The other evening my husband went out cycling. Yes, it’s November. Yes it was dark. But he and his friends do this weekly after work whenever they can. At nine-thirty, it started to pour with rain as forecast. At ten p.m., just as he returned, the whole town had a power cut.
I heard with relief (since he’s the only one of the cycling group who hasn’t broken a bone on one of these jaunts) the screech of our garage door and went to look out for him, shining my phone torch into the rainy darkness.
My drenched husband said it was like being guided into the house by Florence Nightingale.
My nursing skills boil down to ‘here’s a kiss and an aspirin and/or a plaster and/or a blanket and/or soup and I’m sure you’re fine really’, so this was the first time I’ve been likened to any medical professional let alone a nursing heroine, and got me thinking.
Did Florence Nightingale really did carry a lamp? Or was this a myth long since debunked along with Napoleon being short and Marie Antoinette saying ‘Let them eat cake’? (He wasn’t and she didn’t, and for other historical myths click here.)
At a talk a while ago I was asked if I was ever tempted to write a novel based on a real character. So far my answer is no.
The first reason why I haven’t is that doing so is complex and can be controversial.
With real historical people a novel can only capture the elements of their life that the author wants to focus on, and since real lives don’t follow a story arc, or narrative pattern, real events might have to be moved about or omitted. Then readers complain about inaccuracy or bias.
Going back to Florence, yes she did have a lamp, but surely the nurses working for her in that Crimean hospital carried them too? Yet the image of the Lady with the Lamp popularised by the Times, and Longfellow’s poem ‘Santa Filomena’ turned Florence Nightingale into a celebrity. In the 1970s, I was taught that she was the only pioneering nurse in the Crimean War. But in the 2010s, my children were taught about Jamaican born Mary Seacole who was also there nursing injured soldiers, but without government support or newspaper fame presumably because of views on her race (which may have been a factor in my not learning about her sooner too).
And while Florence radically transformed nursing and reformed the running of hospitals, she was also a firm believer in the right of British Empire colonisers to interfere with the culture of the native people, because Western beliefs and customs were superior and ‘correct’.
Anyone novelising her life would have to include this. Yet there would still be those readers who’d say the focus of a novel should only be on the positive, and anything negative should be brushed under the carpet on the grounds that Florence ‘was a product of her generation’. She was, of course, but there were people of her own race/nationality in the same generation who thought it was wrong, and the native peoples suffering were also of her generation. Do they not deserve a voice? Whatever interpretation you put on it, leaving negative things out surely means the fictionalisation doesn’t reflect the real person at all.
My second reason is that I like to use my imagination.
All my historical books are set in a real historical setting. The Margaret Demeray series also includes or refers to real events and people. ‘Death In The Last Reel’ includes the Siege of Sidney Street and Winston Churchill (film footage here); ‘The Treacherous Dead’ refers back to the Boer War, Emily Hobhouse and ‘Breaker’ Morant. The forthcoming ‘Dying To be Heard’ has my (fictional) characters witnessing the real actions of militant suffragette Emily Davison at the 1913 Epsom Derby (film footage here)
But I like to dig about in the British Newspaper Archives for less well-known things to provide a flavour of the times, because the third reason I prefer to create fictional characters is that I want to imagine ordinary people like my ancestors and perhaps yours, put them in extraordinary situations and see what happens next.
The rich and famous have plenty of books and films written about them. Let’s see what an ordinary person might do.
In 1913, the newspapers headlines were mostly about suffragette militancy and the Balkan crisis. But there was frivolous celebrity news including the Royal Wedding of a German princess – the last time European monarchs met in peace, and before many monarchies disappeared forever. (Not that anyone knew that then.) I also found reference to a moving picture ‘comedy’ about hot-headed suffragettes in which one (played by an actor in drag) was ‘hilariously’ force-fed champagne; a German dentist in Portsmouth who turned out to be a spy (both getting a brief mention in ‘Dying To Be Heard’into the book); and something I’m keeping back for book five.
I discovered advertisements for a folding baby car (pushchair/stroller) priced five shillings and a vacuum cleaner priced forty-two shillings. (In context, a housemaid might earn twenty shillings per week.)
This is what gets my imagination going. Were ordinary people worried about suffragette attacks? Or irritated? Did they lap up the celebrity news and discuss what the rich ladies wore to the wedding?
The German dentist spy was captured in a sting operation and sentenced to five years’ hard labour. But what happened to him when World War One broke out? And what happened to the man who informed on him (who was also German but loyal to Britain)?
