Hearts and Flowers

Well it’s Valentine’s Day 2021. Where I am, it’s very cold, raining, we’re in lockdown and everything’s closed, so there’s a limit to how easy it is to be romantic, especially when you’re me.

Usually, my husband cooks us a nice meal which we eat à deux. This year, we have two other adults in the house who can’t go anywhere else and as it’s Sunday, my mum (who’s in our support bubble) will be coming round for dinner. Various solutions, including staggered meals, presented themselves and in the end we gave up and my son said he’d cook a meal for all five of us. Maybe I’ll decorate the table with hearts. Maybe not.

I don’t mind really. My husband and I are fairly rubbish at soppy stuff in general, and with eleven months of the impact of Covid-19 behind us and who knows how many more ahead, we’d rather have a Valentine’s banquet for all our loved ones, so many of whom we haven’t seen for a very long time and those we have seen, we’ve had to greet from a two metre distance, usually while wearing a mask.

I was going to avoid writing about Valentine’s Day today and write about something else. Lupercalia or Fornacalia perhaps. These were both Roman festivals celebrated in early Februrary. But having looked them up, I decided against it. The former is very strange and despite what the latter looks like written in English, it’s all to do with baking. I might make some heart shaped cookies today, but I’m certainly not making spelt wafers from scratch. (If you want to, the recipe is in the Fornacalia link.)

So back to good old St Valentine’s Day. While apparently, Geoffrey Chaucer was apparently the first to record 14th February as relating to romance in his 1375 poem ‘Parliament of Foules’, it was the Victorians (naturally) who managed to commercialise and therefore make lots of money out of it. If you want to see some really unusual Victorian cards, both hand-made and printed, you might enjoy this article from the Museum of London. 

While I’ve written the odd short love story, so far I haven’t written a romance novel. That’s not to say there are never any romantic moments in my mystery books, but they tend to go awry. I’m not entirely sure what to blame this on but there are a few contenders.

For a start, I didn’t have much in the way of role-models. My paternal grandfather, while loving my grandmother deeply, wasn’t keen on public displays of affection. The one time I walked into their kitchen and saw him embrace then kiss her gently, seemed so intimate that I backed out immediately before returning more noisily just in case I disturbed any more elderly shenanigans. My father would have been a romantic but my mother thought it nonsense. My sister and I as children tried to force them into romance, by making soppy Valentine’s cards on their behalf, but these were greeted with some bafflement.

Then, watching films and TV as a young teenager in the smutty, innuendo-heavy seventies, I viewed a bewildering set of ideas of what a woman should expect from lurve. In comedies (and sometimes dramas), women were divided into: 

  1. ‘nice girls who might but probably wouldn’t until married to the nice boy’ who turned into ‘nice wives who were largely decorative and whose chief function seemed to be hosting dinner parties to impress the nice husband’s boss’; 
  2. ‘dolly birds’/‘bits of crumpet’ who were free with their favours and would never settle for being a wife but might for being a mistress; 
  3. ‘brainy types’ who just needed the right man to waken their sexuality whereupon they’d become (1) or (2); 
  4. ‘frigid wives/women’ who existed chiefly to make the man’s life a misery but give him an excuse to pursue (2) or seduce (3); 
  5. ‘plain, sex-mad spinsters’ – objects of derision who wanted to be (1) or (2) but had no hope since no man would touch them (despite the fact that the men in the comedies were often repulsive and had little to no concept of respect/consent).

Love films (of which I can only remember ‘Love Story’) seemed to chiefly involve someone dying and it all being too late and lots of gut-wrenching angst.

My maternal grandmother read a lot of books which I devoured when we stayed with her: murder mysteries, thrillers and rather steamy historical fiction in which bodice-ripping always lead to at least one person having their head cut off.

It was all very confusing. I didn’t want to be a, b, c, d or e. I certainly didn’t want anyone to die just as they found their one true love. Especially me. Especially by decapitation.

Then there was the first Valentine’s I received at about fourteen. It came in the post at breakfast time on a school-day and the tiny hope that it was from THE ONE faded when I saw my best friend’s handwriting (since she and THE ONE didn’t really know each other). Innocently if a little disappointed therefore, I opened the envelope in front of my family, and extracted a Valentine’s card full of dubious (in every sense) ‘verse’ written by my friend on behalf of a mutual male friend for whom I had no romantic feelings whatsoever. While I was still reeling in a mix of emotions (finally, I had a Valentine’s but it was from the wrong boy), the card was whipped from my hands by my aggravating little sister and after she’d sniggered a bit, snatched by my father, who never having any concept of other people’s mortification, read it aloud to my mother and declared he’d take it to the office to show his colleagues. I stopped him. Just.

A few years later, THE ONE did actually ask me for a date and we went out together for about eighteen months. When he ended it, we were walking along and I was crying so hard I walked into some scaffolding before he could stop me and I banged my head, whereupon despite the fact that he was deeply contrite and I was utterly broken-hearted, we both burst out laughing (albeit briefly). 

And then, there was the summer evening MANY years after that, when my husband proposed to me while we were sitting on a cliff watching the sun go down into the sea while birds swooped and soared overhead. We’d only been going out for about two months and while I wanted to say yes, it all seemed so ridiculous, that I said no. Consequently a year and a bit after that, when he tried again, the proposal I accepted one grey day went something like, him: ‘mumble mumble get married’, me: ‘oh go on then.’

See – I can’t even do my own love story properly.

So, as I say, I haven’t written a romance yet and wonder if I have the skills. Occasionally, I have a go at writing love scenes, but my inner teenager emerges, sniggers, ruins the moment and makes me write things like this:

He stood irresolute in the bedroom torn between the desperate urge to get his trousers off and the knowledge that he might look less than sexy in his superhero socks and boxers. With relief, he realised she’d got her hair and face tangled in the complicated straps of her dress, which gave him just enough time to stumble about the room removing his clothes, chuck them out of sight and recline on the bed before she emerged, flushed with what he hoped was desire but feared was largely exhaustion.

