A Novel Idea

Here’s a confession about a time when ‘the story’ was more important than common sense, logic or, in fact, the environment.

Sometimes I’m asked whether I have a preference in terms of what era I read about in historical fiction and whether it reflects on the eras I write about.

It’s hard to answer either.

The first books I read which could be termed historical fiction for children were set during the English Civil War between the “Roundheads” and “Cavaliers” or set in Elizabethan England. I loved books like ‘Cue for Treason’ where one of the protagonists was a girl who actually did things rather than just sit about watching boys have all the adventures. 

Then, around the age of nine or ten, I hit a heavy romantic/melodramatic phase around the time that children’s TV dramatised ‘A Little Princess’ in which a girl goes from riches to poverty and is kept in an attic by a wicked headmistress.

This was where my confession comes in.

I had entered the hinterlands of adolescence where I realised that my parents just didn’t understand me. I started a novel titled with those very words – an angst ridden drama involving a cruelly under-appreciated Victorian girl who… 

I didn’t get very far because I hadn’t quite worked out what she was going to actually do except whinge (although I daresay I’d planned a handsome young lad for her to fall in love with because he did understand and appreciate her and they’d ultimately marry). 

Instead I formulated a romantic plan less exhausting than writing a novel.

I might have been inspired by one of the old-fashioned Codd Neck bottles we’d dig up from time to time.

They were just begging to have a message put in them, if only they weren’t broken. And that’s where I got the idea.

I wrote a letter in the poshest English I could muster, in my fanciest handwriting with lots of curlicues, begging the recipient for help and asking them to rescue me from the attic in the castle where I was cruelly imprisoned. I dated it 1872, ripped the edges a little, stained the whole thing with tea to make it look old, rolled it up and put it in a normal glass bottle with a screw top (which I was saving to take back to the shop in exchange for enough small change to buy sweets and thus quite a sacrifice to the literary cause).

I then took the bottle to my secret place by the river, slipped it in and watched it bob downstream until it disappeared.

For a few days afterwards, I imagined the bottle getting into the larger river into which ‘mine’ fed and then out to sea and finally being picked up who knew where. It would be in the news! It would be a sensation! Who had the imprisoned girl been? Which castle? Had she ever escaped or was her skeleton still waiting in a dusty attic?

Then I was consumed by guilt. 

The thing I should have worried about – the fact that ‘my’ river was full of rocks and led to a waterfall and therefore the chances were high that the bottle might smash long before it got to the larger river, let alone the sea and someone might stand on it and get hurt – didn’t occur for years.

It also didn’t occur to me that even if it had been found intact, no one would think the message was genuine since the bottle, the handwriting and the felt-tip pen with which I’d written the letter were firmly late 20th century, not to mention the fact that it might seem suspicious that the ‘imprisoned’ girl had somehow managed to escape the attic to drop the bottle in a river and then presumably gone back to incarceration. 

What I did worry about for a week or so was that when it was found, a fruitless and expensive global search for a fictional little girl would commence for which I’d be wholly responsible.

When nothing happened I stopped worrying, but possibly as a direct consequence, I largely lost interest in romances about rich girls who were nothing like me and drifted towards books about average people who, whether historical or not, found themselves in extraordinary situations and had to manage with the resources at their disposal. 

And that, in partial answer to both original questions, explains what I’m really interested in reading and writing. 

It’s less about the era, even though I do have ones I gravitate towards. It’s more about what happens when an average sort of person – neither so poor, that they may as well take risks because they’ve nothing to lose nor so rich that they can do what they want and not worry about the consequences – has to tackle an extraordinary situation, when maybe they have to do it around the working day, family commitments, social expectations, financial constraint. Can they still have adventures? Can they still face peril? Can they still have fun?

Yes they can!

And when Liz Hedgecock got in touch (or did I get in touch with her?) and suggested co-writing a series set in Victorian London I jumped at the chance to prove it. 

We set about writing one book and the Caster and Fleet series then took over our lives because Katherine and Connie’s adventures were so much fun to write.

