Marsali Taylor’s A Shetland Winter Mystery blog tour

Author Marsali Taylor photographed onboard her yacht in Aith Marina, Shetland, Sep 2005

Welcome to Marsali Taylor’s A Shetland Winter Mystery blog tour! this is to celebrate the release of Marsali’s new book which comes out next week on the 9th December, published by Headline Accent.

This is the second time I’ve participated in one of Marsali Taylor’s blog tours. To read the previous one, please click HERE.

About Marsali Taylor

Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland’s scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland’s distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women’s suffrage in Shetland. She’s also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.

Don’t forget to check out these other sites for more info!

About A Shetland Winter Mystery

It’s the dark nights in the run up to Christmas, and sailing sleuth Cass Lynch’s first night on dry land is disturbed by strange noises outside her isolated cottage. Tiny footprints in the moonlit snow trail from her front door before mysteriously disappearing. Soon Cass learns others were visited by the same tiny feet in the night.

It looks like ingenious local teenagers playing tricks – but what happens when festive games turn deadly?

Cass soon finds out as a schoolboy disappears, leaving only a trail of footprints into the middle of a snowy field. She’s determined to investigate, but uncovering the truth will also put her in danger . . .

Review

I hadn’t heard of trows before, but I kind of get what they are: little people, pixies, sprites or maybe leprechauns. They are–surely–mythical–but it is fascinating to read about them because I think we all know someone who genuinely believes in this kind of thing. and the rest of us kind of want to believe, especially during the long winter evenings when we snuggle up with a book, ready to leave this world for one that happens in our imagination.

So I really enjoyed the opening part of the book where the trows were visiting houses, capering about, using their magic to play tricks, to create spectacles and generally mess with everyone’s heads. It’s exactly the kind of thing you can imagine getting completely out of control very quickly, like a trick or treat at Hallowe’en, with each new escapade attempting to outdo the one before.

Imagine one big amazing trick or event–and it’s more or less an open secret who was really behind it–not the trows after all, but local kids out for a bit of cheeky fun. And then one lad doesn’t come home… Where can he get to on a small island?

How long do you wait before calling in the police? It was clear only the boy’s mother thought there was anything amiss, and yet… and yet… It’s all too clear that something else is going on–two somethings actually, and both malicious, threatening. Pretty soon everyone is in a panic trying to find the teenager.

And then news comes in of a dead body, pulled out of the water…

There is a sense of claustrophobia, in spite of the wide open spaces here. I feel like everyone is looking at their neighbours and wondering, ‘Was it you?’ It’s tense, it’s slow-moving but finely tuned, you almost feel like holding your breath in case someone knows you’re watching. A sheer joy to read, and definitely one for a winter’s evening or two.

Highly recommended!

To help you get even more out of this series than just the sheer pleasure of reading it:

  1. Create a wall-chart to check off which kilt Gavin is wearing in each scene.
  2. Take a tot of your favourite alcoholic beverage whenever you read the words Cat or Kitten. (I had a Cat called Kitten once…)
  3. Create another wall-chart, this time of all the people mentioned in the books and all their familial and social connections. I think you will find, as I have, that these characters feel like people you actually know.
  4. Learn all the vocab for any sailing-related activity.
  5. Learn all the different types on knot and practice them in case you ever need to use them ‘in real life’, whatever that is.
  6. Learn all the Shetland words contained in the glossaries or at the beginning of chapters.
  7. Consider pestering Marsali (but in a nice way, don’t make her miserable or you will be her next victim, nor do we want her to put Gavin in jeans/business suit) to write the next book.

You can buy A Shetland Winter Mystery here.

And don’t forget to follow the author on these social media:

AUTHOR WEBSITE

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

FACEBOOK https://www.facebook.com/MarsaliTaylorAuthor 

TWITTER @marsalitaylor 

#ASHETLANDWINTERMYSTERY

Creating Winter’s Child by Jenny S Burke

Jenny S Burke and I have been talking about books and writing for several years, and I wanted to share with you this very creative lady’s latest blog post in which she talks about what went into the making of her children’s book Winter’s Child.

Over to Jenny:

‘Once upon a time, there was a fierce winter. Snow drifts towered above me like white storm waves . . . cold, soft mountains I could tunnel into or slide down.

I was a young child when my family drove from the east coast to northern North Dakota. We gathered with relatives at my grandfather’s farm for Christmas.

