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?

***

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:

***

Rereading old work: the critical self

Gary Cooper in a gloomy mood ever since reading his first novel again after ten years.

I read a blog post elsewhere this week, in which a writer talked about rereading a book he had written and published years earlier, and his reaction to it. That set me thinking.

How do I react to reading my own work after a break?

I think it’s a bit like looking at baby photos of yourself, or making a special cake or a meal for a particular occasion. Or indeed whenever any of us do anything creative or out of the norm. Maybe you’re not like me, but I know a lot of people are just like me: a bit inclined to only see their faults, to see the wonky bits, the bits that had to be patched up at the last minute, the crooked hem of the new dress or the edge where the cake got stuck in the tin and you had to put a bit extra icing on there to disguise it. We tend to be overly self-critical, which is sometimes a good thing: we strive that little bit harder to improve and to do well, but on the other hand, it makes it hard to feel proud of our achievements or to accept praise from others.

When I read things I wrote years ago, I feel quite uncomfortable. I am sometimes pleasantly surprised and think, ‘ah, this isn’t as bad as I expected’, but there are definitely times when I groan to myself and wonder what on earth I was thinking. I cringe at some of the laboured metaphors, the overly descriptive passages and my almost fanatical use of The Three: I tend to group my descriptions in threes. In fact if you browse, read or peruse any of my works, writings or output, you will definitely, absolutely, surely notice, observe and see that a lot of what I write is grouped into threes! Who knew?

I’ll just quickly fix this bit. Oh, and this bit. Oh now that bit doesn’t work, oh well, I’ll just…

Well, I did for one, although not until someone pointed it out to me. I try to weed some of them out, unless I am deliberately emphasising a point, and keep them to a minimum. But years ago… No, they are there in all their triplicated glory.

As is my terrible grammar – I just never really know, what, to do with those, commas,.

I used adverbs liberally too (haha, like that!) but I’m not quite so obsessive about those. I don’t mind the odd one, whereas many authors absolutely scour their pages and destroy them without mercy. I like the odd adverb. Sometimes an active verb can be a bit too much, especially if the writer uses loads of them. I’d rather read ‘she said hastily’ than ‘she gabbled’ or ‘rattled’.

Stop authorsplaining and let me read your damn book!

What I don’t like is a ton of adjectives. You know when you read something like, ‘The old sprawling ramshackle creeper-covered house had a battered and pitted, badly-fitting oak door and four tiny grimy windows that peeped out from beneath an elderly ragged thatched roof in much need of repair.’ Just tell me it’s an old house in poor repair, I can furnish the rest from my own imagination. I just haven’t got the energy to read through tons of adjectives. the same with character descriptions or the characters’ clothes. I don’t really care if their shoes are hand-made in Italy from the finest, most supple leather and stitched by angels from their own hair. Just tell me they cost a fortune, I’ll get it.

It needs a bit of work…

The other problem with old work is that it can have you itching to reach for a pen and begin ‘improving’ or ‘correcting’ it. But is that a good idea?

One of the advantages of self-publishing is that you can tweak your books if you need to, with little disruption to the reading public, to stock availability and relatively negligible damage to your finances. Not so the trad-pubbed, of course. There a revision might cost a packet both in cash terms and in terms of reprinting, delays, supply hiccups etc, and will only be undertaken if absolutely necessary. But an Indie book is not too difficult to fix if there are issues with it that are likely to lead to poor reviews, which might have a knock-on effect on sales.

You can’t go through history deleting all the anoraks and t-bar sandals. Sadly.

So I don’t think it’s a problem if you correct an annoying typo or an inconsistency that is mentioned a few times in reviews. That’s just courtesy. But if you give into the urge to revise, it can be quite hard to stop tinkering, and then before you know it you’ve changed the book so much it could be a whole new project, or you can actually break it, leaving gaping plot holes and chapters that no longer hang together.