Or this:

He kissed her neck, her mouth and their feet tangled under the covers as he pulled her closer, lifting his lips from hers to say: ‘I l— Aargh! Ow ow ow!’

‘Aargh? Ow?’

‘The cat’s got onto the bed. She’s attacking my feet! She’s just sunk her teeth in! Aargh!’

So you see, that’s why I chose the picture below to go with this blog. Although the man doesn’t look much like Fox in The Wrong Sort to Die, the woman does look a bit like Margaret, right down to the suspicious look: ‘Why are you being so soppy? what are you after?’

Mind you, Fox probably is after something. It could be help with his latest mission, a decent meal, a pint of beer in the Dog & Duck rather than a cup of coffee in a prim café, or it could be something else entirely. I can’t imagine what but I suspect it doesn’t involve flowers and chocolate. Well. Maybe chocolate.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photograph https://www.dreamstime.com/jrabelo_info

Chopsing – Video Interview

Some people describe me as talkative, others as reserved.

When I was a child, elderly female relations seemed unable to decide if I should talk or hold my tongue. I was either told to stop whispering and speak so that people could hear me or told that children should be seen and not heard. Teachers sometimes made me stand facing a corner because they said it was the only way to make me keep quiet. Other times, they’d be annoyed because I didn’t answer questions.

But to be honest, it’s true: sometimes I talk too much, and I don’t always know how to stop either.

At parties however, I’m often considered withdrawn to the point of appearing to be in pain. I can’t help it. If the environment is too noisy, my brain tries to tune into forty conversations at once and if I can force it to concentrate, while I’m happy to discuss something concrete, small-talk leaves me mentally blank and desperate to hide in a corner with a book. 

Then of course there’s the very good chance I’m quiet because I’m day-dreaming and therefore have no idea what anyone is saying. (This will happen particularly when people are discussing sport, celebrities or fashion – and, I confess, sometimes during work meetings.) 

I’ve developed a range of hopefully intelligent sounding non-committal noises for when I’m suddenly asked for an opinion but to be honest, I’m not sure people are often convinced by them.

While I couldn’t discuss anything very personal, I’ve been giving presentations for years inside and outside work and I’m happy to give talks about my writing. 

I set Murder Durnovaria in Roman Dorchester which is less than twenty miles from where I live. When it was published in late 2019, I anticipated local author events in 2020. Well, we all know what went wrong there. 

My new book Murder Saturnalia, which is due out in two weeks, is set in a fictional place but based on somewhere very local. I initially hoped that maybe, just maybe I might get a chance to do an author talk in my home town at least. But of course, it’s still impossible.

However, technology proved a possible solution. One of the weirder bonuses of lockdown has been that because all my work meetings are now held via Microsoft Teams, and because the only way to meet with friends and relations is by FaceTime, Messenger, Skype or Zoom, I’ve become used to video technology in a way I never would have endured a year ago. 

Before lock-down, I hated video calls, even with family. But this year, faced with a book coming out and no way to hold any kind of talk, I asked friend and fellow local author Sim Sansford if he’d interview me via Zoom to see if it would work. It wasn’t just for my benefit, it was also to see if it might be an approach to involve other authors in an online version of the local literary festival with which we’re both involved. 

So without further ado, here’s the result. If you want to know what I sound like and look like (particularly when I’m pulling faces while thinking), who my characters are based on (if anyone) and what my latest plotting technique is, here goes. 

Go on, give it a listen. No-one who’s seen it has made me stand in a corner so far, so it can’t be that bad.

Words and photograph copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Credits for images used for Murder Saturnalia: Ruins of Pompeii, Italy Photo 74409584 © Yi Liao | Dreamstime.com Figure of a woman painted in a Fresco in a Domus of Pompeii ID 143271565 © Floriano Rescigno | Dreamstime.com

What Three Things?

There are several ways to develop characters, but this is one I’ve heard from several writers. It was author Chantelle Atkins who encouraged me to write it down. 

The idea is to answer the following:

  1. What three things does the character want?
  2. What three things does the character fear?
  3. What three things are stopping them from getting what they want?
  4. In what three ways is the character unreliable?

Having to think of three things rather than just one means you can’t escape down the easiest path. This helps make them more three-dimensional. It also provides ideas for what might create tension in the plot and how the character needs to develop. 

I’m currently working on the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die, set in 1911. If I give one answer for each question about Dr Margaret Demeray, I’d end up with:

  • She wants to progress her career
  • She fears being passed over because of her gender
  • She’s hindered by a society which inhibits women pursuing careers particularly if they marry
  • She’s unreliable because she tends to lose her temper and speak/act before she listens/thinks

Thinking about it harder the three answers for each question would be:

  • Margaret wants to progress her career
  • She wants to be in a loving, equal relationship (and maybe have a little romance) as well as have a career
  • She wants equality not just for women but for everyone, regardless of gender, class or race
  • She fears being passed over because of her gender
  • She fears living alone forever
  • She fears boredom
  • She’s hindered by a society which inhibits women pursuing careers particularly if they marry
  • She’s hindered by a society in which someone (particularly female) is more likely to be called immoral because of perceived sexual behaviour than because of actual abuse of power. 
  • She’s hindered by 1911 modes of communication
  • She’s unreliable because she tends to lose her temper and speak/act before she listens/thinks
  • She’s unreliable because she protects herself from being hurt by not trusting people who love her.
  • She’s unreliable because wanting to support the underdog makes her easy to manipulate

Now Margaret is in a situation where she not only has to choose where her life is going, but also has to convince Fox that what appears to be an accident is not just murder, but connected to espionage.