There were no kids near my age, so I explored this new world on my own. “Winter’s Child”, my new book, has roots in this experience. 


          “She played in deep snowdrifts as tall as her head,
            And flew down the hills on her small wooden sled.
           She built snow castles with icicle towers.
        She played all alone for hours and hours.”

We built an enormous igloo from blocks of packed snow. A cold snow bench wrapped around the inner wall; snow sconces held candles. I “helped”.

​A dozen relatives crowded close on the circular bench while a blanket covered the entrance. Candlelight added flickering shadows.

​Within this primitive cave, I felt connected to generations of family and to our world. 

The sea called to me. I grew up and moved to the south to become a marine biologist. But I missed the snow.

One day, I folded a piece of paper and cut out a fanciful snowflake with leaping dolphins. A story grew in my mind.  

I wrote the fairy tale but needed more fantasy flakes to complete the book.  

Years later, I had designed and drawn many pen-and-ink flakes.

Now I realized that this story needed to be in rhyme,
like an ancient tale shared by firelight.

I soon learned that if one line
​can’t properly rhyme with the next line,
you need to start over with a whole new stanza. Yay.

Finally, the long story-poem was finished! I field-tested “Winter’s Child” with children and adults and adjusted a few pages.

What size should the book be?

7.5 inch wide X 9.25 inch high allows for generous margins, with room for illustration and text on each page.
​The 14 point font is easy on the eyes.

Next, the illustrations! A chance to experiment and gnash my teeth in frustration.

The fanciful flakes looked lost on a page;
they needed frames to hold them.
I drew boxes, printed the book,
and studied the empty frame above each poem.

What would capture the essence?
I wanted stylized pix with a feel of
stained glass windows.

I pencil-sketched a picture in each framed box
​and began to draw, but . . .
How do you draw the Wind?

​How do you draw a T. rex cloud ​that’s shifting apart?

I removed cloud limbs, made marshmallow teeth, and made the cloud more fluffy in humorous contrast to the dangerous, sharp-edged predator.   

I drew simple flakes for background snow.
Now the poem and pix were finished.
Even better: the very last word of the poem-story is . . . “end”! 🙂

​At last, the cover! Mariah and Wind are playing amongst the bare trees.
One ancient tree wraps around the spine, connecting the covers.

“Winter’s Child” is an upbeat, original fairytale
​in rhyming verse with fanciful illustrations.

It’s a story of the power of friendships,
which truly do change the world.
I hope you enjoy this book as much as it challenged me
​to properly complete my “once upon a time.”    

Thanks to all who helped. Thanks for stopping by!

About Jenny S Burke:

J. S. Burke is an author, artist, and scientist. She’s worked as a marine biologist,
 studying creatures of the dark abyss and diving on coral reefs.
 Her stories blend imagination with real science and author experiences.
 She lives with her family, rescue companions, and dragons! 

 The award-winning Dragon Dreamer series grew from her years at sea,
 a fascination with the alien, intelligent octopuses, and a love of dragons.

Burke has worked as manager of a marine research program and has five published marine research papers. She has degrees in Math, Science,
Marine Science, and Education. Burke has been certified to teach High School Math, H.S. Science, Middle Grades (all subjects), and Gifted students. 

You can contact Jenny at: http://www.jennysburke.com/blog/creating-winters-child

And to read previous interviews with Jenny, click here and here.

Find WINTER’S CHILD here:
PAPERBACK: http://www.authl.it/B09K21BLLX?d
KINDLE: http://www.authl.it/B09KZZX9TQ?d

So real to me

dottie 6 the spy withinMy stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes what are essentially cosy mysteries, and you’d be right. Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a collection of characters who tend to be caricatures, almost, of ‘typical’ people you might meet in the situation where the crime occurs. And I’m not saying that my minor characters are fully realised, well-rounded and recognisable individuals, but I try.

The problem for me is that my books usually have a vast range of characters in them (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all) so there’s not always the space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader. I have tried putting in a character list at the beginning of a story, thinking that would be helpful to readers (having been castigated for not putting one in) but I got even more complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out.

In my Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself and Inspector Hardy, with a supporting cast of around a dozen other ‘regulars’. Then each story has its own characters on top of that. My protagonists are not the isolated individuals of many books in my genre–no brooding detective all alone with their ghosts for me. No, mine both have a family who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or just serving as a distraction or to illustrate some aspect of the character of my main people. Or they can act as a sounding board for ideas and theories. crowd-g216161661_640

In addition, many of my characters also have friends, who must necessarily be commented about, especially if they are involved in a mystery, or the characters can have careers–William Hardy is a career police officer, and Dottie Manderson has become the owner and manager of a fashion warehouse–and they are both involved with work colleagues who cannot be completely overlooked.