What does a maid wielding a vacuum cleaner that’s worth two to four weeks of her wages think of something that might put her out of a job?
How does a woman in the medical profession who desperately wants the vote feel about a suffragette bombing campaign that might kill someone?
And finally – what happened to the person who thought a vacuum cleaner was a perfect Christmas gift in 1912? I know what would happen to anyone who gave me one now…
Words copyright (c) 2023 Paula Harmon. Not to be used without the author’s specific consent. Advert for baby car from Daily Citizen (Manchester) 26th April 1913 and advert for vacuum cleaner from Illustrated London News 30th November 1912.
When I was young, when my maternal grandmother addressed me, she would often go through my sister’s name, our cousin’s, her own sisters’, her nephew’s and my mother’s, until she got to Paula.
These days I do the same, swapping my son’s name for my husband’s (my excuse is that they start with the same letter), my daughter’s for my sister’s (my excuse is that they have similar personalities) and recently my brother-in-law’s for that of the mutual male friend’s who was hosting us all for dinner (my excuse is that they both have Scottish names… OK that’s no excuse).
Very occasionally I suffer from face-blindness. E.g. once in a blue moon, I don’t recognise someone even if I know them very well. This usually happens when I’m deep in thought and/or daydreaming.
I regularly suffer from name-blindness, which is possibly linked. This means I can look at someone I know very well, recognise them, know who they are, but absolutely blank their name. Completely. It’s just gone.
This particularly traumatic when I have to introduce people to each other and can only recall some random irrelevant fact in lieu of a name (‘This is M’s mum’ or ‘This is my friend who makes great cupcakes’ or ‘This is my friend, the wife of another friend who cycles with my husband’).
Perhaps it happens in social situations or introduction scenarios, because I find both very stressful and they take up most of my ‘pretending I’m confident and sociable’ resources. An article called Is This Normal? “I Can’t Remember Names or Faces.” | The Swaddle, give reasons for this phenomenon that make sense to me at least. But it doesn’t stop it from being mortifying.
What about my book characters’ names? After all, I invented the characters (shh – don’t tell them). I waded through lists of potential forenames for the right era, or unusual British surnames (I’ve managed to get five of these into my books so far), and even researched how common certain surnames were in certain parts of London in the 1881 census.
So are their names easier to recall? Nope. Apart from main characters, I quite often can’t remember what I’ve called some people after writing a book at all. Sometimes I can’t remember what they’re called while I’m writing it, because I’ve changed their name halfway through.
For example, in one of my more recent books I realised that I had five female characters with names starting M and about four with surnames starting T. One of the female characters was called Mary (which was the number one name for girls in England and Wales for decades if not centuries). I decided to change it to Lois and did a search and replace for Mary throughout the document, happily ‘accepting all’ without thinking. This resulted in a lot of action taking place in Loislebone, and someone providing a sumlois of information etc. One of the T surnames had to change but in my head, the character still has the original name, which means nine times out of ten, I have to dig about for what I changed it to when thinking of them.
To avoid this sort of thing, also avoid duplicating names within the same series, and to keep a series bible of background info on characters whether or not it would ever be used (birthdays, details of parents and children and pets etc), I called upon my clerical career and started a card index system.
Fortunately I didn’t need to buy anything. When my daughter was studying for her GCSEs, she asked me to get her some cards to help with revision and a storage box to put them in. She obviously inherited my tendency to create revision schemes but lose interest before actually doing anything, because there were plenty of blank cards for me to use.
Then I found another set of index cards in a drawer.
Only they weren’t blank, and they didn’t have random facts about English Literature or The Cold War or Spanish verbs or whatever else my daughter had been studying on them. They were written in my father’s writing and furthermore, they were the details of characters he’d written stories about!
I still have boxes of Dad’s writing – typed, handwritten in notebooks large and small and on floppy disk. I have one ready to edit, and others I remember him reading aloud to me when I was a child (including a science fiction novel which if he’d published at the time, would now be reality). I have no idea what I’m going to do with them all. But seeing those index cards so unexpectedly brought a moment of serendipity, surprise that I could read his writing for once and of course a pang of what’s called in Welsh hiraeth and in Portuguese saudade – missingness, nostalgia, loving reminiscence.
