Equinox

I was the chieftain in the settlement then.

A killing winter it had been and a grasping one, reaching with frost crackling fingers to catch the young ones and the old ones and freeze the yet unknown ones in the womb. 

Not a child under three years old survived that winter. And that winter dragged and bore down on the land so that at the turning of the year, when night balances day, the signs of spring were few, and those often rimed with frost.

Since the loss of our daughter, my wife had turned me only for warmth. The long dried tears had cut her deeper than any knife and severed, it seemed, the affection between us. 

‘No,’ she’s say. ‘I couldn’t bear to catch with child again only to lose it.’

In vain I said that it was not to make a child that I wanted her, that I loved her and in that release we might find comfort together and heal, even though we couldn’t speak of the empty place under the covers where our little girl had once lain or the one under her heart where our son should had found haven. 

But she would not agree and I am not a man who would not force his wife. 

So there we lay, night after shortening night. And though the finest blade could not have separated us as we lay close for warmth, the longest bridge could not have spanned the gap between our spirits. And in the end as the nights grew a little warmer, I stopped turning towards her and dreamed of the days when we’d made love with all consuming passion and joy. And her face in my dreams stopped looking like hers and became wondrously strange and I tried to catch her but she was as elusive as a patch of light on the river wave and my longing burned.

And in the day, my wife was somehow even further away. When she’d finished listlessly grinding what little grain we had, or made my food, she’d curl back into the bed, her back turned to me, her face to the wall of the round house, curled like a babe in the womb, or a corpse in its grave.

Then when it came to the turning of the year, someone forgot to do what needed to be done, just as they had at Winter solstice. And though the winter had taken the old man who used to guard the gateway facing the stones had died, no one thought to find another to take his place.

On that day when promise of spring whispered in the chilly sunshine, the things that should have been done were left undone. The fires were not stirred up to ensure that fiery smoke filled the holes in our houses’ roofs, doors were left open, thresholds welcomed.

That day, I took my bow and went hunting alone. And in the woods, I looked into the mossy stone circle and saw nothing and no one and turned away, then turned back to see the woman from my dreams there, sitting astride a beautiful horse. And I knew that woman as if I’d known her my whole life. 

Her hair was as dark and rich as Midwinter night and yet shimmered like water in the full sun, it flowed down her back as far as her waist, in thick curls and her waist was slim and her breasts were high under her linen dress. Her face was…. I can not describe it. Whenever I looked at her eyes I found mine straying to consider the angle of her cheekbones and then the berry fullness of her mouth.

She slipped from her horse, the horse whose hooves I had not heard. It was sixteen hands at least that horse, and stood tossing its mane at her side, standing without bridle or saddle, as loyal as a dog yet as independent as a cat. Powerful yet slender, all its strength a potential in the muscles shifting under the chestnut skin. 

Will you help me? said the woman. Or I thought she said. I knew her so well that I knew what she was thinking. 

‘What ails you lady?’ I made to step in towards her. 

May I come to you instead? she said, or thought.

I beckoned. ‘Of course.’

And then… she stepped out of the circle towards me and smiled. 

I am lonely, she said or thought. Will you walk with me? And we walked, side by side, and  her hand slipped into mine and the warmth from her body warmed me and the horse followed behind without a sound, not even the crack of twigs underfoot or the swishing of young bracken as we passed. 

I cannot say how long we walked till we found a grove where soft green leaves lay fresh and inviting under the curving bough of a silver birch and no, I never once wondered why there were green leaves lain down like a cloak, nor why when she asked me to sit down with her, they were warm as a blanket held by a fire. The scent of her filled my head. It was like spiced mead and rich berry wine – heady and sweet – driving out all other thought but the need to taste her mouth and curve my hand round her breast and her waist and every secret of her body until I had given her the joy she demanded and deserved. And I don’t know how long we rolled in those leaves, only that when she pulled away, she smiled. 

I never wondered how at the turning of the year, on a day when the morning had started with frost, we could lay there naked and feel warm. My back was raked with her nails, and my own blood was salty on my lip, yet I only wanted her again and again until I died from the desire for her.  

But she smiled and dressed and stood and wordlessly, climbed onto her horse’s back and without a backward glance, they galloped soundlessly away.

Night was falling and now she was gone, the leaves looked like ones that had lain there  since Autumn, and the sweat on my skin started to chill me. I dressed, shivering, and made my way home. I made some excuse for bringing no food with me and turned from my wife’s sad eyes. And that night, I rolled myself in my cloak and lay on the other side of the fire so that I could not touch her even by accident and wondered how I could feel so empty and lost and if I would ever see the woman again.

The days drew out. The promise of green became rich foliage, the hunting was good once more and my wife now turned her face to the sky, and she bathed in the river and sat on the threshold shelling peas, the sun drying her lovely hair into waves of brown. She smiled a little. Shyly, she waited for me in our bed with the covers turned back, but though I joined her, I did not touch her. My longing for the woman was a sickness and I could feel the ribs through my skin as plain as the wheals on my back that her nails had left.

At Summer solstice someone remembered. Thresholds were closed, smoke holes filled. 

But I was the one who offered to face the stones. And I took my bow and I walked towards them and waited. And there she came, riding once more from nowhere into the centre of them. Her horse was as wild as ever, its eyes flashing and green and the woman was petulant. 

It did not work, she said, or thought. Your seed did not grow. I need you to try again. Or maybe I need a man whose children live.

‘All our children died the winter just gone,’ I said. ‘It was too bitter for them.’

The woman pursed her lips. It was too bitter for ours too.

I stared at her then, remembering my little girl fade in my arms. She had become strange in those last days of her life. And she was not the only child who changed in their final moments. Going to sleep like one person and waking as another, only to die a few days later. 

Call me out of the circle, she said, or thought. I need you to… I want you. Her petulance changed into desire. The horse stamped its silent hooves. The air shimmered.

‘Did you exchange your children for ours at midwinter?’ I said at last, bile in my throat. ‘Did you take my girl?’

Your children are stronger than ours. Ours are weak, but our powers are great. Give me another child, mix your blood with mine then…

‘Wait!’ I said. ‘Where is my little girl. Is she alive?’

If you won’t call me out of the circle, then come with me and find out. She coaxed with her mouth but her eyes were cold. She patted the horse’s neck. See what wonders could be yours.

And for a moment I stood there, the burning of desire strong in my gut, the scent of her filling my head, but it was a cold scent and a cold desire a.

‘If you can bring back our children alive, maybe I’ll come with you. Maybe I’ll do as I ask.’

The desire dropped from her face and her teeth snarled. I cannot.

‘Then go back to where you came from,’ I said. ‘I have betrayed my wife enough.’

She hesitated for only a second, then wheeled the horse round and galloped into nowhere.

And since then, I have faded in strength, though the scars on my back have not. I yearn for the woman every night though the desire is nauseating and cold. 

For I remembered who it was who was responsible for making sure we kept the gateway protected and the thresholds sealed at Winter solstice and turn of year in the Spring. 

It was the chieftain. It was I. And I lost more than my daughter with my negligence.

I lost everything.