And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–so again numbers are rising! But each story needs a perpetrator–sometimes more than one, and of course a victim–almost always more than one–and they have their own social and familial connections.

Making people really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this.

New criss cross ebook coversObviously the first reason is me. I have only a limited experience of life. I think that’s the same for most of us. We always, consciously or unconsciously, bring our own life experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something–sometimes quite a lot–of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing a lot of research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. But I’m not sure how well I succeed with that.

But I don’t like to read books where the detective is perfect. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I’m bored by protagonists who are perfect, who always behave the right way, say the right thing, do the right thing, who think clearly at all times and never get confused, puzzled or befuddled or just plain upset. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.panic-g517b5b30c_640

I’d like to think they grow. I’ve lost track of how many detective series I’ve stopped bothering with because I couldn’t deal with the fact that the protagonists never ever learn from their mistakes, and keep on acting in an implausible or unprofessional manner despite twenty years as a police inspector etc. Because in real life we do learn, most of the time, don’t we? Or we try to. And if we don’t, sooner or later we get called into the office and the boss tells us we are going to be unemployed.

My character Cressida in the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy grows a little. As the trilogy goes on, she travels from being a designer-label obsessed airhead to being a caring mother and family-oriented person who doesn’t mind seaside staycations as that brings a lot of fun to all the family. Okay, she does still love a nice outfit, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life. And yes, she is still a bit manipulative, but she genuinely cares about the people close to her. which is why she gets into the messes she gets into, trying to help people by getting rid of some of the–ahem–nuisances in their lives. It can’t be denied that she can be a bit unforgiving if someone hurts a person she cares about.fashion-g02a75addc_640

Does Dottie grow? I think she does. When we meet her in book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and going dancing with attractive young men. After two years of stumbling over corpses, she has become more confident, more caring towards others, she is more mature, and she is growing a career and trying to understand the world around her, losing her childish idealisation of people. But I like to think she stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, and in helping people and giving support to those who need it. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives.

Which of course will bring her into conflict with people: people who manipulate and hurt others, people who do terrible things and try to get away with it, and in the course of her ‘helping’ she will definitely get in the way of a certain police officer trying to solve a case.

As the relationship between herself and William progresses, (spoiler alert) I’m not sure quite how Dottie will manage to solve murders and juggle her business and her family commitments. Will we see her pushing a perambulator with a couple of kids along to interview suspects? Only time will tell. I have planned several more books, that cover the next couple of years in Dottie’s life but after that… I just don’t know. Maybe I will leave her to raise her family in peace? Maybe we can come back to Dottie in the 1950s when she is a mature woman with more or less independent children? Who knows. Maybe she will be a kind of Miss Marple detective as she gets older. I never felt like I could leave her ageless and frozen in time as some authors do with their creations. Yet as I immerse myself in this pretend world I have created for Dottie, I am all too aware of the even greater threat looming on her horizon: World War II. How can I leave out something so important and far-reaching in its consequences?

DSCF8558

100 years old and still bringing murderers to justice!

This could well be one of the reasons why about four years ago I began to think about a new series with a new character, who would take over the reins. I’m thinking of Diana Gascoigne, stepping out confidently into the 1960s, wearing high heels and a brightly-coloured dress, long hair swinging, ready to take on the modern world.

Keeping it in the family: this has led me to think about the successive generations. Will there be a Dottie-spin-off set in the 1990s? the 2020s? They seem so real to me, I find it hard to believe that they won’t go on and on, one generation giving way to the next, just as we do in the real world.

miss g 14

Coming 2022

***

A first time for everything

Presentation1I love firsts.

I do engage with the rest of a series: if a story idea or a bunch of characters ‘grab’ me, I will read all of the books available. Or if I love the author’s style, I will avidly consume all of their output, like all their other fans, eagerly waiting for each new release.

But when it comes to any series, I’m in love with first glances. I think I just love the potential – the range of possibilities that are present right from the outset, the sheer number of choices the author can choose. I love that first time we meet each character, especially recurring characters. I love ‘seeing’ the setting for the first time, getting it fixed in my imagination. I get that buzz of anticipation as the characters assemble and the action begins – it’s really like watching a stage play and seeing the curtain go up and the action begin.