And in the first one, I finally got to write and deliver an anonymous letter. Only this time, it was in a much less risky way than I had aged nine or ten and it didn’t waste a bottle.

If you haven’t had the chance to read the Caster and Fleet series (six novels plus a novella) – the first three books are on special offer between Monday 28th June and Sunday 4th July 2021:

The Case of the Black Tulips is 99p/99c

The Case of the Runaway Client is £1.99/$1.99

The Case of the Deceased Clerk is £2.99/$2.99

And if you want to hear an abridged version of the first two chapters to give you a taster and also find out how Liz and I made friends and worked together on the series, here we are being interviewed about the books and their spin offs. 

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 credit

ID 201797590 © Chrissiecreative | Dreamstime.com

Father’s Day with Roderick

Father’s Day is tricky for many. Some have lost fathers, some never knew their fathers, some wish they’d never known their fathers.

I was fortunate to have a father whom I loved very much and who loved me. 

That’s not to say we always got on or always understood each other. We were in some ways too similar and therefore clashed – we were, for example, both ‘always right’ which is fine when you agree but if you don’t… 

Then there were the ways in which we were different. He thought I’d grown up too serious, I thought he wasn’t serious enough. 

I couldn’t understand quite why he didn’t recognise when or why people got upset or embarrassed. It wasn’t until my son was diagnosed with ADHD with elements of Aspergers that I realised Dad, in a different era, might have been diagnosed with some greater degree of Aspergers. It helped understand him a little better. He was loving and kind and had a heart of gold. He couldn’t do enough for people. He just didn’t quite understand them.

He died just a few days before Father’s Day in 2012. My sister and I brought our mother back to their home a few hours later to find that the postman had delivered the Father’s Day gift we’d bought for him. I’d been writing a story for another gift but not had the heart to complete it because he was so ill. It wasn’t until five years later that I did finish, and put it, with memories of a childhood with an eccentric father, the processing of grief and all the adventures that Dad might have had if only the world were slightly less real and a lot more fantastic into The Cluttering Discombulator.

Nine years have passed, and hearts can heal.

I think of Dad most days and wish I could have shared my author journey with him and helped him to find his own at last. I’m still hopeful that one day, I’ll find a way of deciphering his boxes of writing and publish some of it. I wish I could tell him I’m not as serious any more. 

Mostly, I wish I could tell him I’ve drawn on him for the character of Roderick Demeray (the father of Katherine, from The Case of the Black Tulips and Margaret from The Wrong Sort to Die). But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind and my mother and sister are delighted.

In the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die (which will hopefully be out later this year), Roderick (who’s now eighty-one) has discovered that Margaret is working near a moving picture studio. How could she keep such a thing quiet? 

Unbeknownst to her, he makes his way to the studio and uses his connection with her to ask if they might like to turn some of his books into moving pictures. Margaret, when she is asked to come and collect him, is mortified. 

As she finally drags him away, Roderick spots a second-hand bookshop.  

‘We aren’t in any hurry are we dear?’ said Father. ‘I thought we could go there.’

‘Even at this distance through the rain can’t you see how filthy and dark it is?’ argued Margaret. ‘And the owners are idiots.’

‘Those sorts of places always turn out something unexpected.’

‘You can’t imagine how true that is,’ said Margaret. ‘But not today. I need to get you home before you catch a chill.’

‘Oh Meg,’ Father’s shoulders drooped. ‘It’s a new bookshop! Or new to me. And we haven’t gone book shopping together for ages.’

Margaret checked her wristwatch. ‘Why don’t you come back to the flat instead. We can have a nice lunch and I’ll show you my copy of “The Spell of Egypt”. You haven’t read it have you?’

Father narrowed his eyes. ‘What’s for lunch?’

Margaret tried to recall that the contents of her pantry. ‘I’ll make a sort of pilaff. That’s almost Egyptian.’

‘Marvellous!’ Father stopped sulking and straightening, started walking towards the main thoroughfare. ‘What are we waiting for?’