A song called ‘Ride On‘ by Christy Moore inspired this story. One day, I might expand on it.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/vintage-arthur-rackham-victorian-1722369/

Of Chopsticks, Tramps and Bandages

‘Girls must be partners and comrades rather than dolls.’ 

‘Their pork is excellent… but they do not find it necessary to burn the house down for each joint.’

‘The well-dressed man has an unpleasant shock in store for him.’

‘Returning from the city, they discovered the house lit up and a man lying in bed.’

‘Most of the processes are of course, familiar to real Colonists, gipsies, and the better class of tramps and poachers.’

Are these from any of my works in progress? Not yet.

Are they story prompts? Not specifically.

These are actually sentences from real newspaper articles published in British newspapers between 1910 and 1912. 

Researching is like entering a rabbit warren (or indeed a certain Swedish furniture store) mistakenly expecting a speedy exit, then finding yourself with something you never knew you wanted.

I first discovered the British Newspaper Archives when I was trying to find a report of a real event for Death in the Last Reel. I was feeling pretty pleased when I found what I was looking for, then spotted something on the same page which fitted into the story too. It may look totally coincidental in the novel but really wasn’t. A newspaper that day really did have two things that Margaret would be concerned about next right to each other on the page.

It then occurred to me that some of the minutiae of life might be easier to find out this way. For example – how much prize money might be offered for a short story in 1912? I’d put £5 in my early draft and someone said ‘That would have been nearly half a year’s wages for a maid. Surely it’s too much.’ Accepting that as a good point and looking for something accurate, I searched the archives again and found a short story competition at the right sort of time, with a top prize of … £5. Wages and the value of things then and now can’t be directly correlated. But £5 was a princely sum and well worth winning. 

When I’m not book researching, I’m digging into my family history and there was a mystery I wanted to solve for myself, so I used the website to see what I could find. While I discovered some things that were anticipated and tragic, I found other things that were rather sweet. I also found a crime. 

When my grandfather was about six, his home was burgled. The burglars stole £18 3s 4d but were pursued by a constable as they tried to get away, whereupon they launched an attack on him with the jemmy and a stick and left him injured as they escaped. The constable was found and hospitalised. The burglars were caught, charged and brought to court. I haven’t quite found out what their sentence was yet, even though the crime was reported in several papers.

But like the page with the factory fire and the spy, it’s not just one headline on the page that fascinates.

In the tabloid forerunner the London Illustrated News, ‘Alleged Burglars Attack a Constable’ (an article which includes the word ‘burglariously’) is perhaps one of the milder incidents reported on 13th May 1911. It nestles in the middle of: ‘Appalling Tragedy at Asylum’, ‘Sensational Scene at a Theatre’, ‘Fatal Affray at Limehouse’, ‘Savage Murder of a Yorkshire Gamekeeper’. At the bottom of the page is an advertisement for Dr Patterson’s Famous Female Pills (which corrects all disorders of females where other remedies have failed).

Four days earlier, The Halesworth Times and East Suffolk Advertiser, reporting the same thing has a rather different approach. ‘Constable’s Fight with Burglars’ comes after ‘Bride but no Bridegroom, £500 damages for Jilted Widow’, which itself comes under an instalment of the story ‘A Miscreant’s Wife’ by Lillias Campbell Davidson and before headlines such as ‘A Modish and Becoming Coiffure’, ‘Cooking a Village’*, ‘Interviewing a Ghost’ and ‘Girl Leads Rebels’ among others, before a section for children. At the top of the page is an advertisement for Dr Williams’ Pink Pills (which can tackle a strong man’s unexpected collapse). *No that’s not a typo.

I sometimes worry that I have a lot of odd things happening in my books, and then I consider real life and feel I’m not trying hard enough. 

Anyway, if you want to know what the quotations at the top relate to, without further ado, here is a brief explanation of each quotation. 

  1. Oxford Journal 10th August 1910 – an answer to a question about exactly who Girl Guides were supposed to guide. Turns out it’s husbands and/or Empire. The sentence quoted above is the last that perhaps wouldn’t exasperate a modern woman who doesn’t consider matrimony or colonising someone else’s country her life goal. Rather chillingly, given the date, one useful thing Girl Guides would learn was how to find a wounded soldier on a battlefield if necessary and then treat his injuries.
  2. Pall Mall Gazette 18 May 1912 – a description of the fairly new and fashionable Chinese Restaurant off Piccadilly. It’s in a number of newspapers and describes authentic and interesting sounding Chinese food which clearly baffled yet delighted the diners (and yes the restaurant supplied porcelain chopsticks but also offered knives and forks).
  3. Daily Mirror 3rd May 1912. An article entitled, ‘The Most Envied Men… Those who bought their clothes before London’s Tailors’ Strike’ goes on to give the awful fact that ‘It is likely that in the next few months, possibly, he will have to wear garments of last year’s choice…’
  4. Christchurch Times, 26 October 1912. No it’s not a re-enactment of Goldilocks. Two ladies returned from an evening out in Glasgow to find an inebriated burglar, who’d collected all their jewellery together, but then decided to have a nap.
  5. Pall Mall Gazette 18 May 1912 again – a review of a book called ‘In Camp and Kitchen’ by Lucy H Yates. (No, I didn’t realise there was a class system for poachers either.)

Were they what you expected? Or had you thought it was something else entirely? Do tell!

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image Credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/squirrel-rodent-newspaper-reading-6374731/

A Hint of Spices Past

Ingredients: a good book, time, tasty food.

Method: Combine as desired. Try to keep grease spots and crumbs off the book.

VariatIon:

Ingredients: A historical recipe, unfamiliar ingredients, time, and a mixing bowl. 

Method: Follow recipes wondering if they’ll work. Eat the result whatever it turns out like. Don’t worry too much about crumbs and grease spots because they’re a badge of honour on a cookbook.

My interest in what people in ‘olden days’ might have eaten started when I was about nine and read a book called ‘The Gauntlet’ by Ronald Welch. In it, a modern boy is transported back to the Middle Ages and lives as a nobleman’s son in Carreg Cennen castle. At one point, someone brings in a dish of meatballs and there on the page was the recipe for how they were made. It somehow brought the scene alive, not simply to imagine them ‘doing a Henry VIII’ (as my aunt used to say, meaning to eat with ones fingers and chucking bones onto the rush-covered floor for the dogs to munch) but visualising the cook, sweating in the kitchen, preparing something I could actually cook myself one day.

Roll on a few years and as a writer of historical fiction, one of the things I like to research is what people might have eaten and how they might have managed their lives. Below, you can see a selection of my historical cookbooks (original, facsimile, translated).

You might think it’s hard to work out for Lucretia and her fellows in the Murder Britannica books but fortunately, not only are there translations of Apicius’s Cookbook but Farrell Monaco works out a modern version of those recipes and shares them on https://tavolamediterranea.com/ under Edible Archaeology. I’ve cooked a few of them myself for Sunday dinners and very nice they are too. 

It’s easier for the Caster and Fleet and Margaret Demeray books, because if all else fails, there’s Mrs Beeton. I bought my copy a very long time ago from a shop in the Forest of Dean which specialised in secondhand/antique cooking utensils and books. This edition is from the early 1930s though, so wanting to be sure that I had a better idea of what women who had to do their own cooking or at least help with it might have cooked, I sought other books. 