That’s why I go back to the first book time and time again.  I will reread the first book many times, and where very often I will only read subsequent books once before I move on to the next, I will read book one many many times. 

The problem is, if I find I don’t like the way an author develops her or his series, I will very likely stop reading. Sometimes I might give them a second chance, and reread the offending volume that turned my interest off, but the problem is there are sooooo many books and sooooo little time!

I’m the same with TV shows. I have watched episode one of many series repeatedly, whilst only watching the rest two or three times. I sit there full of anticipation, even though I know what is going to happen. It’s a bit like when your child wants the same bedtime story over and over again. They know every word by heart and every picture. Heaven forbid you try to sneakily miss a page out or you summarise some of the paragraphs. They KNOW!child-4573129_1920

I love first albums, I love first songs, poems, films, TV series. I just love setting out on the journey and walking towards the unknown.

Here are some firsts I love:

The first Bourne film – The Bourne Identity. The others are good, but this one grabs me from the outset.

The first Timothy Dalton-as-James-Bond film – The Living Daylights (‘whoa oh oh oh the living daylights…) The chemistry between James B and his lovely cellist is perfectly achieved, and the humour and action are second to none.

The first episode of Vera – Hidden Depths – where we meet Ann Cleeves’ wonderful (but curmudgeonly, and terminally disinterested in her appearance) detective Vera Stanhope. And lest we forget, the scrumptious David Leon in the role of sidekick Joe Ashworth.

The first episode of Death in Paradise: We meet DI Richard Poole – another curmudgeonly yet (I think) lovable and definitely smart character as he arrives on the scene already complaining the weather and his lost luggage. (Note: I think it’s a missed opportunity that they killed off this character instead of merely sending him back to London where he could have presided over a new spin-off series. Guys, what were you thinking? And here’s my top tip for the next incarnation of the show: stop sending out white senior officers (we’re over that now) and bring out a black guy or girl from London, who resents the insinuation he/she should embrace getting ‘back to his/her roots’, and allow the island to slowly work it’s charm on him/her. Also, have a white sergeant as support, who will always be assumed to be the senior officer…but you’ll have to do it in a light cheeky way – we don’t want to ruin the ambience of the series. And whatever you do don’t let Selwyn retire, we love Don Warrington. Just sayin’.)

The first series of Shetland.

The first series of Endeavour.

The first episode of Lewis. The way we meet Sergeant – now Inspector Lewis as he returns (again from the Caribbean!) and we are so anxious to find out what has happened in the intervening years since the end of Morse, and we yearn for him to find happiness once more. Plus, you know, great mystery at the sleep institute. Also, incidental music that is Muse’s Hysteria.

New stuff:

We’ve been enjoying Whistable Pearl (with the amazing Kerry Godliman in the lead role! Yes she acts!) based on Julie Wassmer’s books, and also featuring huge sexy hunk Howard Charles as the detective we hope/assume she will fall for. Which she pretty much already has.

And of course Madame Blanc starring Sally Lindsay who is also the brains behind the whole series and my husband’s secret (but I know all about it) crush. Also with Steve Edge (my secret crush – not sure if hubby knows…). You just hope they are going to get together. which they pretty much already are…

Oh yes, I read too…more on that another time!

***

Job vacancy: armchair sleuth required

We at LaughingAtLife.org (not a real company!) have a new part-time vacancy for the role of armchair sleuth.

About this role:

You must be ready, willing and able to deliver timely advice to all suspects and potential victims. (But not too timely. Whilst we agree that forewarned is forearmed, if you’re too good at your job, you may find the number of victims drops alarmingly and you are left with no one to investigate/suspect which will lead to everyone at LaughingAtLife.org moving into the genre of romance. Or maybe Fantasy. No one at LaughingAtLife.org wants that to happen.)

You should be highly experienced in delivering comments such as ‘I knew that was going to happen’ or ‘You could write this (insert offensive vocabulary here) stuff yourself!’

If you have fancied taking part in shows such as Gogglebox, this job could be for you!

Essential qualifications:

Eagle-eyed attention to detail.

Nerves of steel.

Ability to pick locks with a hair pin or safety pin. Or a lock-pick.

Suspicious of everyone and everything.

Able to sniff out spurious motives and supply educated guesswork.