This, for the record, is precisely what my father (who would now be eighty-three) would have done to me. Writing about Roderick feels like spending time with Dad. 

I like to think that if they could meet, the two of them would talk for hours as they pored over piles of old books and maybe compared notes on hats, pipes, tea, travelling and of course, daughters.

I’m not sure which daughter would come off worst. Maybe, just maybe, it would’t be me.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Books Photo 1425265 © Mietitore | Dreamstime.com Smoking Hat Photo 13114177 © Margaretanne | Dreamstime.com

The Underdog

Nancy sat back in her seat. As the music soared, she smiled. There had been nothing else she could have done. 

She had got her revenge.

***

The years might never have passed. The tall arrogant woman marched into the hall with her entourage, finding fault with everything from the decor to the spotlighting and Nancy recognised her immediately. 

Forty years had passed. But Tina was still thin, almost cadaverous, her hair, presumably greying, was coloured and in a different style but similar – close cropped emphasising her angled features and grey eyes. She still had virtually no figure, this woman who had laughed at Nancy’s early puberty and had rounded up the other girls to point and snigger and make snide remarks about bras and periods. Tina still didn’t look as if she needed a bra. Still looked as if whatever she wore would be elegant. But instead of softening over time, the arrogance had set in her face, so that it was impossible to look at her in the flesh and think she was beautiful, even though her publicity photographs make her look that way.

Tina didn’t recognise Nancy. Why would she? Doubtless Tina forgot her the moment she changed schools, while Nancy cried for months into her pillow, still suffering the fall-out of being ostracised for so long. 

Tina’s legacy meant that after she left, no-one would pick Nancy for teams, though she was swift and capable to start and then, deafened by jeering, eventually became clumsy, lost confidence and slowly gave up. 

Even after all this time, any sort of team game involving a sport filled her with dread, even when it was just for fun – colleagues teasing her, instructing her how to throw a bowling ball – she could feel the tension rising, the sick terror of letting her team down.

Doubtless if anyone had asked Tina about Nancy, she wouldn’t have remembered her at all. Or maybe she would think back to some little girl who cried all the time, the one she nicknamed Guinea Pig. She probably sought someone else to torment the moment she moved to the other school.

Now, forty years later, here she was looking round for someone to blame and her eyes fell on Nancy, ‘I suppose you’re the organiser. Is this the best you can do with this place?’

The hall was immaculate, tastefully decorated with flowers in the colours specified in the brief, the drapes changed to co-ordinate and held back with elegant double cord.

‘That spotlight: it’s far too harsh. How can you expect me to perform under that?’

‘It can be adjusted’ Nancy said, ‘so the brightness won’t stop you from concentrating.’

‘Hardly that, some of us are professional.’ She looked Nancy up and down and found her wanting, ‘But I require a diffused effect. You need to sort it out or I’m you will have to explain to the audience that your incompetence led to the concert being cancelled.’

Ah – the diffused effect. Forty years may not have changed her very much, but the little change did include a lot of fine lines, exacerbated perhaps by smoking and certainly by scowling.

Nancy went off to see what could be done, gritting her teeth as she heard Tina say quite clearly ‘these minions have no idea. Can you imagine getting to her age and still having such a miserably unimportant job.’

In the corridor between the stage door and the stage was all Tina’s luggage and professional equipment. Nancy’s eye fell on her violin and her heart went cold.

It was not the same of course, it couldn’t be. The case was smart and new, the violin must be significantly more valuable – but it brought back that memory anyway.

Two nine year old girls by the coats and bags getting ready for their music lesson. 

Nancy’s violin, the cheapest available, bought with loving optimism by her parents who couldn’t really afford it: a wasted gift as she had no real talent for it. 

And Tina’s violin, easily twice the price or maybe more – that was what she told them anyway, in a shiny hard black case. It was probably the only thing that Tina had loved. Perhaps it still was. And she could play. She really could. Whatever else you said about her, you couldn’t deny that she could play.