What if tackling both these problems forces her into an alliance with Miss X whose wants, fears, hindrances and unreliabilities don’t quite align with Margaret’s?

  • Miss X wants to progress her career
  • She wants to be respected
  • She wants equality not just for women but for everyone regardless of gender, class or race (but she thinks there needs to be a long, slow process to get there)
  • She fears being passed over because of her gender
  • She fears dying alone
  • She fears disruption and change
  • She’s hindered by a society which inhibits women pursuing careers particularly if they marry
  • She’s hindered by women like Margaret who are trying to change society rapidly 
  • She’s hindered by knowing she will not be forgiven if she makes a mistake
  • She’s unreliable because she would rather avoid risk than take a necessary action
  • She’s unreliable because she hasn’t dealt with how she feels about choosing a career over marriage
  • She’s unreliable because she can’t admit when she makes a mistake

What clashes will occur if they have to work together? Will they hinder each other? Or will they, in fact, help each other? 

Although I’m talking about characters who are complete figments of my imagination, today, I thought about whether those four questions could have any relevance outside a fictional setting. I think they do.

If the last few years have shown us anything, it’s how depressingly easy it is for people to become polarised in their views. 

I haven’t navel-gazed for a number of years but do think that periodically re-examining my views is worth doing. After all, if they’re valid, they should be able to take some honest scrutiny. 

I wonder if part of the reason it’s so easy for us not only to end up on opposite sides of a fence but at the far side of our personal paddock is because if we do ask ourselves questions, we only ask the first three and tend to stop at one answer for each. That way, the chances are we’ll disagree.

I want…

I’m afraid of…

I’m hindered by…

If we think of three answers to each question however, the chances are that we’ll agree on more than we think.

And secondly, if we’re all honest about how, why and in what way we’re unreliable, maybe we can look at both our own views and others’ more honestly and with more depth.

It’s the only way we can start to discuss how to move forward and not back, make things better for everyone, not worse.

Going back to Margaret and Miss X, who knows how they’ll influence each other as the book unfolds. 

Will Miss X convince Margaret that she should give up hopes of love? Not in a million years. Will Margaret convince Miss X that she should chain herself to the railings of Downing Street? Probably not. 

But they do have three things which they (and I) definitely agree about: 

  • After a hard day at work, no woman has the energy to cook anything but toast, and potentially the worst thing about married life would be a man demanding a fiddly meal or worse still, cooking it himself using ALL the pans and utensils.
  • A woman living on her own needs a cat to come home to.
  • It definitely wasn’t an accident and if no-one pays attention soon, someone else is going to die. 

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photograph https://www.dreamstime.com/jrabelo_info

Resolving Not To Resolve

At a work meeting via Teams on 31st December, a colleague asked who had achieved their 2020 resolutions. While there was the usual mumbling about getting fit and losing weight, most people felt just getting from January to December in 2020 had been enough of a challenge and had long since forgotten what they’d vowed to achieve.

Naturally this included me, so I looked back on the resolutions I recorded here

The plan:

  1. Publish two books
  2. Learn to crochet
  3. Maybe join a choir
  4. Live more sustainably
  5. Be more spiritually aware
  6. Get on with clearing attic

The reality:

  1. Despite the odds, I published two books and got into an anthology. The Wrong Sort to Die came out in June. I have a story in Wartime Christmas Tales and Liz Hedgecock asked if I fancied writing a short Christmas Caster & Fleet resulting in The Case of the Peculiar Pantomime in December.
  2. I learned to crochet enough to produce an indescribable thing. However, despite watching tuition videos, I never feel like I had enough hands to make the magic circle I needed to create anything interesting. I’m not sure I could even make a coaster.
  3. I joined a choir, then Mum got ill, then Covid-19 happened so… Maybe another year.
  4. The best I can say about sustainable living is that due to Covid-19, my husband and I have both been working from home and not using the cars (and in my case, train); we haven’t driven about much in our leisure time; we didn’t fly to Spain as planned in September.
  5. I enjoyed some aspects of the first lock-down. The skies were clearer, you could hear nature better, it was so peaceful. I liked having weekends when I didn’t feel I ought to be somewhere else and fortunately everyone in my household got on. On the other hand, while I’m lucky to live in a pretty country town, doing the same walk every day gets on my nerves sometimes. Also, my husband treats every walk like a route-march so I take to occasionally going on my own, ambling along the river, absorbing the sounds and sights. I think generally my head was buzzing so much with so many conflicting and stressful things in 2020 that I found both creativity and spiritual awareness extremely hard. Learning to be still is something I find hard naturally but I’ll keep trying.
  6. No chance on clearing the attic whatsoever. As we weren’t furloughed (which I’m glad about of course) we didn’t have the time in the week. At weekends, there was nowhere to take any stuff: the dump was shut and so were the charity shops. To add to everything already in the attic, when the country locked-down my daughter came home from university bringing all her stuff and then a couple of months later, my son came home after graduating, bringing all his stuff. I’m now worried that the odd creaking sounds in the attic are not the friendly household ghost, but the ceiling about to give way.

I note that I wished for you:

  • Space and time for creativity in whatever form that works for you
  • Space and time to connect with the world around you and maybe beyond you
  • Feeling loved and able to give love
  • The chance to wave goodbye to the things that dragged you down in 2019 and find things that lift you up in 2020
  • That your joys might outnumber your worries and if not, you might find comfort through the worry
  • That you might realise that your very existence is part of the jigsaw which makes the world tick even if that sometimes doesn’t feel blindingly obvious

I hope that somehow those came true despite everything, but I doubt I’m the only one who felt a greater than usual pleasure taking down my 2020 calendars marking a year which seemed simultaneously to go on forever and yet somehow not quite happen.

We have several calendars. 