Possess own monocle or pince-nez or (misplaced) reading glasses.

Should be able to demonstrate a long-established habit of putting your fingertips together in a thoughtful manner before speaking.

You must have a luxurious moustache which you continually fondle or trim or dye a suspiciously dark colour. This role is open to all genders.

Or, failing the moustache, you may have a knitting fetish, and take knitting everywhere with you so that you are ready at a moment’s notice to disarm suspects with your apparent inoffensiveness and the sense of calmness that you radiate.

Must be able to recall a long series of villagey anecdotes you can crowbar into any conversation.

Must know the difference between a colonel and a major. Must equally be conversant with the differences between life-peers and the other sort, whatever they are.

Must be able to shake your head sorrowfully from time to time and say ‘The world is a very wicked place’ or make some quote about the fallibility of mankind.

Additional desirable qualifications:

Knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible useful.

Must not be liable to scream or faint when confronted with a gory scene.

Encyclopaedic knowledge of deadly fungi and herbs could come in handy.

Must be able to dip fingertip in any powdery drug and taste it without dying and also must be able to identify said drug.

Salary:

No salary, just the reward of knowing you did your best, and served your country. Or, failing that, completed at least one matinee jacket for the new baby of a friend of a friend.

Perks:

No perks. There is no holiday allowance, as every time you go on holiday, someone will do something stupid and you will find yourself ‘embroiled’ in a new murder case. Even if you have a staycation, the grumpy colonel in the Old Manor House will upset someone who will then disguise themselves as a vicar and whack the colonel over the head 47 times with a fire-iron. You will of course realise that this was almost inevitable given the colonel’s manner, and also it will be just what happened with Mrs Castle’s little boy in Northampton when he skived off school that day.

There is no sick pay, apart from the satisfaction that your last days will be repackaged and sold as ‘Mr X’s, Ms Y’s or Mrs Z’s Final Cases’ with a picture of the actor who plays your role on the front cover.

How to Apply:

Seriously?

***

Notebooks as far as the eye can see…

Well, maybe not quite that many, but I certainly have a large number of them!

Like many people I have something of a notebook fetish. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never (yet) met anyone in a dark alley who has glanced all around, and on me delivering the correct password (‘Narrow feint!’) then proceeded to open their raincoat to reveal notebooks in rows and rows of pockets, but let’s just say we can’t rule it out.

Not that I buy the super expensive ones with the magnetic closure or the little extra pockets at the front and back for – what? I can only imagine it’s more notes??? No, my notebooks are of the strictly practical and affordable type, that way I don’t feel bad for writing line after line of ‘What on earth am I going to write?’ or ‘Day 27: still haven’t written anything’. I am easily intimidated by superior quality notebooks, so I am content with Pukka Pads and Notemakers: good solid notebooks that won’t let you down.

We’ve had a massive clear-out at home recently – in fact we’ve had one large and two small skips outside to take away all our old junk that we’ve hoarded in the loft, the

shed, the various rooms of the house, and bizarrely, in the storage unit under the bed.

You know, ‘decluttering’ can be so addictive, you can end up by throwing out all sorts of stuff you had no intention of getting rid of. But the therapeutic effect of space clearing is so good you just can’t help yourself. I did however, hold on to a small box of old notebooks, because these are full of ‘amazing’ ideas and notes about forensic crime scenes, or how bodies decompose or how to clean up lots of blood that I felt I had to hold on to these ‘just in case’.

Yes, before you ask, I do still have my husband. He did not go in the skip. Neither did any of his toys tools/hobby equipment.

I used to have over 1,000 books in my office–which is really the little boxroom bedroom of our house. They lived on four bookcases. And the floor. And on all the little gaps between the shelves. And on the window sill. And the desk… Now, I only have two bookcases, and after one week, there are still no books on the floor. See, I can be organised! I’m not Marie-Kondo-organised, but let’s just say if you wanted to borrow a copy of A A Milne’s Chloe Marr, it would only take me half an hour of searching the shelves of my two bookcases before I remembered it had gone in the skip because the mould on it triggered my asthma, and all the middle pages were brown and falling out. Yep, it was a really old, falling-to-pieces copy. (Maybe a good excuse to by a new copy?)

(note to self: remember I still haven’t put books in alphabetical order by author’s surname – which is why it takes me half an hour to figure out I haven’t got something particular.)