I think when it comes down to it, with earlier work, you just have to accept it for what and how it is, like your wonky teeth in that old photo. Acceptance is not always easy, and to leave your old book alone is sometimes the hardest decision to make.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here it is:

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What do you want, William?’

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

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

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

‘Certainly madam, and for the gentleman?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What a bloody mess.’

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

‘Yes.’ She didn’t dare look at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you absolutely certain about Gervase?’

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

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

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

***

Interview with Debaleena Mukherjee, poet and writer of observational life pieces

This week I’d like to welcome Debaleena Mukherjee to my blog.

Debaleena and I go way back. We’ve never met (who knows, maybe one day?) but have been friends for years. We first met online through a shared love of murder mysteries. Talking about books led to talking about family, work and cake. The important things in life! Debaleena has also been a staunch supporter of my writing, and I am proud now to be able to do the same. Debaleena writes poetry, the first volume of which was published a few months ago by Blue Rose Publishers.

Debaleena, welcome. It’s amazing to have this conversation with you! Congratulations on publishing your first book of poems, I’m sure there will be many more. I wasn’t entirely surprised when you announced the book was coming out – you’ve always shared such lively and passionate posts on Facebook and Instagram. Your powers of description are so vivid that I often feel as if I’m there with you. I particularly love your posts about the various festivals you celebrate.

But let’s move on. My first question is, What do you write?

I write poems; and I am now experimenting with short stories. It started with Facebook posts, Book Club reviews: that’s how we met, remember! I would write little notes about my day; like little letters to myself . Then I translated a Bengali poem for someone very close. And I could do it, although I’d been very hesitant and nervous about poetry. Poetry has always been “the impossible dream”. After that little translation, I got a bit braver. One night I started out very very tentatively. And I saw I could do it: very rough and cobbled together; but I could feel my thoughts in my words. My writing is just as  the title suggests – Ink smudged dreams: by the reading light. All written in the later hours of the night when I would drowse, browse and write. They are not about any coherent thoughts or convictions. They are more of inarticulate thoughts, emotions: ramblings you could say. So the poems were written.

There is a strong observational thread in your writing, so lovingly shared, that marks you out as a great writer. Question two, What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?

I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer; the cobwebs in my mind have never been swept away.  As a child I remember, I would  sit quietly for hours together, playing in my head. Now this head game was very interesting. I would imagine different scenarios- people, families, foreign countries I’d seen in photographs. I would spin stories in my head about people and places. Then I would imagine myself in castles and mansions. But it all had to be happy. This head game continued and I loved it. Later I would look at houses ; especially old houses; distant windows, silhouettes of people through the windows and concoct stories about their daily lives.

I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. Before I learnt to read, I would  love looking at illustrated books, magazines. I remember I had a book on dolls and I would look at it all day long. Then, once I learnt my ABC: I found the Ladybird series of fairy tales. Let me tell you the enchantment still remains as fresh as ever. Those covers! My favourite was The Beauty and The Beast. That started my life long enchantment with fairy tales. By the time I was ten, the Enid Blyton world became my world. I simply lived in those books. They were like a perpetual picnic life for me. Of course Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, school stories, they kept appearing in my life, and my head was a lovely place to visit. Then of course Mr. Rochester entered my life when I was twelve or thirteen – all ready to fall in love. By fifteen I got to know Mr. Darcy, whom – I know you’ll be shocked – I did not love. Mr. Knightley was my hero! Then  came Charlotte Bronte’s books- Shirley, Villette. And Louisa May Alcott. I used to imagine myself as Jo. We all do. I decided that Professor Bhaer would be my love for life. Until I read about some other character the next day, that is! Isn’t it delightful: to fall in love with so many heroes all at once! And I have a macabre taste for horror. So I wallowed in  gruesome murder mysteries. Then I was given an Agatha Christie book: The Man in the Brown Suit. After that there was no looking back. Christie led me to Victoria Holt, Bram Stoker, Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. As well as a wide range of Bengali literature of all genres. I am also a fan of romantic fiction, esp the mean and moody hunks that are Mills and Boon heroes! 