The appointments one in the kitchen has a column for each person and we block out the weeks when we’re going on holiday. After March, all the blocked out weeks which should have been holidays mocked us. From January to August 2020 almost all the appointments were in my column and worried me sick. They were either reminders for me to take Mum to hospital or reminders that I needed to be taken to hospital myself.

Meanwhile, my writing calendar had writing goals and deadlines mapped out. I failed to meet every single one.

But… I’m tempted to keep both calendars, to remind me of worries which turned out to be manageable and that though plans went awry, the world is still turning. 

My 2021 writing goals calendar is a Moomin one, because if there’s a fictional world I wouldn’t mind moving to, it’s theirs. Moominmama, regardless of comets, floods, Moominpapa’s midlife crisis or Moomintroll’s adolescent moodiness remains perfectly turned out. She knows that if coffee and cake can’t solve the problem immediately, then waiting for a bit then offering coffee and cake probably will. She reminds me very much of my paternal grandmother.

So, I’m not making 2021 resolutions, I’m simply going to try and follow my grandmother’s (and perhaps Moominmama’s) philosophy: 

  1. If everyone puts other people and the common good first, then no-one will ever come second. 
  2. Only worry about things you can control and even then, don’t worry but plan.
  3. If your plans go to pot, adapt. The world will not end. Go with the flow and you may end up somewhere even more exciting than you’d expected and if not – refer to no. 2 and 5.
  4. Whenever you can, do something creative just for fun without necessarily judging the result.
  5. If you can do it without breaking no. 1, treat yourself from time to time without guilt. Life is too short not to.

Happy New Year!

(And if you’re reading this between 4th & 11th January 2021, just to let you know that Murder Britannica will be on Countdown Deal on Amazon UK & US as hopefully the third in the series is on the way.)

Words and photograph copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Yo! Season’s Greetings – what’s your feast?

It’s December 21st, nearing the end of a year for which the Oxford English Dictionary extended its Word of the Year to include ‘several unprecented words of the year’. I’m sure if each of us had a £1/$1/€1/etc for each time we’d uttered one of them, we’d all be rich.

Diwali and Hanukkah have not long passed, it will be Christmas on Friday, and in the northern hemisphere where I live, it’s Winter Solstice today and we’re all looking forward to the days growing longer again. So here I am wishing you season’s greetings!

I doubt I’m alone in finding my family traditions have been somewhat turned upside down more than once in 2020 and it’s more poignant than ever at Christmas. I won’t see friends or relations whom I’d usually see, I won’t have the in-laws here for Christmas (for the record, since there are in-laws and in-laws, this is a sad thing) and food shopping is more fraught than usual as collective madness has descended yet again.

But we do have our decorations up and we’ll have a nice meal and despite the various trials of this year, we’ll have a great deal to be thankful for as we raise a toast to absent loved ones (some of whom will only be absent by geography and/or covid restrictions so we’ll be able to toast them by video technology).

In a writers’ Facebook group, someone asked what our characters might be doing over the festive season. It’s an interesting thought, so here goes with a few of mine.

Let’s start in the 1890s/1910s.

Katherine and Margaret Demeray live comfortable lives (financially that is, their adventures may be less comfortable) in the late 19th Century/early 20th Century and therefore celebrate in the sort of way popularised by Dickens. Of course they (and also their cousin Albert Lamont) are of French Huguenot descent. The ancestors who fled France in the 17th Century would have been Calvinist protestants – puritans – although by the late 19th Century, both families are a great deal less strict and have defected to the Church of England.

While I did a tiny bit of research to find out whether French puritans were quite as strict as English ones and how Huguenots might have celebrated Christmas, I haven’t dug deep enough to find out much. But apparently the Huguenots scandalised English puritans by celebrating Noël at a time when English puritans were trying to ban Christmas and replace feasting with fasting. So, I’m going to stick my neck out and assume that the original Demerays and Lamonts full-heartedly enjoyed the season’s festivities without shame and brought some French specialities with them which three hundred years later, their descendants Katherine, Margaret (and perhaps Albert) included in their Christmas feasting: oysters (not hard at the time as they were cheap); duck and pork terrine or maybe even imported fois gras; marrons glacés (candied chestnuts); les treize desserts – thirteen desserts – a Christmas tradition from Provence including a sweet brioche called pompe à l’huile. Plus of course, by 1890 I’m sure they’d also be tucking into English traditional meal of goose or turkey, chestnut stuffing and roast potatoes followed by plum pudding (to maybe make the thirteen desserts into fourteen).

In the days before anyone thought of choking hazards (which included my childhood in the later 20th century), Christmas puddings always included a sixpence. If you were lucky enough to find it in your portion (before you swallowed it), the money was yours and considered good luck. Other silver trinkets might be put in the pudding, each representing what the future held, such as a tiny wishbone (to bring good luck), a silver thimble (for thrift), or an anchor (to symbolise safe harbour). Maybe the Demerays had a silver bean in theirs from a French tradition when the person finding it would be King for the Day or Bean King with similar traditions in Britain too.

Which links nicely to…

The third Murder Britannica book (due out early next year I hope) is set in a particularly hard British midwinter in AD192 between the Roman festival Saturnalia on 17th December and the rather more ancient Winter Solstice on 21st December. (At the time, Christianity was illegal and no-one in any event had thought to connect the unspecified date of the birth of Christ with December. 25th December was a Mithraic festival and not reassigned for another two hundred years.)

There are all sorts of political shenanigans going on Rome in AD192 and Emperor Commodus is not only more bonkers than most, he’s also heading for an unexpected New Year’s Eve surprise, but no-one in my story is too bothered as Rome is a long way away. Nothing – not even the river freezing solid – stops anyone from eating, although Lucretia’s nephew Fabio (who’s undercover as a hired musician) is mainly living on stew and beer. Lucretia is happily prepared to gorge on all sorts of delights – stuffed chestnuts, spiced chickpeas, fried cubes of breaded cheese – but since the village where she comes from doesn’t really celebrate Saturnalia she’s rather horrified on arriving somewhere else to discover that for a day or so, she’ll have to cook for the slaves rather than the other way around.