Small, adorable and not at all annoying quirks of mine: I hate it when I have to divide books by the same author onto separate shelves. Sigh. If only all my Agatha Christie’s could budge up a bit to make room for the four books that won’t fit. It’s like splitting up a family.

Useful and interesting things I recently found in my old notebooks:

Great ideas for band names:

Rumble Bucket or maybe Rumble Pumpkin. I feel their repertoire would be mainly folk songs and the odd medley of Lonnie Donegan songs.

Jamzz – boy band from Nottingham

BizR – boy band from Matlock

Density’s Angels – girl band from Belper

Angel’s Dancities – girl band from Stoke on Trent

Great book titles:

Octavia Splendid and the… (insert name of weird item here) (sounds like a 1950s school story!) ( Or Harry Potter fan fic) (Would also make a great pen name if I was bold enough to go for it!)

A Gripping Madness

Strictly something: Strictly Confidential; Strictly Between Us, Strictly Business, Strictly Prohibited. (But these sound more like erotica titles than mysteries…)

Great pen names to try:

Marjorie Maynard ( I have a feeling she’d write about her time as a nurse during WWII)

Kym Spiers (gender neutral term, I bet she/he/they write fantasy)

Michael P Maynard (Marjorie’s brother, writes westerns but he’s a well-to-do Brit who’s never even been on a horse)

Edvard Spein – def writes Scandi-noir with cringe-inducing sex scenes.

Haralddottirs Dottirsdottir – writes Scandi-noir with no sex scenes, but lots of waves crashing onto beaches and tons of geysers erupting.

There have been some advantages to all this decluttering:

  1. WeBuyBooks sent me some money for the books they agreed to buy from me. Thanks guys!
  2. I now have actual space on my desk, there is room for me to sit there and do work!!!!
  3. I now have an excuse to reclutter.
  4. I feel so much happier now I can see the floor again and remind myself that the carpet is still that yucky beige colour.
  5. There are now only 27 spiders in my office instead of the 346 there originally. Less competition = more flies for everyone.
  6. I can reach the window. This will probably lead to the arrival of more spiders.

Marie Kondo might not be proud of me, but at least she’d have to admit I gave it my best!

But I still prefer to sit in a caff and stuff my face whilst pretending to write

***

Autumn brings renewal

I know I say this every year, but for me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings. I get quite excited about the approach of autumn and winter. Maybe it’s the cuddly jumpers, I don’t know.

It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-six years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!

New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.

I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of long print frocks, ladies in beads, feathers in their hair, tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, croquet. I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the doors open to let out the soft lamplight and the music from the gramophone. The music is softened by distance and the soft evening breeze ruffles hair.

I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’

I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?

I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.

I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, I’m lost in my thoughts. I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I see images in my mind, people, objects, places, and weave stories about these imaginary characters.

I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. What should he do? Has the time for action finally arrived?

I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.

I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder of his white cotton shirt. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?

If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.

‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.

Autumn – not for sleeping but for creating anew.

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Finding inspiration – coming soon to a cafe near you!

I often talk about sitting in cafes, notebook and pen in front of me, along with a cappuccino and – ooh, naughty – a bit of cake. It’s my favourite thing.

Yes, I know we have coffee at home. And even – occasionally, cake, or I could buy a supermarket cake and eat a slice at home for a fraction of the cost of a cafe. Or, I could bake a cake of my very own – it could be any size, shape or colour. I could have any flavour I like, and it could be a tray-bake, a torte, a good solid fruit cake with cherries on top, a long sugary loaf oozing with bananas or dates. It could be a sponge with ganache or cream or even just jam in the middle. It could have nuts on the top, or frosting, or strawberries in a creamy heap.

There are just two problems with that: 1. I’m a terrible cook. And 2, that wouldn’t inspire me to write. Which is, after all, the whole point of this exercise.

I love to go to cafes with my family, singly or en masse. But those are occasions for talking and laughing, not times for me to be alone with my thoughts. And as we know, ‘You can’t write if you’re never alone.’ (It was Winifred Watson who said that. She was a very successful author in the 1930s who gave up writing once she married and had children. her book Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day was made into a film starring Ciaran Hinds and Frances McDormand and I highly recommend it.)

Also, I love people-watching. Sitting in a cafe is a bit like sitting in a theatre, with the play going on around you. For around £6 or £8 you can get a lovely piece of cake, a gorgeous big cup of frothy coffee (and not have to wash up the dishes afterwards) and a stage-side seat to LIFE. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of paper and a couple of spare pens.