We read very similar things as children and young people, it seems, I was into all those books too. I’ve already touched on this next question a bit, but, next question, do you believe your culture influences your writing, and if so, how?

Oh yes! My culture has a profound influence on my writing, as you can see in my poems. They are imbued with a sense of belonging to my land and my people in every which way. This is more pronounced in the sections in my book, The Prayer and Hymn to the Earth. I am writing about my way of life. I realised that I’ve chosen colours, comparisons, ambience that are totally inherent to my culture. I’ve grown up reading our mythological stories, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as my parent tongue-Bengali literature- folk tales, fairy stories, poems. For me Gitanjali by Tagore is the ultimate prayer book.

I think culture can often be an almost hidden extra character in our writing. But looking ahead, what can we look forward to in the future from you?

Now that my mind block is gone, and I’ve tested the waters, I have become quite adventurous. Poems definitely. I’ve discovered this about myself that as I grow older, poetry grows more appealing. I find that I now can interpret life and emotions better through poetry. It is an instinctive response.

Like I told you – short stories. I am trying my hand at those. It’s very challenging but extremely interesting. And intriguing. Writing in someone else’s skin, creating another individual, different points of view: I find it extremely fascinating. I have to construct a short story, not just pour it out. So it is a constant process of study too. I have to keep going back to little research, references to literary devices, unity of time, place and action; and above all keep a firm track of all the threads.

Oh short stories are the slippery slope to novels! That’s exciting news for us! We’ve talked a bit about the books that influenced you, but who are your favourite authors? Do you have certain favourite books you return to again and again?

I am glad you asked “authors” and not “author”? You know we cannot have just one favourite. Ever. I of course love  re reading the classics like Jane Eyre, Emma, the Little Women series, Rose in Bloom. My comfort and enchantment lies in Mary Stewart’s books. I read them whenever I need a holiday of the heart. Elizabeth Peters is another favourite. I started reading Georgette Heyer pretty late in life, but I find her delightful. What shall I say about Patricia Wentworth! I adore Miss Silver and I still pine for Frank Abbot. One author who is a verbal illumination is Eva Ibbotson. I find her books poetic prose. I simply love medieval mysteries, and I keep discovering authors in this genre. Even more, I like the thrillers based on archaeological mysteries, religious relics, and mythological mysteries. And now: there’s Dottie Manderson. I am loving this return to the cozy mystery genre, very exciting and warmly familiar. Like I said, and I know you too agree: that one cannot have just one favourite.

Absolutely – and I know that like mine, your to-be-read pile is very substantial! What do you do when you are not writing or reading?

I am a homemaker. And not a very efficient one at that please! But I try. I do try! I cook. I cook traditional meals every day. Very often there are kitchen secrets that I dare not share. Of splattered oil, exploding blender. But yes, I prepare our Indian, especially Bengali cuisine ( that sounds so much more impressive than “food”). I enjoy baking, more so because I eat most of the cake myself. Music! That is my soul balm. I love to listen to oldies goldies: English, Hindi and Bengali. Instrumentals are my ‘go to’ solace when I am tired of words. And as I’ve been told “I have the spirit of enquiry”. Do you think it’s a polite way of saying I am nosy? I love people watching. My best pastime is to sit in a cafe and watch the world go by. As I watch people, I make stories about the passerby in my head. Another thing is that I haunt bookstores; especially old books, pre-loved books. All the obscure, dusty corners: I am very good at finding treasures there. Long drives with music in the car. I sit absolutely silent in the car and I soak up the peace and the purr of the car.

I’ve often heard you talking about the meals you prepare – your descriptions make the mouth water. But I remember that you used to be a teacher. How has that inspired you or helped you with your writing?

It gave me insight. That’s the crux of my teaching experience. I’ve learnt to probe into people’s minds and see stories there. Teaching young teenagers and college students made me more receptive and absolutely non- judgmental. That helps  when I write. I learnt from students and colleagues, that as a teacher I am not dealing with folders that you open at 9.am and shut at 5 pm. Everyday I found something new in my work. And that influenced my writing . Most of all it heightened my sense of humour as well as the perception of the Absurd in life. Not to forget teaching made me quite tech savvy about which I love preening and boasting.