‘The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book’ (facsimile) is interesting, as the recipes were sent in by ordinary women to be compiled into a book which not only would raise money but would suggest things a busy campaigning woman could cook and eat in a short time. They are all very simple, easy, and mostly cheap, nutritious and generally appealing even to modern tastes (maybe eating brains isn’t). There’s a vegetarian section and a sick room section and also practical hints and tips. ‘The Best Way’ book (original) gives pages of simple, flavoursome recipes and explains how to deal with anything from cleaning brass to baby care. I can imagine Margaret and Katherine referring to both of these, although only Margaret can cook well. 

Even though ‘Indian Cookery’ (original and pristine, so not a real cook’s book) dates from 1861. It would have been thirty plus years old by the time the Caster and Fleet and Liz Hedgecock’s Maisie Frobisher mysteries take place, but it’s perhaps possible that in a wealthy household like Connie’s or Maisie’s cook the cook would have had one as Indian cuisine was already very popular in Britain and Maisie has been to India. It was written by Richard Terry, chef de cuisine at the Oriental Club, what is referred to as the first Indian restaurant in London. I’m sure there were already others, run by Indian people with authentic recipes, but were perhaps not appreciated by well-off white British people at that time. The recipes in the book are all called ‘curry’ of course and doubtless are/were unrecognisable to anyone from India. There’s reference to a curry powder blend, the recipe for which is provided and a curry paste which isn’t, perhaps because the author sold it and wanted to keep the ingredients secret. Due to the British Raj, Indian food caught on (and was Anglicised) very quickly and has never looked back, though hopefully nowadays, there’s more authenticity and respect. For a fascinating if sobering article about the early British fascination with Indian cuisine, check out https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/curry-in-colonial-india

Although ‘Indian Cookery’ itself might not have been on the kitchen bookshelf of the average middle class woman like Margaret in the 1910s, don’t let anyone tell you that ‘foreign food’ like pasta, rice and all this spice is a modern thing. 

There are plenty of all of them in the Suffrage Cookbook, Mrs Beeton and ‘The Best Way’ which might have been. Cayenne, curry powder, chillies, curry paste, rice and pasta are all mentioned throughout. The Suffrage Cookbook includes a vegetarian version of babotie (spelled boboté) using a meat substitute called protose. Babotie is a spiced South African dish we often eat at home (meat version) and the recipe I follow is fairly similar. Apart from a slightly worrying recipe for ‘the kind of macaroni called spaghetti’ which boils it for half an hour otherwise, everything is very edible even if the recipes are sometimes a little vague as to method.

I also have a copy of ‘A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes’ first published in 1852, which aimed to help people on a limited budget cook nutritiously. This is a suggestion of what should be in a basic kitchen:

  • A cooking stove (with oven and with or without boiler)
  • A three gallon boiling pot
  • A one gallon saucepan with lid
  • A two quart ditto
  • A potato steamer
  • A frying pan
  • A twelve gallon copper for washing or brewing (or presumably both though not at the same time)
  • A gridiron (griddle/girdle/bakestone)
  • A mash tub
  • Two cooling tubs (or an old wine or beer cask cut into two would be cheaper and do the same)

The total cost for all this was apparently £6/12/4 – six pounds, twelve shillings and fourpence. To put this in context, even a clerk might be lucky to earn one pound a week and someone further down the social scale a lot less. The author (chief cook to Queen Victoria) suggests that if the reader doesn’t have enough savings to buy these, then they should save up. How long would that have taken given that your £1 per week also had to pay for rent and food? Having doubtless depressed the average working class wife and told her she must keep everything clean, the author next suggests a Sunday dinner for a family of ten with leftovers for the next day of boiled beef with cabbage and potatoes with suet pudding or dumplings. He says it will cost perhaps three shillings (and to note that small children only really need the dumplings). On a wage of £1 a six day working week, three shillings would have been one day’s wages. I imagine the leftovers may have lasted more than one day. You only need to read ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ to get an idea of how hard things could be . (Sadly they still are, and it’s good to know there are resources for cooking on a very limited budget, https://cookingonabootstrap.com/category/recipes-food/ being one.)

Going back to my research, of course, just reading the recipes is no good, I like to try them too. Yesterday, I had a historical baking afternoon. 

I made some Richmond Maids of Honour Tarts (bottom right on the plate), which have a history going back to Henry VIII’s time. The original recipe (which allegedly once involved a maid being locked up) is a closely guarded secret (though I assume she’s been let out by now). So I used this one by Delia Smith.

As April 25th was Anzac Day, (which commemorates the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives in the Gallipoli campaign on 25th April 1915) I also made some Anzac biscuits (top). The recipe I followed to avoid having to choose between NZ or Aussie recipes was my gran’s and you can see it below (and a photograph of the original in her writing).

Finally I thought I’d go back to Roman times and make some barley biscuits with cheese and figs (left) from the Tavola Mediterrea site. 

How did it go? The tarts, while looking nothing like Delia’s are delicious. I used ready rolled puff pastry which I put in a patty pan and ended up with 12 tarts and a small amount of leftover filling. The Anzac biscuits, are delicious too, even though I had to use granulated instead of brown sugar (I’d run out and went to the shop to get some and of course forgot and came out with something else entirely as you do). The barley biscuits dough possibly needed more water as the dough was quite dry, but the end result is very good, a little like an oatcake biscuit. I drizzled them with maple syrup and the cheeses are Mantego, Cheddar and Philadelphia.

What’s on the menu today? Well, I have some cod and a Roman recipe book. What about Patella Lucretianam? It’s a cod recipe with herbs and spring onions. I have all of those. And according to the book, ‘Lucretius has yet to be identified.’ What if it wasn’t a Lucretius? What if a certain Lucretia inspired the recipe and Apicius wrote it down wrong? Mmm.  It seems a bit bland for Lucretia. Now what’s in the fridge that’ll go with cod and onions really well? Aha! Chorizo. I can pretend it’s spicy Lucanian sausage. That’ll be right up Lucretia’s street. 

Now where’s my pinny?

Granny D’s Anzac biscuits

1 cup flour

1 cup rolled oats

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup desiccated coconut

1 tablespoon hot water

125g margarine

2 tablespoons golden syrup (black treacle may be used)

Method

  • Preheat oven to Gas mark 4; 180°C; 350°F
  • Heat the margarine and syrup gently together.
  • Mix all dry ingredients together, except bicarbonate.
  • Pour well stirred margarine and syrup into the dried ingredients.
  • Add the bicarbonate mixed with water.
  • Mix all together.
  • Make into walnut sized balls, put onto biscuit tray well spaced.
  • Bake for about 15 minutes.
  • Reverse trays on shelves after 5 mins, turning trays for even cook.
  • These are more gooey if slightly undercooked.

Words and photograph copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Jobs For The Girls

Aged five, I was asked to draw what I wanted to be when I grew up. I drew a woman in a headscarf wielding a broom and smiling. A happy housewife.

What was I thinking? I never wanted to be a housewife.

I actually wanted to be a secretary, but couldn’t draw one because I didn’t actually know what a secretary did except something to do with writing (which I liked) and typewriters which fascinated me (and still do).