I wish I could show Dad what I’ve written and help him do something with what he wrote. I can’t and he wouldn’t want me to fret that I can’t. But his characters’ index cards are now stored with mine as a reminder of the things he and I had in common: a love of storytelling, words, names, random facts and near illegible handwriting. And while I have no idea who Dad’s Janine Bex (below right) is, I do know that Roderick Demeray (below left) is based, with love, on Dad.
Maybe in some alternative universe, our characters hang out together and complain about us. ‘Look what she made me do!’ ‘Why would he call me that?’ ‘What’s going to happen to me next?’ ‘Why can’t she ever remember my name?’
After all, who’d blame them?
Words and pictures (c) Paula Harmon 2023, not to be used without the author’s express permission.
Am I alone in seeing stories everywhere? I can’t remember when I didn’t think ‘what’s their story?’, ‘what if X happened next?’, ‘why are they/is this/am I like this? What led them/it/me here?’
I dealt with long boring journeys by imagining the lives of the people we passed in the car, or what might be behind a high wall/hedge (lots of Cornish trips), or why a castle was in ruins. I coped with bullying by imagining situations in which I managed to express my feelings and the bullies changed their ways (biggest fiction exercise of my life). I enjoyed subjects where there was a story (English, History, RE), or patterns (Maths, Physics) or a challenge deciphering a pattern (Maths, Languages). If I’d spotted the stories in Geography and patterns in Chemistry, I might have enjoyed much them more than I did. If I’d been taught art differently, perhaps I’d have got to grips with that at school too. I stopped taking art at fourteen, in what was then called the Third Year, and is now called Year Nine, and in both eras called ‘Options Year’. This was when you study a million subjects at exactly the point of adolescence when you have become really truculent and know all adults are idiots, yet have to decide what you’re going to do for your first set of public exams (in my case, O levels). Long story short, I dropped art at fourteen.
Ever since I could create a word, I have been by nature a writer. But Liz Hedgecock has been encouraging me for some months to do art challenges with her giving me the chance to play catch-up on those art lessons I put to one side. I’ve found it really freeing, tapping into the part of me that writes short stories rather than novels. It’s a chance to try a narrative in a few lines rather than huge number of words. When she suggested we try Inktober, I was happy to give it a go. But when I looked at the prompts, I knew almost immediately that at my skill level I was definitely going to look for a ‘story’ for each one, not only to cover up my inadequate skills but to keep me motivated.
I think that largely Liz did the same, although with a different approach. You can see what Liz did here. But if you don’t follow me on Instagram – here is what I came up with and a summary of the background behind the stories that came into my head. to help me make sense of the prompts.
Dream, Spiders, Path, Dodge, Map
To start with I dug out a bottle of ink I’ve had forever and a lovely fancy glass ink dipping pen and did what I could with them.
I used the ink and pen for the first three and found myself sketching in a fluid, free-form way which tapped into my subconscious quite nicely.
As a vivid dreamer, it was hard to know where to stop for Dream. I included all my recurring dreams and nightmares but tried to make sure my bed was heading into happiness, even though I remembered too late that pictures should read left to right, not right to left. Ho hum.
I don’t like hurting Spiders, but prefer them at a distance, so looking at photos of them to draw from made me feel queasy. I decided to turn our treatment of them on its head which sort of coincided with our daughter (home for a break during peak house-spider season) talking to us through the Ring doorbell in a husky voice ‘Hello! I’m Simon the Spider. I just want to be friends. Please let me in.’
Path – the last I drew with ink and dipping pen for a bit, depicts me at some point in my life in my early twenties, deciding between the risky route of chasing my creative dreams where the dragons were (left) and the sensible career route (right). I picked the latter but am now in a position to go back to that fork in the path and change direction.
However, that’s not to say it’s all easy running and Dodge, the first one I drew with a fineliner (can’t remember why I changed, but it changed how the drawings turned out) has me trying to get to my happy place while being attacked by household duties, work/writing deadlines and to-do lists.
By the time I was drawing Map, I was away from home and had a mini art kit, so it was drawn with a fineliner and is perhaps the last one digging into my subconscious for all the things that prompt or hinder creativity. I wasn’t terribly happy with Map, but that’s how it goes. On the other hand I was an avid map drawer as a child, so it was good fun and I just wish I’d had a bigger piece of paper and fewer distractions.
Golden, Drop, Toad, Bounce, Fortune, Wander
A dragon was the first thing that sprung to mind for the prompt Golden. I went straight back to being six and the teacher reading from the Hobbit about Smaug the dragon in class, though my dragon of course is less murderous and mostly understood. I’ve always wanted to draw a dragon but thought I couldn’t, but I decided to give it a go anyway and found all those scales rather therapeutic to draw.