TIP: Never, ever tap people on the arm, ask them to repeat what they’ve just said so you have more time to write it down, don’t ask them how to spell their auntie’s dog’s name, and never, ever say out loud, ‘Wow, he’s a moron, you should dump him’ or ‘How dare she say that to you!’ or that kind of thing. People don’t mind you watching them discreetly, just don’t make it too obvious.

I’m often asked where I get my ideas. But inspiration comes not from one, but from many different places. It’s more that ideas come looking for me than I go looking for them. I’m incredibly nosy about other people, and I am an incurable people-watcher. This fuels my imagination and leads me to ask myself questions, develop scenarios until… ooh, look, a chapter from a story!

I don’t advocate, as a writing tutor in Brisbane once told a group of creative writing students, that you should actually follow people to get ideas for your story or to experience what it’s like to ‘shadow’ someone a la detective fiction. BUT I must admit I do covertly eavesdrop and watch people, especially in a coffee-shop situation. I don’t actually record conversations or film people, though it is SOOOO tempting.

Tip: If you sit in a cafe or restaurant with your notebook open in front of you and your pen tapping on your chin as you ponder, I guarantee staff will panic-tidy the whole area near you, smile and ask if you’re well, and possibly ask if there’s anything else they can get you – even in self-service cafes. At first I didn’t know why that was, now I’ve realised it’s because they think I am a food critic! Once I made the mistake of saying that I was a writer, and got a look that was half eye-roll and half disgusted sneer. They left me alone immediately.

And so that’s why I go to cafes and eat cake. What’s your excuse?

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Life Springs Ever Green

I’ve been thinking about colour(s).

There’s a surprisingly large amount of theory about colour. Colours have meanings, they create feelings and emotions in us. So much so, you can have colour therapy, where you sit in a room (white I assume, or maybe completely dark) and they bombard you with light in the colour you require to produce the effect needed. I quite like that idea. Maybe I’ll try it sometime.

Picasso had his Blue Period, then his Rose Period, where these colours dominated his work in a range of hues.

I don’t know if other artists, or writers, have times of colour. I see it in my life from time to time, a particular colour seems to draw me, or mean more, or stand out or in some way influence me. This year my colour is green.

When I was a teenager, wanting to wear teenager-black all the time, my mother nagged me out of it. She associated the colour black with depression, grief and mourning, with oppression and poverty. So I can understand why she hated to see me swathed neck to ankle in black. But it’s a colour people–especially teenagers–wear when they are still trying to find their identity, or when they are part of a crowd of others who all wear black, it ‘goes’ with that mind-set of searching earnestness.

And of course we always say black is a slimming colour, and if you are a larger lady like me, you’ll find huge chunks of a retailer’s range of clothes are only available in black. It’s also the colour of formality so you find loads of people wearing black in offices, you see everywhere the ladies in their black trousers with a shirt or jumper or a jacket and slinky top. I used ot have a ton of black ‘work’ trousers. I think it’s also a practical colour, again in clothes, seeming to show the passage of time less noticeably than other colours and going with pretty much everything, and suiting pretty much every complexion.

Red is the colour of guts and courage, of anger, of ‘Stop!’ and ‘Attention’. Red used to be associated with masculinity, no doubt due to its use in military uniforms, of blood, of bravery. For this reason (I’m talking about 120 years ago) pink was the accepted normal colour for baby boys as a kind of watered down red suitable for little men. Yep. Pink was for boys, blue was for girls.

Why? Well as we all know females are at constant risk of madness and hysteria due to their female body parts, and therefore have to be swathed in blue from earliest babyhood to calm them down. Blue is a calming colour!

I think it was a member of the royal household around the 1910s who first defied convention and clothes her daughters in pink – and thus a new convention was born. Now, as soon as we see a baby in pink, we know it’s a little girl.

I can remember when my daughter was very small, and clothed (partially at least) in pink, an elderly lady said to me ‘what a beautiful baby, what’s his name?’ And I smiled and replied, all the while thinking silently to myself, ‘mad old bat, clearly she’s a girl, look at all the pink!’

Yellow is another colour I love, but depending on the shade, doesn’t always suit me. Yellow is believed to promote higher thinking, creativity, reasoning and logic. It’s also a happy uplifting colour, as we know when we get a lift every time we catch sight of a patch of daffodils after the dreariness of winter.