I could get very carried away describing Roman food. The trade routes were fantastic, preservation skills high and you could live in Britain and eat foods from the other side of the Empire. I daresay they were expensive, but let’s be honest, in a Midwinter festival, everyone who can push the boat out usually does.  

Pork was high on the list of feasting food (although probably not the way Lucretia cooks it), and to link to the Demerays, also mulled wine and a kind of thirteen desserts at the end. If you want to read about the sorts of things the Romans ate at Saturnalia, this is an interesting article. Pass The Flamingo: Io Saturnalia or even watch some of the dishes being prepared here Celebrating Saturnalia with Cato’s Globi

A batch of globi was made for me on Saturnalia by a dear friend this week as a surprise! They were a bit like deep fried cheesecake balls! It cheered me up no end as it should have been publication day for the book, but you know – 2020 and all that. News in the New Year I hope. 

However, I do have some book treats if you’re looking for something new to read:

The Case of the Peculiar Pantomime Katherine and Connie think it’s time to shut up the detective agency for Christmas and have a rest, but someone at the Merrymakers Music Hall has other ideas.

The Case of the Black Tulips 99p/99c from 24th – 30th December in the UK/US only.

Wartime Christmas Tales. A collection of stories set during World War Two by a number of international writers including me. 

Whatever your situation this December, whatever your beliefs and traditions, whether, whatever or however you celebrate, I hope that after everything this year has chucked at us, you have a refreshing time and that stepping into the New Year brings you light, hope, peace, respite and books!

Copyright: Words by Paula Harmon 2020. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

Author Interview with Sim Sansford

Hi Sim, welcome to my blog. Can you tell us something about yourself?

I’m Sim and I make words into adventures.

I was born and raised in the county town of Dorchester, Dorset, I began scribbling away stories on scraps of paper since before I can remember. I spent a lot of my childhood on adventures, walking the dogs in the woodland surrounding Thomas Hardy’s cottage with my family. Something about the cottage and ‘the man what wrote stuff’ who had lived there sparked a fire inside me. It was from there I began to focus on writing more seriously. 

In 2012, I signed up to Open University to study Creative Writing alongside working full time. I’m not quite sure how I made it out alive, but I graduated with honours and began using the skills he had acquired to edit and redraft old work.  

In 2019 along with some talented friends, I set up the first-ever literary festival in Blandford Forum, Dorset. The events were a huge success with both writers and readers alike. 

As of 2020, I’m now a member of the National Association of Writers in Education and was named Indie Author of The Month (October 2020) by Chantelle Atkins. I’ve since become part of the team at Chasing Driftwood Writing Group CIC.

What’s your earliest writing memory? 

I actually still have what I believe to be the first story I ever wrote. Albeit it doesn’t really make any sense. It was a thriller which switched perspectives between the pursuer and the victim in an abandonned warehouse/museum. It left the reader wondering who was actually the predator and who was the prey in the end. I have never shared it with anyone but I might rework it and post it someday.

What was your favourite childhood book and why? And do you still read it? 

My favourite book from childhood was called The Babysitter by R. L. Stine. It is a 4 book series and I absolutely loved the suspense. The story line was pretty basic… babysitter all alone receiving creepy phone calls and being watched… but I was hooked. Stine is a phenomenal children’s author and I still have my copies!

I used to carry my copy of The Babysitter around in my bag to keep me focussed on my dream of publishing my own work someday. I know, I know… We all have weird quirks!

Can you visualise your characters? If so – which actors would play your two favourites? 

I can! I have always said I would love for Rachelle Lefevre (Victoria, Twilight 2008, New Moon 2009. Julia, Under the Dome 2013)  to play Abi Millar. In fact, my artist for The Willow graphic novel has used her likeness as inspiration.

I think Aja Naomi King (Michaela, How to Get Away with Murder 2014) would make a great Taylor!

How does the location of the story impact on them? 

Denver Falls is full of mystery, echoes from the past ripple through the town and the ancient woodland surrounding it. But the things that go bump in the night aren’t the only things to be afraid of. Sometime people can be just as terrifying.

Will there be a sequel?

There will certainly be a sequel. Books 2 and 3 are currently in the planning stages. These will share the same title and be split between the two books. 

Return to Denver Falls: Part One

Return to Denver Falls: Part Two

I am hoping to have book 2 ready for Summer 2021.

Thanks Sim, that sounds great. And finally, where can we find your books and media links?

Welcome To Denver Falls

Goodbye Yesterday

The Willow

The Storm

Sim Sansford Amazon Author Page

Website: Simalecsansford.com

Twitter: simsansford

Facebook: SimAlecSansford

Chasing Driftwood Writing Group

Blandford Literary Festival

By Any Other Name

Names hold power. People gain identity when they’re named. It may not be the identity they want, or in the case of foundlings or slaves bear any connection with their ancestry but it’s the one they’re given. In older times, the right birth-name might protect a baby from another realm and a ‘real’ name might be given at puberty to indicate something crucial – perhaps even a secret, spiritual name known only to a select few. 

The parents’ religious beliefs might lead them to name a child after a saint or prominent preacher or an idea, although nowadays, it’s quite possible to be called Joseph, Spurgeon or Makepeace without any religious implication at all. 

Whatever you’re called and why, do you shape your name or does it shape you? Will you turn out differently depending on whether you’re called Andrew or Aloysius or Artichoke?