Drop – I regret to say that the word ‘drop’ just made me think of a running nose, so I had to do a bit of lateral thinking. I knew what I wanted to draw for Toad, so it seemed logical to draw what happened before… It nearly ended up with being a potion to turn a man back INTO a toad after a regretable spell. You’ll just have to decide whether it’s his fault for dabbling or the soup-maker has a naughty intent.
As for Bounce – I thought of the bounciest thing I could think of and tried not to remember the Spacehopper my father ran over when I was seven. I was very fond of it, and it never recovered. It gave my Dad a fright though.
Fortune was difficult for a number of reasons. I couldn’t think what to draw at all – or rather I could, but it was too complicated. It was difficult day at work and I wasn’t really in the mood that evening. I decided to go back to the ink and dipping pen and then regretted it. Everything went wrong! But what I was aiming for was the idea that there’s definitely a rich man in the seeker’s life but it’s at her expense. No idea if that comes across.
Wander was easier and is based on two photos of my daughter in different forests in different years, wondering which way to go next. (Bless her, my daughter ended up as an unwitting model and doesn’t look anything like the way I’ve portrayed her but I’m pleased that she’s braver at trying different routes than I was at the same age.)
Spicy, Rise, Castle, Dagger, Angel, Demon.
I could have drawn my husband’s numerous chilli plants for Spicy, or the contents of our spice cupboard, but of course ‘spicy’ has another meaning and I decided to have fun and go down that route as well! It took me four attempts to write ‘chipotle’. I could type it, but I couldn’t write it with a pen. This is one that I’m planning to do again and/or colour.
Likewise Rise – I suppose I could have saved this idea for Fire, but a phoenix rising with hope from disappointment and fear of failure seemed apt that particular day.
By the time I was drawing Castle, I was away from home again, and trying to deal with the intricacies of a real castle didn’t appeal. A sandcastle while more manageable felt a bit dull, so guess what – a story came to mind. My daughter loves octopuses and in a story world, one would come to her rescue if she needed it. (in reality she’d probably just biff anyone stomped on her sandcastle).
Despite writing murder mysteries which occasionally involve daggers etc, and despite thinking that daggers can be very beautiful and nearly drawing the one from Murder Dunovaria, the news being what it is, I didn’t fancy drawing a Dagger. The phrase ‘beating swords into ploughshares’ came to mind so I decided to draw (not very well as you can tell from my having to redraw the hammer) daggers being turned into doves.
The Angels in the nativity play come from the disappointment of never having been one as I described in Advent Calendar and also from remembering when my son was a shepherd in a nativity play aged five. He had his crook confiscated after rehearsals because he kept tripping up the primmest angel. When the day of the public performance came however, somehow he’d managed to get hold of a crook again and guess what he did? The primmest angel flat on her face as she walked down the aisle. He swore it was curiosity not malice but… I was the one dealing with her cross mum.
I didn’t want to draw a Demon for a number of reasons, so decided to do the sort of thing I’d have done at school and re-interpret the brief. So instead of demon, we have demonise. It was close to National Black Cat Day apparently, so that’s what I went for. Poor black cats. They don’t deserve the bad press. It’s time for them to fight back.
Away from home again with a simple art kit, I was wondering what on earth to do for Saddle, then remembered a story I had in Weird & Peculiar Tales, itself prompted by a dream, in which a hapless goblin cross breeds a werewolf with a chihuahua and went from there. (Admittedly my husband asked why I’d drawn a chicken being put on a dog, but hey.)
Plump coincided with the launch of Booker & Fitch omnibus of books 1-3 so here I am being plump (I’m plumper in real life) plumped down on plump cushions in Hazeby-on-Wyvern reading the book.
Frost was easy in theory, although I was in a very hot place at the time, so it was hard to imagine, and I found it hard to draw with black on white and wished I were home with black paper and white or silver pen, but I wasn’t. So here I am as a child, when I didn’t have a radiator in my bedroom with the view of mountains from my window obscured by frost as happened quite often.
Chains was a horse who was waiting, poor thing, to cart tourists around in a sort of cab in 30+ degrees Centigrade (86+ Fahrenheit). It didn’t seem too bothered, but it was happily chewing on the chain attaching it to a railing. I don’t think it was trying to get away, but it was hard not to imagine it (I would have been).