As Nancy had reached for hers, she knocked against Tina and the expensive violin in its case fell to the floor. Tina whirled on her. She was usually controlled in her viciousness, but this time she had lost it completely – hammering into Nancy with fists and kicking her shins.

‘If you’ve damaged it, I’ll kill you!’ she growled. ‘You pathetic little bitch.’

And Nancy had finally had enough. She took stopped protecting her face and started hitting and kicking back, until Tina landed a blow in her stomach knocking her to the floor. 

Scrambling to her feet, Nancy picked up a shoe and threw it hard… just as the head teacher turned the corner.

Tina’s violin, padded in its case had been fine of course, but Nancy was given detention.

Now, Nancy staring at Tina’s latest violin, feeling the humiliation from all those years before well up in her and feeling ashamed. Hadn’t she changed since then? Hadn’t the bitterness receded? Hadn’t she learnt how to forgive and move on knowing that otherwise the bullies would have won and destroyed her whole life?

The music producer came up behind her as she was lost in thought.

‘That woman is a nightmare.’ he said in despair. ‘How such wonderful music could come out of such a hard hearted…’

‘Is it wonderful?’ Nancy answered without thinking. ‘It always sounds a bit soul-less to me. Technically fantastic but missing emotion.’

The music producer thought for a while. ‘You might just be right. But she’s the best I’ve got on the books at the moment. She’s just gone to brief her team. Half an hour of peace and quiet.’

Nancy glanced towards the open stage door and remembered something. Hesitating only slightly, she picked up Tina’s violin case and grabbed the producer’s arm. ‘Come with me’ she said.

Round the corner was the busker, a young man with a battered violin. When Nancy had passed him earlier that morning, he was manfully playing even though one of the strings had broken. 

She loved to hear him every day, and when she could, she stopped to drop coins and give him a smile of encouragement. He had got to recognise her and smiled when she passed and she would wave in response.

He was having a break when Nancy and the producer turned up, stretching his arms and sipping water.

‘Hello,’ said Nancy, opening Tina’s violin case. ‘Show this man what you can do.’

‘You can’t…’ said the producer and the busker together.

‘Yes I can. She owes me,’ Nancy said firmly, ‘and I know you won’t damage it. I just want you to show this man how you can play. We’ve got about ten minutes.’

Hesitantly, the busker took the violin. He handled it as if it was Venetian glass, but turned it over and inspected it, then checked its tuning, nodding his head in appreciation. 

‘Nice fiddle,’ he summed up, and raised it under his chin.

He played a lively dance and then a slow sad song and finally a thoughtful, hopeful piece with notes fading away until they disappeared under the noise of the city around them.

‘Yup,’ he concluded, ‘very nice fiddle.’ He handed it back. ‘But it’s not mine.’ He grinned and picked up his battered old violin and started to play, skilfully managing with his three remaining strings.

Nancy started back to the hall with Tina’s case, but the producer stayed behind. She glanced back and saw him listen enthralled, waiting for the moment he could start negotiations.

She just got the violin back in time. Tina was storming through and spotted her standing near to it, just straightening up. ‘If that’s been damaged, I’ll blame you.’ she snapped, snatching it up.

The concert went well. Everyone said it was a triumph. The set and lighting were perfect for the star. The press reports said ‘it was hard to imagine the star was in her forties, she looked so youthful, with her slim figure and the silvery light around her fine features.’ The music press however reported that ‘although wonderful, her performance sometimes feels as if it lacks emotion.’

But a new star was in the ascendant. A young man whose playing could make your mood change from tears to joy to laughter to contemplation until you were a whirl of emotions. A young man with a battered violin, crossing the divide between classical and modern, with a cheeky smile and a wink in the right places.

When he held his first concert at her venue, Nancy sat back in her seat. There had been nothing else she could have done. She had got her revenge – she had exposed the bully and helped the underdog. 

And as the music soared, she smiled.

Words copyright 2016 & 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.Photo 32176429 © Alisbalb | Dreamstime.com