So I drew a housewife, which is what my mum was at the time, even though I didn’t actually want to be one and she probably didn’t want to be one either. I didn’t know what secretaries did, but I knew what housewives did and because I was a very lucky little girl with a very lovely mum, this was it: they help their children read and write and do crafts and make scones and bake fresh bread to eat after school and they’re always smiling and pretty. 

It didn’t occur to me that housewives were supposed to keep things tidy and dust. That sort of nonsense didn’t happen in our house when there were paintings to paint and scones to cook. And I don’t recall Mum ever wearing a headscarf, certainly not while sweeping the floor and grinning like a loon, but that’s what I drew anyway.

A couple of years later, Mum went back to part-time work starting as a nursing assistant and ending up as a civil servant. This was at the time a little embarrassing as no one else’s mum worked, but nevertheless reinforced the idea that it was more interesting to have a job than do housework, so I started to think about possible careers. 

Being a nurse briefly appealed, but that was because I liked the uniform and cute little hat. (Many years later, my sister, who did become a nurse, had a very different view of the ‘cute little hat’, which had to be folded into exactly the right shape every day. She was regularly tempted to crush it into a ‘cute little missile’ and throw it at Matron.) 

Other children said I ought to be a teacher (helpful or bossy?), but by the time I was seven I’d already decided that both nursing and teaching would be unbearably noisy and involve too much blood, mud, snot, tears and whining (and that would just be me).

By the time I was a teenager, I wanted to be a writer, but knew it probably wouldn’t pay the bills. The urge to be a secretary had faded but the possibility of teaching lurked. Beyond that, I had no ideas whatsoever, except I didn’t want to be a civil servant. By then my mother could quote more form numbers and their function than anyone surely ever needed to know. I never wanted to be in a job where I had to know form numbers.

So there I was in the fifth form, trying to make sensible decisions about my future, going for an appointment with the school careers adviser.

When I was sixteen, Computer Studies was still a new and weird O level option which involved a small group of students (even geekier than I was) huddling round some a box in a cupboard which was linked somehow to the County Council’s mainframe and spewed code. To me, Computer Studies were niche and unacademic and of doubtful use.

This is why I didn’t know what a data entry form was when the careers adviser handed me a brown form with a lot of squares marked next to a range of questions and explained that all I had to do was put blobs in the right places and a computer would analyse my responses and produce the perfect career just for me.

With great excitement at this interesting promise, I scored my enthusiasm levels in terms of interests, skills and school subjects from one to ten and handed the form back. A week later, I was given the result. Apparently my ideal career was:

A forestry worker working in forests for the Forestry Commission. 

You couldn’t get much more indoorsy than I am. So, deciding the whole thing was nonsense, I went off to do A levels in English, French and Latin, realising a little too late when I emerged from university with an English degree slap bang into a recession a few years later, that Computer Studies might have been niche and unacademic … but could have given me a better chance of getting a well paid job. Or indeed any sort of job.

Nevertheless, battling my way through the situations vacant pages for about a year, I continued to ignore the advice of the careers computer.

I did various things after university, including abandoning a post graduate teacher training course when I realised I’d make a terrible teacher and that the average eleven year old was taller than me. But none of my jobs have involved trees other than in the form of desks and paper, and I’m proud to state that I’ve followed my mother’s lead in not worrying unduly about the more boring aspects of housework by prioritising to cooking and creating. (Nor have I often worn a headscarf.)

Eventually, I did join the Civil Service (one of the more interesting branches) ‘until something better turns up’ but it didn’t and here I am still working for the same organisation, towards the end of a career involving various roles in various places, splinters from career ladder rungs deep in my fingertips. Now, despite my lack of a Computer Studies O Level, I’m working on the IT development side. Yet after twenty-two years, I’m still able to quote form numbers and their uses despite not having needed to do so since 2005.

I often wonder whether what went wrong with that prototype careers analysis I tried at sixteen. 

Was it the programme? The data entry form? The data enterer? Was it my answers? Or was it something else?

What would have happened if it had come up with a career choice that really appealed? Would I have had the courage to go for it? If so, where could I be now?

Or … what if I got someone else’s results and they got mine? 

Maybe somewhere out there is a born lumberjack who was told to be whatever I should be been rather than working with trees in a forest. If so, I wonder whether they went with their instincts or the computer’s suggestion? 

And if I got their results, what was my perfect career? It certainly wasn’t housewife.

What do you reckon?

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image https://pixabay.com/vectors/cleaning-silhouette-maid-duster-5196528/

The Making of ‘Weird and Peculiar Tales.’

The true story behind the slightly less than true stories in ‘Weird & Peculiar Tales’!

Voinks

This was originally intended as a Facebook post but for various reasons has ended up as a blog post instead. Here is a little of the background to how Weird and Peculiar Tales came about.

I first ‘met’ my co-author Paula around six years ago through an online writing site. We seemed to be pretty much on the same wavelength, and from commenting on each other’s posts we progressed to private emails which developed into a friendship. It was odd how we knew each other so well, but as she lived in Dorset and I lived in London we had never met in person. Occasionally she had to come up to town for work, and we arranged she would come to my house for a meal. The hotel she was booked into overnight was only about ten minutes away, but the actual location was rather confusing.

Cue Messenger messages -‘Where…

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Bones, Stones and Long, Long Roots

Today, my husband and I dug up two old bones.

One was definitely some sort of leg joint, the other, which had snapped, was harder to distinguish. ‘I assume they’re not human,’ I said, dubiously.

For the record, we weren’t on an archaeological dig, but clearing a part of the garden which was once thought of as a bit of No Man’s land between us and the house behind, until the house behind wanted to do some building work and everyone looked at their deeds and realised the No Man’s land was actually ours. 

Equally for the record, I’m not talking massive country estates or old manor houses here. Our house is an average sort of house and the oldest bits of it are from the 1950s, prior to which acres and acres of land around us, now covered in houses, was farmland. But the boundaries for our house are so inexplicably and unnecessarily complicated, the solicitor spent two hours explaining them to us when we bought the house.

No one in their right mind would call me a natural, enthusiastic or good (or even adequate) gardener but there’s something about doing battle with hidden roots, identifying what to keep and what to dig up, and nurturing the new things I’ve planted, that helps my mind do much the same to any plot problem. What do I need to remove that’s killing the thing I need to live? What needs more care? What looks like a weed but is in fact something useful and precious? Or vice versa. So I’ve been enjoying putting my back into something different over the last couple of weeks, to help straighten things out creatively in my subconscious.

I’ve found working on the current ‘work in progress’ hard, because it’s part of a series set in the run up to World War I and naturally, right now, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels between the tensions in the 1910s and what’s happening in 2022. I consequently decided a while ago, to change to a slightly different tack – removing most of the international sabre-rattling and worse that were the background to a plot set in 1913 because it felt far too much like what is going on just now. 

But of course this put me back and meant removing perhaps thirty thousand hard-written words. It also meant I needed to review the backdrop to my story, which is now what on the surface appears to be a slightly calmer 1912. 

Maybe this was unnecessary (and the excised work won’t be wasted) but it feels right to me.