Debaleena, it’s been an absolute delight and I’d love to talk more about these things. In the meanwhile, where can readers find your book?

My book: ‘Ink-Smudged Dreams: by the Reading Light is available as an eBook from Google Play, or from BlueRose Publishers online store, or for those readers living in India, from Amazon India and Flipkart . 

Thank you so much Caron for this wonderful and warm interaction. And for giving me this opportunity to talk to you. You’ve always been an inspiration. You encouraged me all the way. But I still envy you Dottie. Thanks so much for helping me reach out to readers with my Ink- Smudged Dreams: by the Reading Light. They’re just that- dreams, that as I penned down, the ink was not candid and clear; but smudged in places with tears, and vivid in places with smiles.

Thank You.

Debaleena, my pleasure xx

ABOUT  DEBALEENA  MUKHERJEE

Debaleena is a homemaker, who has also been a teacher and college lecturer over the course of years. She grew up in Jamshedpur and did her schooling at Sacred Heart Convent School,Jamshedpur, and Rajendra Vidyalaya, Jamshedpur. She has done her Masters and M.Phil in English Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata.She lives with her husband in Bangalore, and she  has a twenty four year old daughter. Reading is Debaleena’s way of life. That’s what she is always doing. She enjoys the moonlight and roses kind of music. She loves travelling to places from the pages of history text books. Haunting bookstores is her pastime. She loves going on shopping expeditions for shoes, bags, and bling.  Observing people as they go about their lives, fascinates her. At the end of the day she needs her recliner, her books, and coffee. With some cake.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Ink-Smudged Dreams: by the Reading Light is a collection of poems. Poems that reflect the many facets of my life: maybe any woman’s life. Certain moments, fleeting experiences, lasting impressions, unknown anxieties, silly apprehensions, humble realisations, intense joys and every hurt felt; these are the poems’ moods . And above all a growing perception that life is not about tomorrow: it is about today. But all these are not my consciously addressed ideas. Each day, they have gently enfolded me. Then in the quiet of the night, I would sit down and pour my heart out on paper. Drowsy, blurred, and very close to my heart. These are those ink-smudged dreams by the reading light. 

You can find Debaleena on Facebook as Debaleena Mukherjee from Bangalore, and on Instagram as m.debaleena

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Persistence is futile – I mean – essential

 

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

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

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

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

Persistence:

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

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

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

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

Gillian Anderson

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The colour of numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think more scientists should be penguins.

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

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

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

what is this woman even on????

***

March: an odd time of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

An author interview with Vonnie Winslow Crist

This week I have the honour of interviewing an author who is new to me but who recently made my acquaintance, and so I am pleased to be able to share  some insights into this lady’s work, and hopefully readers will spread the word and rush to buy her books. Vonnie Winslow Crist, a warm welcome, and let’s dive straight in.

Q1. What kind of books do you write?

I write story collections, novels, children’s books, and poetry collections. What my books have in common, is almost everything I write is based on folklore, fairy tales, myths, or legends. Plus, everything I write, even when it’s written with adults in mind, is Young Adult friendly.

Q2. What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?

I taught myself to read at age 3 using old, 12-page fairy tale booklets published in the 1930s by Platt & Munk Co. The illustrations were lovely and the stories were simplified, though not simple. On the back page, there was a short poem which summarized the tale. I think those booklets influenced me to become first an illustrator, next a poet, and finally a fiction writer. I quickly graduated to all sorts of other books. Early favourites were the My Father’s Dragon middle grade series by Ruth Stiles Gannett and The Borrowers by Mary Norton.

I loved the Borrowers books when I was a child, and I think I still have a copy or two somewhere… Moving on, 

Q3. What are you working on at the moment?