My own name isn’t even a noun. It’s an adjective, the feminine of Paulus, Latin for small. I am small, but my mother says she just wanted a name that couldn’t be shortened. Naturally it has been shortened most of my adult life, although never by my mother.

I was asked for suggestions when my sister was born and am responsible for her being called Julia which I chose from a book about a little girl who had a fluffy chicken. Given that I was three at the time, I suspect my sister is named after the chicken. Mum thought that no-one could shorten Julia either, but naturally they do.

As far as my own children were concerned, my husband and I argued and argued until we finally agreed. This involved, believe it or not, trailing through the cast lists in a TV listings guide to find something we both liked.

In contrast, you’d think it would be comparatively easy for a writer to name characters. I invented them, so I should have free rein. But actually, even though I do substantial research, it’s the character who tells me what they’re actually called.

In Murder Britannica and Murder Durnovaria, the characters are almost entirely Romano-British. Some are citizens and have adopted Roman or Romanised names. Others aren’t and/or haven’t. Lucretia is really called Rhee, but her father, wanting to get the most of the Romans re-named her Lucretia which means ‘profit’. 

The average Briton in the 2nd Century AD would have spoken what is now broadly covered by the word Brythonic which over time became Welsh, Cornish, Cumbric and Breton with close links to Gaelic. The richer and more influential Briton would also have spoken Latin. And then they’d probably have mixed things up, had nicknames and dialects. My Romano-British characters therefore might be called something Latin, Brythonic, Welsh or entirely made-up.

Some have names which fit their personalities: Eira (Welsh for snow) is rather cold and Deryn (Welsh for bird) is more comfortable with nature than people. Then there are Dun and Gris whose names suit two muddy grave-robbers. However, while I was writing the third book, Dun reminded me in Brythonic and Gaelic, Dùn means fort and there’s more to him than I’d given him credit for. (If you love words, here’s a fascinating site to explore Brythonic Word of the Day).

It’s easier with more recent eras. Lists of the top 100/200 names are online, although US ones pop up before UK ones and I don’t always realise until I see ‘Earl’ as a popular name for boys that I’ve crossed The Pond by accident. You can even see how your own name has fared over the last 100 years

Once in the right country, I’ll find the approximate decade when a character would have been born and see what resonates.

In The Wrong Sort to Die (set 1910), the main character Margaret (born 1874) had originally come into being as the younger sister of Katherine (born 1865) in The Case of the Black Tulips (set 1890). Katherine is one of my favourite names but I can’t actually recall how I came to ‘discover’ Margaret. She probably just told me when I wasn’t paying attention. Fox however, just popped into my head fully formed and fully named (if of course, that’s really his name).

The book also features a Goan Catholic who’s moved to London, married an Englishwoman and had children. Goan Catholic names have Portuguese roots and I found ones online that he and his English wife were most likely to give their children which might subsequently be Anglicised. They felt just right in the end.

Like many writers, I have novels in a cyber drawer. Some have characters whose names feel perfect. But not all. 

In 2015 I wrote a 50,000 word novel for Nanowrimo. This formed the basis of a longer book which I edited and sent to Beta readers for input. To my disappointment, they mostly concluded that the main character is very boring. After I’d licked my wounds, I had to agree. For more than half the book she is extremely passive and remains in a horrible situation for no logical reason.

At the moment, she is called Sarah. I have no idea why I picked that name but now thinks she’s somehow a grown-up human version of my old doll Sarah-Jane who equally didn’t have much personality. Maybe that’s what’s part of her problem. 

So I’ve since concluded that Sarah can’t be her real name and put the book very much back in the cyber drawer. While the sub-subconscious works out how to make her more engaging (and more importantly, pro-active) I’m living in hope that she’ll wake up and tell me what she’s actually called because that might really help. 

Research though can lead to unexpected ideas. Recently, I bought a second hand book called ‘The Romance of Parish Registers’. It’s a lot more fascinating than it sounds. For example: how about the surname Clinkadagger recorded in Cranford parish registers in 1630 or Drybutter recorded in Barking between 1558-1650? And a register in Denham Bucks records that Henry Criple married Easter Christmas on 7th September 1704.

I have been pretty conventional with my naming so far, but who knows? It may not just be Sarah who needs to less boring…

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

https://britishsurnames.co.uk/1881census/dorset

British Baby Names – Trends, Styles and Quirks

Brythonic Male Names

Brythonic Female Names

Examples of Ancient Brythonic Words in Modern English

Hallowe’en 2020 – Post Event Evaluation

‘Failed!’ shouted the new Head of Haunting, slapping a ghostly performance dashboard. ‘All you have to do was scare people witless. One night. Once a year. That’s it. We talked it through. We had a plan. But you failed.’

We didn’t have a plan,’ muttered the Elf Queen. ‘You did.’

The Head of Haunting flicked her a glare. ‘I’m getting the flip chart and sticky-notes.’ He vanished into another dimension.

‘Oh no,’ grumbled a spectral Train-Driver. ‘He’s going to do modern management. That’s what comes from recruiting fast-screamers. None of that rubbish in my day.’

‘When was your day exactly?’ breathed the Chief Ghoul.

‘Before the Romans,’ said the Train-Driver. ‘Started on a ghost chariot, then half a millennium later I got a carriage with skeleton horses, then in 1860, I started running the midnight special from Waterloo to Hades. Mwaha—’ He slumped. ‘My heart’s not in it this year. Not that I’ve got one. The druids removed it. Weirdos.’

‘Meh. Druids,’ said the Elf Queen. ‘They weren’t as weird as the Rock Shifters. All those stupid massive stones – “right a bit, left a bit, can’t have them misaligned or the elves’ll come in”. Like a lump of rock’s gonna stop The Fair Folk from crossing the veil.’

‘Unless the lump of rock’s got iron,’ suggested the Ghoul. ‘That does for you and witches doesn’t it?’

