes into the first draft of a novel. It’s a phase, not just a single event. It goes through emotional twists and turns–as does the writer.

I write all my novels longhand in the first draft. Here’s a list of some of the ingredients I used to write my most recent first draft:

Firstly I needed six of these: (they HAVE to match…)

And I will on average use 4 or 5 of these: (I am literally writing purple prose).

One each of the these:

And even these:

Finally, raring to go, I will begin with excited enthusiasm: (the towel’s not really part of this.)

Then I will write furiously in a panic to get it all down on paper:

Then I will feel tired and only want to do this:

Next comes the phase of rebellion:

Then there’s a little bit of surprised ‘I think this is going to work’ feeling.

Followed rapidly by a ‘Why on earth do I do this to myself?’ sensation (which can last up to twenty years).

When that is over, I move into what I like to call the ‘Theoden, King’ phase of writing: a kind of grim resignation.

When writing a first draft you need a lot of sheer dogged persistence. Fortunately I do have quite a lot of that. It’s basically my only marketable (or not) skill.

Until one day:

Followed by:

And of course, plenty of:

And then:

The End (of the beginning…)

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The Older Author

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

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

…I’d probably brain someone with it.

There’s a reason I write crime fiction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Embrace the chaos

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

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

Answer: Just go with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anyone for Mock Turtle soup?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care people and share your loo rolls, please.

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A writing assignment from years ago.

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

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

A derelict building:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection:

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

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

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

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

New note:

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

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

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

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Roadworthy: more on driving in the 1930s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a warm rug,

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

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

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

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

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

the feeler gauge is that fan-shaped thingy

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

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

The Aussie Band, Cold Chisel

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Maid or Chef?

This is definitely what I look like in my kitchen!

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

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

Housework is so medieval, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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