But it’s not all bad. Whatever the era, for most people, most of the time, while the things to worry about range widely from impending international crises to what to have for dinner, for most people, most of the time, the latter is higher up the list of importance, largely because it’s easier to control. Otherwise, at the point when the crisis directly impacts on us, we would not have the mental or physical resources to handle it.

I’m reminded of the letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during WWII which I ‘inherited’. He was in his forties and working in a reserved occupation in central London during the day and a Home Guard at night. My grandfather stayed in the family home in London, while my grandmother took my father (then about two) to live with relations in the countryside. (My mother’s family did something similar, but that’s another story.) My grandfather wrote to my grandmother about all sorts of things. He rarely mentioned the war at all. This stops me from trying and cram every significant historical event into a book, because at any given time, people don’t always realise which events are significant and often give many of them more than a passing thought or moment of interest.

In the period covered by the book I’m working on, the enquiry into the sinking of the Titanic has just begun and over five hundred households in Southampton are mourning a family member due to the disaster. The latest in a series of major strikes across the country is one by East End garment workers. Meanwhile, the Royal Flying Corps has started up as a branch of the armed forces and warplanes are being constructed. Suffragettes are stepping up the militancy of their campaign for the vote. So far, so gloomy.

On the plus side the National Insurance Act is about to be passed, which will ultimately put an end to the need for workhouses. And on the ‘moving forward if nothing else’ side, the Home Rule Bill has been passed in the Commons as a stepping stone towards Ireland’s long-awaited independence.

On the plus plus side, the Stockholm Olympics are on, and Britain wins ten golds, fifteen silver and sixteen bronze. British female athletes win medals in tennis, diving and swimming. 

And on the plain ridiculous front, one of the Olympiad events is Tug-of-War, in which only two teams competed. A team of Stockholm police from the host nation Sweden are up against a British team comprising London police (five from the City of London Police and six from ‘K’ (Stepney) division of the Metropolitan Police). The game ends when the British team succumb to exhaustion and sit down, thereby conceding defeat.

In the book, my characters are ordinary people whose lives are trundling along peacefully (with the possible exception of Fox’s life) until something happens to derail them. 

Some of them – Margaret Demeray and Fox in particular of course – are more informed than others. Some characters are more reliable and honest than others. Many read about current things in the paper and then largely forget them. Others don’t read about them at all. People get up, go about their daily duties, go to bed. Some lose someone or something. Some grieve. Some fight. Some heal. Some commit crime. Others solve crime. They fall in love, they bring up families, they laugh and play. They all wonder what’s for dinner. 

(Not all the same people are doing all those things at once of course. That would be very exhausting.)

While most of the ‘events of 1912’ above will have a mention in the book, only a few will have a personal significance to any of the characters. The key thing will be that someone, somewhere is dead before their time and Margaret and Fox need to find out why and do something about it.

I’m sometimes asked why I enjoy writing and reading murder-mysteries when I’m naturally a peaceful sort of person. The answer is that I think there is something in the psyche of most of us that enjoys reading something where we can face our fears in a fictional format and see justice to some extent being done. To me, that perhaps explains murder-mysteries’ popularity and certainly explains why I like reading and writing them. Why historical murder mysteries? That’s a whole other subject.

So it was helpful to root through these thoughts as I dug up weeds and brambles and endured the stings of nettles on my hands and arms. (No, I didn’t save any nettles to make soup and yes my arms are still tingling.)

But none of the thinking got No Man’s land cleared. 

I threw another long, unidentified and unwanted root into the composting bag, while my husband contemplated the bones.  

‘I don’t think these are human,’ he said, scanning me from head to foot and clearly doing a mental comparison of what might have be a femur in his hand and my (rather short) leg. ‘But I gather there was a piggery here once, and pigs will eat anything. Who knows? Mwhahahaha!’

‘It’s no good offering that to me as a plot suggestion,’ I said. ‘It’s been done.’

‘Meh,’ said my husband, chucking what was hopefully nothing more sinister than someone’s dog’s long lost treasure on the pile of non compostable stuff.

‘Why can’t we find something useful that might earn us some money?’ I complained. ‘Like an Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold coins? Or a Roman mosaic?’

‘I don’t fancy digging that deep,’ he muttered. ‘And you never will, you slacker. Come on – get back to nettle-pulling or there’s no wine for you later.’

So I did.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image from Pixabay. (No, it’s not my garden!)

Foreshadows

I live in an area where there were a lot of Roman roads, many of which are below more modern roads. 

One of them, not far from where I live joins another road near an old hill fort, which Roman invaders occupied for a while (presumably after turfing the locals out) before they built something more angular a few miles to the south west.
According to local stories, on a quiet dark night, at the point where the remains of that Roman road meets the other one which runs at right angles to it, you might see a Roman soldier.

I’m not sure what he’d be doing there, stuck fundamentally in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t know which way he’s supposed to be heading, but then that’s the nature of ghosts. And in Roman times, and perhaps later, it would have been a crossroads. Leaving aside whether I believe in him or not, or whether the crossroads is significant or not, I also wonder how anyone can see him, since presumably the ‘ground’ back then was a good deal lower down than it is now. 

I travel that road quite often, but have never seen him, and a less than rational part of me worries that since logically he’d only be visible from the chest up or perhaps from the head up, walking a path long since buried by later generations of mud and so on I might accidentally run … er … through him.

The idea of levels of history fascinates me. Who knows what’s beneath our feet at any time? Or what will one day be above where we now walk?

Recently, my husband and I spent a day in London with friends, enjoying views from the Sky Garden and then traipsing round the area here Margaret Demeray’s fictional St Julia’s hospital would have been located if she or it were real. We were in what would have been the middle of Roman London, not far from the London Mithraeum which is effectively two storeys below modern ground level.  

My friends then took us to the courtyard outside the Guildhall, and showed me a plaque in the paving which said that underneath us was the Roman amphitheatre, parts of which can be seen from well below street level. Sadly the Guildhall was shut that day, so we couldn’t see them, but I wandered about in the sun having the fascinating thought that if something happened to the space time continuum maybe someone in the second or third century might look up during a lull in activities in the amphitheatre, and see us walking in the air above the arena and wonder if we were ghosts or portents rather than people wondering where to go for lunch. 

This takes me to something that I often wonder when people talk about ghosts. Assuming they’re seeing anything at all, are they really seeing things from before or things from the future? This might take you to quantum theory, or it might not. I honestly don’t know enough about it to speculate. But who’s to say the people wandering like ghosts aren’t actually lost people from the future?

That thought reminds me a little of when my then office moved to a new building. When they’d dug the foundations, they’d found and cleared both a Civil War mass grave and below it, an Anglo-Saxon churchyard. But… they had been a long way down. The building is a good five storeys high at the back and three at the front, to allow for a massive drop between the road and the docks behind. There is (or perhaps was – I haven’t worked there for a long time) a filing room on the topmost floor and it was there that a member of staff swore they saw a ghost one evening when there were only a few of us left behind on the late rota. It spooked them so much they absolutely had to go home and leave me and one other person behind. (Clearly, it didn’t matter what happened to us.)