Scratchy – this is the cat we had when I was a little girl, scratching on a piece of wood which we’d brought back from the New Forest after a camping trip. Why? Because I’d spent several days pretending it was my motorbike (give me a break, I was about four or five years old) and I talked my dad round into bringing it home (Mum was not so keen). At home, the magic dispersed and it became the cat’s scratching post. But I like to think she was clever enough to know it was a motorbike really.
Shallow – again, I had something quite ‘deep’ in mind, but didn’t have the skills (or time) to draw it, so instead, here is a nod to all those summers when I (or later my children) thought they’d actually catch something in a rock pool but never did because the creatures were too clever to be caught.
And Celestial (by now I was back at home with black paper and silver pen) speaks for itself – or does it? All astronomists should look away, but there are the Pegasus and Draco constellations together (possibly unlikely) waiting for me to fly amongst them.
Dangerous, Remove, Beast, Sparkle, Massive, Rush, Fire
Finally we’re into the last week of October/Inktober. By now I was getting tired of working out what to draw, and was, once more, away for a couple of days (it really was that sort of month). By now, the prompts seems even harder to draw. Even though I’d taken photos to help me, it turned out they didn’t. So I had to dig down a bit.
For Dangerous, I remembered when my husband bought a Shun knife and kept telling me (the person who does most of the cooking), every time I cooked (e.g. generally) how sharp it was. One evening, while considering that he should be glad I wasn’t seeing how sharp it was on something other than onions, I rolled my eyes… and sliced into the end of my finger. Glad to say that it healed up fine. Sorry to say that onions aren’t improved by being pink. Will honestly say that my husband and I do not look this young although the expressions are broadly accurate.
Remove was tricky. I had a few ideas including someone removing hate from their heart and being ready to replace it with love, and someone pinching a piece of someone’s jigsaw just as they were about to finish it (sorry – that’s my brain – goes from sentimental to mischievous in the blink of an eye) and then remembered I was going to be drawing while on a train and I couldn’t face trying to draw a jigsaw. Something someone said made me think of masks or make-up and that’s what I decided to draw. I don’t wear much make-up and certainly haven’t worn this much for years, but am really fascinated by make-up artists’ skills and occasionally wonder if they could improve me. Sadly though, at the end of the day it would come off and the real me would be there underneath. The train-ride wasn’t exactly smooth and that’s my excuse for any errors (cough).
Beast was potentially as hard to draw as Demon, but by this point in the challenge, both Liz and I had decided that hands were ‘a beast’ to draw and so I went for the image above. In the pencil sketch I have the right number of finger joints. Somehow when drawing in fine liner, I added one in. This proves the point about drawing hands.
I knew from the outset that I wanted to draw my lovely daughter’s lovely eyes for Sparkle. I categorically didn’t do either the exercise or my daughter justice, but will definitely try it again. I was, by this point, really missing the opportunity to use watercolours or acrylics to add colour, or just use various pencils, but there you go. It’s all a learning curve and I’m glad I can do it without a teacher marking my efforts.
Massive was another where I didn’t quite know what to draw, then we passed a group of tourists queuing to have a birds of prey experience. The birds of prey looked as bored as the horse waiting to cart tourists around (though the temperature was more manageable where I was then). I wondered if they were thinking ‘why do the tourists get all the fun? What if we were big enough to carry them instead of the other way around?’
I had some photos of people on the underground to use as inspiration for Rush, but then thought back to when I was a child and spent time watching nature – the driven clouds, the busy insects, the running river, the the little creatures in the river marching about, oblivious (thankfully) to the adult world of being so head down rushing from A to B. Somewhen I stopped doing that, and am only just starting again.
Finally, for Fire, this is another from Weird & Peculiar Tales – or rather it’s what might happen one day. I have a sort of myth-story in there about when dragons and humans were friends – the humans providing friendship, the dragon providing warmth and protection. Then, because humans are involved, it all goes wrong. This is imagining a future which I think we’d all love – -when we stop fighting and pointing fingers and just sit down together and enjoy friendship and warmth.
So there you have it – a bit of my soul laid bare. As I said before, I’m proud of some of my drawings, not proud of others at all, may retry some, may not with others. But I had a go. It’s back to the writing now, but I’m not going to stop the art. I’m going to keep doing it. Tapping into that part of my brain that likes to tell a quick story and isn’t worrying about judgment feels like going back to a freer, less disciplined me. And that’s not a bad place to visit now and again.
Words and Images (c) Paula Harmon 2023 – not to be used without the author’s express consent.