Byways, Rabbit Holes and Wrong (or maybe Right) Turns

Given the reading habits I formed as a child, it’s not too surprising I ended up writing historical mysteries, but I hadn’t really thought about the research required. Now I have an internet trail that includes purchasing cookbooks and books on poison, digging for mindfulness techniques and also whether the physical appearance of a murder victim could be mistaken for natural death. As I’ve been locked down with the same people for nearly a year, this could look dodgy. So far the police haven’t turned up. But I guess there’s still time.

I started this intending it to be about what influenced my writing of historical mysteries, but then it turned out that disappearing down a research rabbit hole unravelled a family mystery of my own and revealed a surprise.

When I was about seven, way before Horrible Histories were published, my father bought me a book called The Medieval Scene. Being a child, the best bits from my perspective were the gruesome details of trial by ordeal etc, but even the less gory elements encouraged my interest in history and I never really looked back. 

A year or so later, we moved relatively near to the ruined 13th Century Carreg Cennen Castle which we regularly visited. It was thrilling to look down into what was left of the dungeons and wonder who’d once been down there, why, and whether they survived. When I found a time-slip book set in Carreg Cennen called The Gauntlet, I read it over and over, lapping up the historical detail and contrasting it with the modern boy’s normal life. (It was rather dated then and more so now, but still a terrific read.) Avidly reading Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff – I discovered that novels – if often rather male-centric – were a great way to absorb history without it being a dull reiteration of dates. Then as I reached my teens, I found historical fiction written for girls and about girls, which dealt with social issues too: Geraldine Symons books The Workhouse Child and Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges, then the Flambards series by K.M. Peyton.

I didn’t just love historical books. Once, I’d loved the mysteries in the also dated Famous Five and Secret Seven so it was a natural progression to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Of course, to me in the late 20th Century, their books were not just detective stories, they were also historical fiction, mostly set in an era when my grandparents had been young, in a world almost as alien as another planet, where a lots of people appeared to have servants, few people had telephones, letters and trains arrived regularly and on time (except where the plot demanded otherwise), telegrams were normal but inside bathrooms and private cars weren’t (unless you were rich).

Research, as I’ve said before and to mix a metaphor, is a rabbit warren of byways. Checking background information for the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die last Monday, I was trying (and failing) to find out the exact location of the first International Women’s Day march in Switzerland on 19th March 1911 (it’s not terribly important but if you know – please get in touch). As I was searching, I became side-tracked by a truly awful disaster in New York on 25th March 1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. As it’s the sort of thing which would have horrified my character Margaret, I wondered when it was first reported in Britain and started looking in the British Newspaper Archive. So far, the earliest reference I’ve found is in Sunday 26th March 1911’s Lloyds Weekly Paper

Naturally I then wandered down other alleys in the archive. Deciding to take a break from my book, I remembered once seeing a clip about my great-grandfather when doing some family research. Due to killing a laptop with a cup of tea in the interim, I’d lost the link. Now I looked again and found a report of the inquest into his death. I knew that he’d died as a result of drinking what I’d been led to believe had been disinfectant. I now found it was some kind of lotion intended for external use made from aconite. I’m not sure which it would be worse to die from, or to witness someone dying from as my great-grandmother must have done. I can only hope that my grandfather and his five siblings were either at school or work when it happened. Whether my great-grandfather drunk it deliberately or thought it was something else was undetermined. He certainly called for help. But suicide while of unsound mind was the verdict returned. None of this was a shock, as I already knew much of it, but reading the newspaper article brought the situation to life – a man plagued with money worries in deep despair and with what would now be termed as depression and a widow left with six children, who lost her husband and home and had to rely on family, friends and presumably the older two children for their livelihood. 

After this, I took one last turn in the research path (for this week at least), and went from sadness to surprise to delight. 

Now that I knew where it was, I googled the place where my great-grandparents had lived and I found the last thing I’d expected: a website dedicated to early cinema and a page called Straight Out of Whetstone about a 1916 film which was partly shot in their very town. If you know what you’re looking for, you can even very briefly see their house.

It’s a shame I can’t show any of this to my father, but I could show my sister and children. And now I can not only see Whetstone as my grandfather would have seen it as a child, but I can also see half the film that was shot there. If you want thrills and spills (if rather slow ones) here is the link to what’s left of ‘The Man with the Glass Eye’. 

It’s tragic that the film breaks off just as things are getting really exciting, so I’m now trying to find out what the rest of the story might have been…. Watch out rabbit hole – here I come.

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 51997062 © Everett Collection Inc. | Dreamstime.com

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