As the top floor of that building is as far above where ground level would have been in AD 1643 (let alone AD 680) as I was above the London Roman amphitheatre the other week, I never could see what a ghost from the past would be doing up there. It certainly wasn’t filing. But if they really saw someone, perhaps it wasn’t a ghost but someone from the far future.

Perhaps that future person was somehow reflected through a doodah of the space time thingummy (you can tell I barely passed science can’t you) onto the same place in a different century in its own past only at the level they will be at rather we are. 

Or maybe not.

The staff member was always a little vague about the ghost. They were never clear about its sex or clothing or could say pretty much anything about it which would identify what era it was from. They just said it was spooky and they were far too distressed to work a moment longer and might be late the next day. 

I might give them some credence because I work for an organisation which has a great many buildings which are said to be haunted.

For example, a very sensible friend and colleague from a totally different place told me she once came across a sombre looking woman in a dreary dress wandering about the restricted area. As a responsible employee and as the senior manager on site, my friend politely but firmly asked the sombre woman where her visitor’s security pass was. The sombre woman said nothing. She just carried on along the corridor and round a corner towards a dead end. Unused to being ignored, my friend followed … but the woman was nowhere to be seen and it was only then that she decided she’d finally met the Grey Lady who’d been said to haunt the older part of that building for six hundred years. As I say, my friend is a very sensible person, so I’m not sure who was more surprised, her or the Tudor ghost asked to produce ID.

But that was her. 

Apart from two very old graveyards which had once been under it but were now empty, the building where the other person got spooked out was a mere eighteen months old. Maybe the staff member saw a ghost. Maybe they saw a shadow of the future.

But given their general attitude to work, I find it somewhat hard to imagine that they saw anything except a pile of very boring filing and an opportunity to go home early.

Words and photograph copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

This? Or That? What do I prefer in fiction as reader and writer?

I recently saw one of those memes on a Facebook page where you had to choose between This or That for your mystery reading preferences.

I’ve never been too good at choices. When I was doing A level languages, if I was under pressure and had two options for a translation, I invariably chose the wrong one. I get slightly stressed by menus and even more stressed when handed a book token and told to pick just one book. What kind of monster is capable of that? 

Anyway, I thought I’d share my thoughts as a reader and a writer and I’d love to know how you’d answer the same questions. I’m not necessarily answering in relation to mysteries by the way.

Series or Standalones?

As a reader, I like a variety. 

I enjoy a good series where I become invested in the world and the characters’ personalities, triumphs and failures and see how they cope with whatever plot is chucked at them in each book. Then, after so many books (so far the most I’ve read in a series is about eleven) I become a little bored, because it’s hard for any author to come up with a way to keep changing the personal and plot challenges for a character and there’s a risk that both will become repetitive.

I also like standalone where an author has captured a period in time for the character(s) and created a complete, satisfactory tale. If it’s really good, of course I want to know what happens to them after the book ends. I’ll miss them, I’ll miss the world, but at the same time I’m content to never find out and simply imagine. 

As a writer, I like variety too. Of my novels, all that I’ve published so far have been in series or will be. As a writer, I too wanted to know what happened next. In the first book in each series, I’m getting to know the main character myself and it’s an adventure. Subsequently I don’t have the same element of discovery, so I have to find something different to explore. E.g. in the first book, you deal with at least some of the character’s wants, fears and challenges. In the second book, you don’t want to revisit all of them, so what’s left over and what’s new? As a writer, I don’t want to get bored with the characters either and feel that at some point, you have to wave them goodbye as they head into their own unknown future (hopefully to get a rest).

In my cyber drawer, however, there is one standalone and others planned. I was once asked whether the one which is written could ever be a series but I feel as if the answer is ‘no’. The story is complete in itself (or will be when I’ve finished editing it) and I’m happy to let the characters go and wish them all the best for the future without feeling the poke about in that future myself.

Below Thirty or Over Forty?

As a reader, I honestly don’t care! As long as the characters are rounded, believable and interesting, they could be two or ninety-two.

As a writer, my characters range in age because that’s how they came to me. 

Katherine in The Case of the Black Tulips in 1890 is twenty-five. Her younger sister Margaret when it comes to 1910 and The Wrong Sort to Die is thirty-six. Lucretia and Tryssa in the late second century of Murder Britannica and its sequels are fifty-something. Each had their challenges to deal with. 

Katherine is in a class where women aren’t supposed to work but sit around waiting to get married. She’s also living in an era where at twenty-five, she’s somewhat on the shelf but her ‘intended’ has disappeared. Many of her options (if she doesn’t want to lose her reputation) are limited but… it’s also an era when things are starting to change for young women in terms of careers and mobility and escape from scrutiny. The advantage of being twenty-five is that she is that she is ‘of age’ but still young enough to have plenty of time to marry and have children if that’s how things work out. 

Twenty years later, Margaret is widowed and being in her mid thirties could be considered very much on the shelf and potentially running out of time if she wants children. However, she has a career (even if that’s a struggle in a male dominated world) and she is old enough to have more confidence in herself than a younger woman might. 

Lucretia and Tryssa of course lived in an era when fifty was relatively old. But once someone had got to that age, having survived the first five years of life, subsequent infections and bearing children, they had as good a chance as anyone of living to perhaps seventy and they are both very much of the view that they frankly no longer care what anyone thinks. They will do exactly what they please. 

The point is – every age has its advantages and disadvantages to explore and none of them need to be boring or stereotypical.

Private Eye or Regular Citizen?

I like reading both, although I probably veer a little closer to ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary situation and having to resolve it. Because they have no real training, it makes it more interesting to see how they manage.

As a writer, I think I feel much the same way. I used to sit on the bus on the way to work thinking ‘what if one of these average people going to an average job suddenly had to deal with something completely and utterly out of their experience?’

Small Town or Big City?

My gut reaction is that I prefer to read about small towns but when I think of it, many of my favourite books have been set in cities. There’s all the gossip and curtain twitching and established relationships in a small town where everyone knows everyone else which makes for a narrow playing field of characters and consequently strong tension. But then there’s the anonymity of a city where it seems no one knows or cares about anyone and characters have more freedom to roam or get lost or be hidden, and sometimes the city itself becomes a character in its own right or rather, the different districts become different characters – the genteel aunt, the rough diamond, the snooty toff. 

As a writer, my books are set in both. While the Caster & Fleet series and the Margaret Demeray are set in London, the Murder Britannica series is a little more parochial. Murder Britannica itself is set in Pecunia, a fictional town so far off the beaten track most of the locals don’t even know there is a track. Murder Durnovaria is set in Durnovaria a real civitas (a town set up by the Romans but run by the local nobility). It’s therefore fairly large, but certainly not city size, so they have all the amenities and a lot of the politics but not many places to get lost in. Murder Saturnalia is set in fictional Vademlutra, a small town a short distance away. It’s larger than Pecunia and knows precisely where it is (not far from a lot of more important towns and rather too close to a Roman fort for the locals’ liking), but basically everyone knows everyone else and have grown up together. Does this mean they know each others’ secrets? Nope.

Contemporary or Historical?

As a reader, I’ll read anything at all as long as it grabs me. As far as mysteries are concerned, I possibly choose more contemporary than historical books, but only just.

As a writer, you can see that so far, the mystery books I’ve published have all been historical. 