For a long time, I’ve been wearing black, grey and blue (jeans mainly), with white or occasionally burgundy accents.

but for the last few weeks, I’ve been craving green. I’ve dusted off my existing green tee-shirt, and bought another one. And I’m enjoying looking at greenery in pictures. I’m not looking at beach scenes (blue & sort of sandy brown), it’s the green of leaves and grass etc that appeals ot me. I get a kind of little ‘bong’ in my chest when I see them (Remember Lovejoy and the sensation he used to get in his chest when he ‘divvied’ a true antique?)

So I’m giving in to my green period – a time of rebirth, perhaps, or of tranquil moments, rest and recovery. or a time of peace and a return to nature? Who knows? I just know that this is what is feeding my soul at the moment.

Of course green is also the colour of jealousy – the ‘green-ey’d monster’ of Shakespeare’s Othello. Or of inexperience and innocence – also Shakespeare, (Anthony and Cleopatra)  ‘My salad days. When I was green in Judgement.’

But I’m ignoring that side, I don’t think I’m particularly a jealous person. And I’m too old to be inexperienced, although I love to learn new things. So I’ll just embrace the restorative and peaceful nature of Green.  Have you found the colour that fills you with joy?

Here are a few quotations about ‘green’:

Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.

Pedro Calderon de la Barca (17th century Spanish dramatist)

 

The garden of love is green without limit and yields many fruits other than sorrow or joy. Love is beyond either condition: without spring, without autumn, it is always fresh.’

Rumi (Persian poet from 13th century)

 

‘When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy, And the dimpling stream runs laughing by; When the air does laugh with our merry wit, And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.’

William Blake (UK Poet/Artist 1700s-1800s)

 

‘All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German author/poet 1700s-1800s)

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Doors of the imagination

Believe it or not, behind that silk-covered chair is a silk-covered door which houses a stunning ‘secret’ bathroom built specially for King George V in 1925, and never used by him, because his visit was cancelled.

When is a door not a door?

Ok I know we all know that old joke. But when I was walking around a beautiful country house recently, I was struck (not literally) by all the different styles of door, and I thought about what they could mean.

 

(I should just quickly add that I was completely convinced I’d written a previous blog post about doors/portals, but after wasting half an hour trying to find it, I’m now convinced it must have been a dream…???)

A rather scary back door at Calke Abbey. For the use of staff, obvs, no posh people here.

Doors. The thing is, a door is an everyday piece of equipment, if I can put it like that, and yet it contains the power to take us from one place, from the present, to a different place, the future. We know that when we open a door, we can move from one space to another.  Sometimes it’s as if we were moving into another world.  In fantasy literature, doors are seen as portals or magical spaces of transition.

But even in a country house, the door takes us from one sphere of life to a completely different one, say, from the sumptuous drawing room into a back hallway used purely for the convenience of staff, or from a dusty, intriguing library out into a beautiful garden.

Sometimes a door won’t open because it’s not a real door. This one is just to make the room appear symmetrical, and doesn’t open, as it’s just a bit of wood stuck onto a solid wall.

Doors are ordinary, and yet special. In books, or TV shows, or films etc, doors have the power to transform our lives purely because they exist. All the time you and I are on this side of the door, and the door is closed, we can’t be absolutely certain what we will find if we open the door. It might be that we will find dinner is ready and on the table, or we might find a fairytale castle perched on a precarious mountain-top.  A bit like Schrodinger’s Cat, we can’t be sure until we open the door which of the alternatives are actually before us.

A beautiful curved door to fit a curved wall. This is at Kedleston Hall.

What if we can’t even open the door?

What if we find something unexpected, even unwelcome, on the other side of the door?

We won’t know until we open it. And by then, it could be too late.

In real life, we will open the door and find the washing machine has finished our towels, but in literature, in the country of our imagination, we could be anywhere.

 

Sometimes doors show you not just the next room, but the one after that and the one after that. You are looking through them all at once as if they are a series of views, of points of interest on a tour.

So literature has a lot to tell us about doors, it seems. I’ve only shared a small number of door-related quotes here, if you are desperate, I’m sure you will find more. Or maybe you’ll catch yourself watching a little more closely as the characters in your current reading material or viewing material each have their entrances and their exits, and move on the stage of your imagination. Like me you might be struck by just how often a character moves through a door and ‘something’ happens.

And lastly, I hope you won’t mind me adding my own work into this illustrious company:

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