‘Like that’s logical,’ said the Spokeswitch. ‘The Rock Shifters didn’t have iron. And what do you think my best eye-of-toad boiling cauldron was made of?’

The Elf Queen sighed. ‘Life used to be simple. We crossed the veil, had a bit of a laugh and popped back again. My grandmother says… Oh hang on, he’s back.’

The Head of Haunting reappeared and pinned some transparent flip-chart covered in sticky-notes to the ether. One by one, the sticky-notes slid off and vanished. ‘Right!’ he snapped. ‘Ghosts, ghouls and witches: the Existential-Dreadograph didn’t shift one bit on Hallowe’en. What went wrong?’

‘We tried,’ said the Train-Driver after a pause. ‘But humans seem beyond scaring this year.’

‘Humph.’ The Head of Haunting turned his icy glare on the Elf Queen. ‘What’s the elves’ excuse? All you had to do was lure a few foolish mortals back to our realm. But I gather not one of you did. In fact-’ he flicked a ghostly finger down an eek-Pad, ‘-according to the data, none of you has crossed the veil since last Winter Solstice. Why not?’

The Elf Queen shuddered. ‘What fool would want to visit the human realm this year? And as for luring people back, we wouldn’t need to lure them. They’d be fighting to come here even if we admitted there was no gold or lover waiting, just… processing.’

‘It’s true,’ breathed the ghoul. ‘Hallowe’en was wasted this year. Everything is already too scary in the mortal realm. Put away your problem-solve mate and admit the truth. We just can’t compete with 2020.’

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Author Interview with Stephen Deutsch

Welcome to my website Stephen. Thanks for taking part in an author interview.

Please tell us a little about yourself

I’m Stephen Deutsch, novelist, composer and filmmaker.

I was born in New York and moved to the UK in 1970, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1978. I was trained as a pianist and composer, spending the first part of my career composing music for concert hall, theatre, television and film. I have been a lecturer in film sound and music, and have edited a journal on that subject, The Soundtrack, and later The New Soundtrack. My first novel, Zweck, a historical comedy about music, was published in 2016. I am the co-author of a coming book – Listening to the Film: A Practical Philosophy of Film Sound and Music. I have written plays for television, broadcast on the BBC.

Thank you. I’d love to know more about your writing process and inspiration. For example, do you like to reflect a sense of place in your stories? If so, how?

As I write historical fiction, a sense of place and time is essential. I try to immerse myself in the lives and times, the locations and events through which the characters lived. Researching this gives me much satisfaction.

What’s your earliest writing memory?

I seem to remember singing a song with made up lyrics in school. I was about six years old. The teacher took it down and put it in the school yearbook. I can’t remember it now, but I think it had to do with rain.

If you were encouraged to write/create – who encouraged you and how?

My mother groomed me to be a famous musician, encouraged to perform, play and sing. Not to write. It didn’t quite work out the way she imagined.

What was your favourite childhood book and why? And do you still read it?

I loved Alice in Wonderland. I was lucky enough to compose music for a TV adaptation some years ago. But the book is far better, I still read it from time to time.

What did you get in trouble for at school?

Talking too much.  Nothing has changed.

How do you keep yourself motivated when your writing doesn’t flow?

I trick myself. I come to the desk thinking that I would just review the previous day’s work, and before long, ideas begin to arrive. Even though I know that this is a subterfuge, I fall for it every time.

Can you visualize your characters? If so – which actors would play your two favourites?

I do visualize my characters, especially because they were real people and I know what they looked like. Any casting, however inspired, would distort their reflection.

How much of yourself is in your stories?

Hard to say. I write every single word, so my own voice must penetrate through…

Do you like town or country?

Both

Why did you pick your genre?

The cliché is ‘it picked me’, but clichés become clichés because they are most often true.

If you like to write to music – what do you choose and why?

I never write to music. Either it’s too interesting, so it distracts, or it’s simply banal, which distracts me even more.

If you had to pick five pieces of music to sum up you and/or your life – what would they be and why? 

  1. The B minor Mass by J.S. Bach, because I simply can’t imagine the mind that created this monumental, overpowering  work.
  2. “Hit the Road, Jack” as sung by Ray Charles. Part of the music which resonated in my childhood.
  3. “Here comes the Sun” by the Beatles, reminding me of the happy two years I lived I San Francisco.
  4. Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto as played by Yuja Wang. Reminding me of what I aspired to, and how sensible it was for me to stand back and let a real genius play it. I also would never have been able to carry off the frocks as she does.
  5. My own String Quintet. Because it’s the best music I have ever composed and I’m proud of it.

What makes you happy?

Work. Thinking, reading, talking to friends.

If you could go anywhere (real or fictional) – where and why?

I’d like to revisit Orvieto, Italy when the plague ends.  The most magical place in Italy, especially at sunset.

What could you not live without?

Optimism.  Fortunately, I still have some lying around somewhere.

Who are your two main characters in your latest book Champion?

Herschel Grynszpan was a slightly built lad, 17 at the time of the assassination, he had dark hair and deeply-set eyes. As an undocumented Jewish adolescent living in Paris just before the war, having left Germany because of the persecution he felt as a Jew, thinking to emigrate to Palestine (as it then was). In October 1938, he receives a postcard from his parents – they had recently been bundled with 25,000 other Jewish residents of Hanover, put on a train – but not in the same way as Jews were later transported to the Ghettos and the death camps; they were in 3rd class compartments – then dumped in the rain on the Polish border.

Herschel was so enraged that he bought a gun and murdered a minor German official at the German Embassy in France, and this act was used as the excuse for Kristalnacht. He was arrested and was being prepared for trial, when the Germans invaded. And his adventures after that form a big part of the story.