There are some advantages to that, since I can find out what was what in any given year (or a close approximation) and it’s not going to change even if I delay publishing the book. On the other hand I have to get things as accurate as possible from language to attitudes. Some of the later don’t fit into modern thinking. Concepts and acceptability of Imperialism and colonisation for example, are very different nowadays. Margaret undoubtedly has some pride in her country, but she is keenly aware of its faults. She is one of many who want greater democracy and equality and she’s also growing doubtful that imperialism is a good thing. She is certainly aware that some of things the British Empire has been responsible for are unquestionably shameful. There’s a limit to how far I can push this without making her sound anachronistic, but there were sufficient British women fighting for Irish and Indian independence who would have been contemporary with her to make it more than likely that someone like Margaret, with a strong social conscience, would at the very least question the status quo.

I haven’t so far written a contemporary mystery although that’s not to say I won’t! My cyber drawer novel isn’t a mystery precisely but it is contemporary. The downside of a contemporary book is that I started it five years ago and already some bits are a little out of date! Digital technology and social media for example are now totally different. And we won’t mention certain viruses.

Saves The Day or Gets Saved?

As both reader and writer, I don’t want my character to need saving all the time. I’d much rather they were saving someone else (and/or the day). But they have to have some vulnerability or they become ridiculous (like those films and books where basically the hero has been shot, beaten, crushed etc etc and ought to be dead and yet is still going and has the energy to kiss the grateful heroine at the end). And now and again, it’s nice to give my character a rest from solving everything and let someone else get them out of a pickle (and also to get a kiss afterwards perhaps)!

Birds or Snakes?

I have no idea how to answer this as either reader or writer! 

If it’s a threat then… I think on balance, I’d find birds a little more scary and harder to outrun than snakes.

If it’s a pet however, then I’m picking a cat, a dog or, of course, if the book is right, a dragon. Please let it be a pet. And please please let it be a dragon.

What about you? How would you answer?

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Credit for image Pixabay.

New Beginnings Everywhere

The sparrows have returned to our garden from wherever they shelter over the winter.

From what started as four sweet little birdies a few years ago, a small army of spadgers now congregates each morning on one of the trees to eye up our house. They’re clearly ready to start roosting again which involves a lot of lewd or violent behaviour right in front of us on the fences and decking; a fresh brood of chicks yelling for food from dawn to dusk every few weeks; general clattering and bickering. What’s not happening on the decking, happens in the eaves of our house, where they periodically pull out the nails which hold the tiles in place (presumably they don’t go with their desired decor) and from which they occasionally get into the loft.

Tomorrow is the start of the Chinese Year of The Water Tiger, and the day after is Candlemas. In some countries, they don’t take their Christmas decorations down till Candlemas Eve, after which the new year really starts and in others (in a throw-back to pre-Christian traditions perhaps), Candlemas involves pancakes (or more accurately crêpes) whose round, golden shape symbolises the return of the sun as spring approaches. (I like this idea – one can never have enough pancakes, crêpes or galettes and I was wondering what to cook for dinner on Wednesday.)

So even though January is ending, there’s always a chance for a new beginning.

Have you ever made a fresh start that started out draining but in the end worked out empowering? Or do you need to make one and it scares you?

As a teenager/young person, I’d expected that writing would be my career, but life didn’t work out that way. Was I disappointed? Yes. Did I ever think I’d pick up that abandoned ambition? No. For a long period, it seemed impossible, and every time my dreams were nearly in my grasp again, something would take them away.

Back in 2005, my youngest child was due to start school. I was working three days per week and despite being a team-leader, had almost secured an agreement to continue that working pattern after September. Finally, I was going to have two whole days to myself to start writing! I didn’t really know what I’d write – I had a few ideas, but nothing concrete. Then… my husband became seriously unhappy at work and the chance to move into another role in Dorset rather than travel back and forth to London from Gloucestershire presented itself. He’d always wanted to go back to the south coast where he’d been a student and the job was right up his street. I quite fancied an adventure. I said ‘yes, let’s go’.

Initially however, I found the transition much harder than I’d expected. I hadn’t realised how much I’d miss my support network and how hard it would be to make a new one. I hadn’t realised quite how hard it would be to establish myself in a new role and gain respect (especially since the one I’d been given – just after a merger of two parts of my organisation – was unpopular) while still working part-time and not knowing anyone at all. And to make things worse, I couldn’t keep my proposed working pattern. I had to rush between school and work, being at work, and then as chief child carer rush the children to and from various after school activities. Any hopes of time to myself were knocked firmly on the head. 

This was a very low point in my personal plot. I wrote something about trying to explain to the post office about forwarding mail while we were selling one house, buying another, and renting an interim one. It was read aloud on Terry Wogan’s breakfast show. But that was it. Otherwise, I kept writing ‘humorous’ emails to old friends, one of whom got in touch as she thought I was losing what few marbles I had. At some point, I wrote down in the third person a story encompassing what I was going through and how it made me feel. It was cathartic, but only a few people have ever read it.

But… it was a while before I realised that from a creative point of view some things had changed for the better and that this had given me a new starting point.

With the move, I’d also left behind some of the things that were hindering me – other people’s views on what I should write in particular. And I’d learned a lot about the world and myself since I was a teenager/young adult. A kind of freedom from what other people thought made me begin again.

Around 2010, I started some stories, planned out some novels. One lunch break, I wrote down a paragraph from a possible Roman murder mystery. My dad (still living in Wales) and I started a little contest between ourselves writing silly stories. When he died in 2012, an old school friend with whom I’d lost touch turned up at his funeral. She was the kindred spirit from the school year below, with whom I made up stories and acted them out, who had the same mad imagination, who had also been a little ‘odd’. 

‘Are you still writing?’ she said. 

‘Not really,’ I said.

It turned out she hadn’t stopped. As we rekindled our friendship, she encouraged me to start again and ultimately enter a local writing competition in 2015 in which I was short listed. After that, I joined a local writers’ group.

And one evening on the way home from work, I heard someone talking about self-publishing on the radio, and I bought his book and thought ‘I could do this’. 

Then I discovered a Facebook writing group. I had no idea these existed but and after a while I worked up the courage to join and share little bits of writing.

This was now 2015, ten years after that traumatic move. What happened next was a like popping the cork on a bottle. All that pent up, frustrated creativity came pouring out. I pretty much wrote Kindling and The Advent Calendar in the space of two months while also doing Nanowrimo. Now I admit, that that particular Nanowrimo novel is still in a cyber drawer, but the following year, I published the two collections of short stories and the year after that The Cluttering Discombobulator and the year after that the Roman murder mystery paragraph I’d written in my lunch hour came out as Murder Britannica.

And it wasn’t only having the courage to write which made the difference, it was also making writer friends through the writing group and online. Friends who encouraged me, and in many cases became more than ‘virtual’ and in the case of two of them, became co-writers and very close friends indeed. Liz Hedgecock asked me to co-write The Caster & Fleet Series and Val Portelli suggested we pull some of our short stories together into an Weird & Peculiar Tales.