I’m promoting my latest story collection, Beneath Raven’s Wing. Here’s a link to a free story, “Lady Raven,” which is included in the book: FS January (flipbuilder.com) I’m scrambling to finish a novel before I need to work through the editing process of my next story collection, Dragon Rain. Plus, I’m scribbling a few stories for anthologies I’d like to be a part of.

“Raven holds the secrets of night

beneath her wings,

guards that knowledge

with claw and blood.”

—Vonnie Winslow Crist, River of Stars

Q4. What can we look forward to in the future from you?

Lots of short stories appearing in various speculative anthologies, a collection of dragon stories, a collection of horse stories, several non-fiction books, and another novel or two. I try to keep busy!

And how!

Q5. What writing groups do you belong to and why?

I’m a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, National League of American Pen Women, and a couple of other groups. Each of these groups requires professional sales for membership, and they have resources for their members which save time when looking for markets, writing advice, and problem solving. But the most important thing they offer is an opportunity to network with other writers at a similar stage in their writing careers. Writing is a lonely business. It’s nice to be able to interact with others going through the same ups and downs.

Absolutely. I think writers need input and support from others in the same field, as you say, it can be a lonely business.

Q6. Who are your favourite authors?

JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, George RR Martin, Andre Norton, Deborah Harkness, Suzanne Collins, Kristin Cashore, Marissa Meyer, Sharyn McCrumb… (this list could go on).

Q7. What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

I enjoy sewing (I cut, stitched, then donated over 600 masks to eldercare & school facilities this past year), gardening, knitting, crocheting, embroidering, baking, sketching & painting, and travelling.

Wow you really are creative! I’m so in awe of your productivity. I mainly plan to do creative projects then forget about it.

Q8. What is your writing process?

Something inspires me. Then, I come up with a story idea and think about it. Often in the beginning stages, I’ll do some research on the science, geography, folklore, etc. that inspired me. By the time I sit down to write, the story has come together in my mind. The writing part is easy, because I’m just putting to paper a tale I’ve already written in my imagination.

Q9. How hard is it to keep writing in these strange times?

Life presents obstacles for writers all of the time. I decided the covid-19 pandemic was one of 2020’s obstacles, and I wouldn’t let it stop me from writing. I used anthology submission calls as inspiration. If a long story seemed too big a hill to climb, I wrote poems or drabbles. (A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words, not counting title and byline). When writing something new seemed overwhelming, I revised older work. When writing anything seemed difficult, I organized my stories (both published and unpublished) into several thematic collections and sent those off to publishers. That is how my story collection, Beneath Raven’s Wing, came to be published January 30, 2021 by Fae Corps Publishing. It’s also why a different publisher has offered to publish Dragon Rain.

Q10. What single piece of advice do you wish someone had given you 30 years ago?

Stay focused and persist!

I completely agree. If I could talk to my 30-years younger self I would say, don’t procrastinate, don’t doubt yourself, just get on with it!

Q11. I have many old favourites that I read over and over again. What books do you regularly reread?

See Q6 for my list of favourite authors. Most of what I re-read was written by them.

Q10. lastly, before we say goodbye, where can readers find you and your work?

Website

Amazon Author Page

Facebook  

Blog

Twitter

Buy Link for Beneath Raven’s Wing

Thank you, Caron, for hosting me. It was fun to answer your questions. I hope your readers enjoyed the interview and will take a look at the free story.

You’re so welcome, and thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, and I’m sure you’re going to find many new readers for your wonderful work.

Vonnie Winslow Crist is author of Beneath Raven’s Wing, The Enchanted Dagger, Owl Light, The Greener Forest, Murder on Marawa Prime, and other award-winning books. A member of SFWA and HWA, her writing appears in publications in Australia, Japan, India, Pakistan, Italy, Spain, Germany, Finland, Canada, the UK, and USA. Believing the world is still filled with mystery, magic, and miracles, Vonnie strives to celebrate the power of myth in her writing.

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Everyday life in the 1930s – part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Cooper, irresistibly ‘cool’.

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

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

***