Max Schmeling was a Nazi icon, not altogether wholeheartedly. And especially after his spectacular defeat of Joe Louis in 1936, he was feted everywhere in Germany, even having tea with Hitler and watching the fight film with him. His wife, Anny Ondra, who had starred in Hitchcock’s Blackmail – as well as many German films – was also similarly celebrated as part of this ideal Aryan couple. 

Like many Germans, Max was uneasy about the regime – so many of his friends, artists, writers, musicians had disappeared, so much of what the Nazis stood for went against the sense of honour with which he had been raised. But ethics and morals, however resolutely he held them, did not prevent him from capitalising on his fame. But he was not a racist, of this I have no doubt. He defended his Jewish manager and was a major benefactor of Joe Louis in retirement – as well as after his death. During Kristalnacht Max sheltered two young Jewish lads in his hotel room until the violence subsided.

Will there be a sequel?

Hope not. Not by me, in any case.

Where can we find a copy of Champion?

Champion can be found at Unicorn Press – https://www.unicornpublishing.org or Amazon UK or Amazon US or can be ordered from good bookshops.

Thank you Stephen. I wish you every success with Champion, which is a great book: well researched and beautifully written. 

Modesty

I’ve been thinking about modesty lately.

Modesty is, of course, a human concept.

The sparrows nesting in our eaves have not been modestly tweeting that they’re nice bird-next-door types, while worrying in case they’re showing too much down.  No they haven’t. 

Instead, they’ve spent a warm, dry spring reproducing at least three times – usually right in front of us. They flaunt their feathers and yell how fantastic they are from dawn till dusk only stopping to mate, argue or fly into our house. 

Modesty is also cultural. What a person should do with clothing, hair, arms, legs or even faces, has rules (many contradictory) in every human group and era you can think of. 

Take a photograph of my great-grandmother aged 19, taken in the 1890’s. She shows an inch of skin below her collarbone and had to plead to show so much flesh. Roll on the 1920s, and my grandmother (her daughter) as a teenager, causes horror by cutting her hair and wearing knee-length skirts. Quite what either of them would make of my daughter’s fashions is anyone’s guess. I expect my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather would be apoplectic, so it’s just as well they’re already well and truly dead. 

Modesty also means not demonstrating pride. 

This is also human.

A bower-bird doesn’t worry that the nest he’s created is over-the-top. He doesn’t quietly tweet that he’s rather pleased. No – he makes the nest as over-the-top as possible so a female can see that it’s the best and only one she could want and therefore he is the only possible mate worth having.

Human attitudes to blowing one’s own trumpet do vary from place to place and era to era. In Britain, verbal self-deprecation is the norm. Part of the pleasure of watching ‘The Apprentice’ is hearing the candidates’ outrageous claims about themselves because it’s just so culturally abnormal to say such things out loud here. (Just to be clear, there’s a lot of double-thinking behind this, so if one British person gloomily says ‘this could be worse’, another British person knows it means ‘I’m really really really proud of this’. I appreciate that this is very, very, very illogical.) 

Things are changing. At school, my children were encouraged to publicly talk about things they were proud of. In my day, anyone doing that would have been called uppity and told to shut up.

So why has modesty been on my mind recently?

Firstly, I’m of a culture, generation, upbringing, gender and figure that means I worry about how much flesh I show, despite believing that if someone wants to walk around naked that’s none of anyone else’s business. (Although it’s maybe not wise in the British climate.) 

But since the breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve got so used to stripping to the waist for complete strangers, that I’m now a little afraid of bumping into a friend in the supermarket in case she asks how well my scars are healing and I show her there and then without thinking. (Given that I wouldn’t have shown as much as a freckle a few months ago this shows how trauma impacts hard-wired behaviour.)

Secondly, I’m of a culture, generation, upbringing and possibly gender that finds it hard to talk about my achievements in case people think I’m full of myself. 

This makes promoting books difficult.

I planned to set up talks in 2020 for Murder Durnovaria and The Wrong Sort to Die. Covid-19 put paid to that. I’d also intended to write some press releases but what with one thing and another, so far I haven’t. I have started an online course about advertising, yet I was daunted on the first day when tasked to praise my own books. I’d feel so much more British saying ‘this is really quite nice’ and hoping people understood.

Is this cultural, human or just me? Most writer friends say the same thing.

Imagine introducing a lovely but unconventional boyfriend/girlfriend to your lovely but eccentric parents. You’re not sure what they’ll make of each other. You want them all to get along so much, but you’re afraid they won’t and that even worse, they’ll all think you’re mad. That’s how I feel about advertising my own lovely writing to lovely potential readers. 

Worrying about promoting makes it hard to actually write anything that might need promoting sometimes and I was having one of those days yesterday.

Then my daughter told me about a creative project of her own. It’s modest (in the third sense of the word) but it’s doable. ‘I’m scared,’ she said. ‘But if I don’t try, I’ll never know if I could succeed.’ 

It reminded me of when I thought exactly the same thing, which ultimately led to me publishing Kindling and The Advent Calendar. 

I remembered why I write. I’m still doing the day job, so it’s not for money. But I’ve got richer in friends, richer in satisfaction and when Val Portelli and Liz Hedgecock liked my work enough to want to collaborate, I was truly honoured. 

I’ll never be very good at boasting about my books and am not sure if this is modesty or laziness.

But I’ll keep on writing, because there are stories inside that still want to get out, even though the current one is coming out in a chaotic muddle that I’ve yet to unravel.

I’ll keep on writing because from time to time someone says how much they enjoyed a book which is, after all, what I want. I don’t expect my books to change the world, but if people find pleasure reading them and are consequently happier, then maybe the world (which is a bit of a mess at the moment) might seem – if only for a while – like a better place. 

Being part of that makes me very happy. 

And immodest or not, and even if it makes me feel a little exposed, I also feel just a little proud.

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Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.