What does the future hold? In the immediate sense, the publication of the third Margaret Demeray book later this year I hope and maybe a longer sequel to The Good Wife. And after that on maybe not too distant a date, I’m hoping the writing shed will come into its own and I won’t be distracted by a demanding day job, but who knows… 

After all – since it’s National Story Telling Week, if you click on the link below, you’ll hear me on YouTube, somewhat hesitantly reading ‘The Familiar’, one of the first stories I wrote for ‘Kindling’. It may be a little sad as a story, but it too is ultimately about a new start. Would I have believed I’d do anything like this in 2005? Not in a million years.

So I’d like to encourage you at this new time of new beginnings, whether you’re a writer or not. If you’re stuck, or don’t think ‘it’ will ever happen (whatever ‘it’ is) please don’t give up. The time might not be ‘now’ but when it comes, it’ll be the right time somehow and ‘it’ will be the richer for it. And also, whether you think of yourself as a writer or not and things are bogging you down – consider finding a creative outlet. You don’t need to share the outcome, but writing, drawing, sewing, crafting, photography cooking… all of them are massive boosts to mental health – a way of expressing things it’s hard to say out loud.

Go for it – it’s never too late for a new beginning.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Credit for image of cats.

Once More With Feeling

Somehow it’s New Year again. 

My daughter has gone back to university and all the Christmas food has been eaten except a few chocolates and enough cheese to make macaroni cheese for fifty (and the Christmas pudding which we’ll have tomorrow).

I stopped doing a ‘round robin’ Christmas letters a long time ago, around about when I joined Facebook. But this year I wrote one for a few friends I haven’t seen in person for years and who aren’t on Facebook much or at all. Turned out, when I started writing, that 2021 didn’t add up to a great deal. ‘Ooh,’ I thought. ‘There was that trip to Silchester with Debbie.’ Then I thought a bit harder and realised ‘that trip’ was in 2019. Somehow 2020 and 2021 have merged into one – a sort of roller coaster of lockdowns being imposed and lifted, of silence and noise, of anxiety and relief, of being able to travel and/or see people and then not being able to and then being able to again, of Christmases and holidays not being the way (or with the people) we’d expected and so on. 

Meanwhile some things have sort of trundled on as if nothing has changed – my husband and I were never furloughed so have kept doing the day jobs, my children continued (somehow) their university work. 

As you can tell from previous Januaries (sp??), I’m not much of a resolution maker (or keeper). The loft remains chaotic, my nails nibbled, the crochet abandoned, the choir I briefly joined has not been revisited. But I thought I’d have a quick look back at former January posts, and saw these New Year’s good wishes from Val Portelli in January 2020, at a point when my life was a little upside down, but before we all realised the whole world was about to turn upside down. They were:

  1. A secret writing space
  2. Trained housework fairies
  3. Self cleaning and ironing clothes
  4. Self cooking and washing up meals
  5. Empty, peaceful train journeys
  6. Supportive work colleagues
  7. Considerate offspring
  8. Strong anti-bodies as soldiers for ailing relative
  9. No plot holes, and
  10. A successful writing year

In retrospect they have a sort of poignancy. But, if I apply them to 2021 too, this would be the outcome:

  1. After first asking in 2005, I finally had a shed built for me to write in in July 2021. It’s furnished with odds and ends from the attic, and my husband keeps joining me in there, so it’s hardly secret, but it’s lovely!
  2. I’m fairly sure the fairies returned to fairyland in 2019 and I can’t say I blame them.
  3. I gave up the ironing years ago, but the washing remains visible only to me.
  4. Sadly not, although my husband still argues he loads the dishwasher better than I do. It’s simplest to agree. It keeps him happy.
  5. I only had one train journey in 2020 and two in 2021. I don’t miss the 6:45 am commutes to London twice a week, but I miss the rhythm and ‘out of the world’ feeling of train travel for writing in.
  6. My colleagues are amazingly supportive.
  7. My offspring are lovely, despite their early adult life not being remotely as carefree as they’d expected and I’m so proud of both of them.
  8. We got through. Sadly, not all our friends did. If you’re bereaved too, I’m really sorry.
  9. My plot holes overflowed. I spent even more of 2021 removing sub-plots than I did in 2020! I blame Covid. Not sure if it’s the lack of train travel or some sort of anxiety induced brain fog which means my ideas get more tangled than my crochet.
  10. Big old novels ‘Murder Saturnalia’ and ‘Death in the Last Reel’, novella ‘The Good Wife’ and short story collections ‘Invitation For Christmas’ and ‘Night Navigation’ all came out somehow. I’m content with that. 

I’m not even going to try and make resolutions for 2022 – writing or otherwise – out loud. I have aspirations and things I hope to achieve, but if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s not to assume everything will go to plan. After all, there’s the Yiddish saying ‘Der mentsh trakht un got lakht’ meaning ‘Man plans, and God laughs’, and didn’t Robert Burns say ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley’ (go awry)?

But I will say that I’m working on a sequel to ‘Death In the Last Reel’  (the third book in the Margaret Demeray series) and also a sequel to ‘The Good Wife’ which will be a short novel rather than a novella.

I’ve just started reading ‘The Thief on the Winged Horse’ by Kate Mascarenhas and I have ‘Old Baggage’ by Lissa Evans next on the pile (and a pile of non fiction too as ever), but I plan to be more disciplined about reading and follow this suggestion for reading in 2021. It’s from the The Book Hangout Spot Facebook page. Here are the suggestions and my thoughts so far

  • January: A book you read at school: Old Mali and the Boy’ by D.R. Sherman
  • February: A book you wish you’d read at school: ‘Anita and me’ by Meera Syal. It didn’t exist at the time, because Meera is around my age, but it’s a great book – an eye opener of what it was like to be a British Asian contemporary living in a rural community (as I did, only mine was mono-cultural) watching the same TV programmes but with a different viewpoint. I wish we’d had more exposure to contemporary British people of a different ethnicity through the books we read at school. I think it would have made a massive difference in the long run to people’s perceptions and their decisions as adults.
  • March: A book published within the last year: ‘This Much Huxley Knows’ by Gail Aldwin.
  • April: a non fiction book: ‘The Great War: The People’s Story – Kate Parry Frye’ by Elizabeth Crawford
  • May: a book you wouldn’t normally choose: I’m thinking Science Fiction – any ideas?
  • June: a book that will improve a specific area of your life – no idea whatsoever!
  • July: a book that a friend recommended: ‘The Singing Sands’ by Josephine Tey
  • August: a book that you can read to your child: ‘Treacle Walker’ by Alan Garner
  • September: a book that you listen to: ‘The White Russian Caper’ by Phyllis Entis
  • October: a Pulitzer prize winning book of fiction: ‘The Night Watchman’ by Louise Erdrich
  • November: a comedy: ‘The Flat Share’ by Beth O’Leary
  • December: your choice: I’ll decide closer to the time!

Any suggestions gratefully received and I’d love to know if you’ve got any reading plans too.

AND FINALLY – if you’ve got this far. Two offers for a very short time in the US & UK:

The Case of the Black Tulips’ is 99p/99c until 6th January 2022

‘The Wrong Sort To Die’ is 99p/99c until 8th January 2022

Happy New Year! And may 2022 be a good one and full of peace and fulfilment.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image File ID 104038561 | © Artur Szczybylo | Dreamstime.com