Murder for Beginners – where’s the inspiration?

When my daughter was born, we thought of calling her Sabrina. At the time, we lived in Gloucestershire, and I worked in a building that looked down onto the canal basin off the River Severn. Sabrina, in case you don’t know, was the name of the goddess of the Severn.

Well, among other reasons, at the end, we did wonder if she wanted to be linked (theoretically) to Sabrina the Teenage Witch and decided against the idea. But for the next four years, we continued to live in Gloucestershire and every day I crossed the Severn to go to work and on weekends, we regularly visited places like Upton-on-Severn and Worcester and kept thinking that one day we’d go back to Shrewsbury which is pretty much looped by the river. 

I suppose the alternative was the Wye, which was just as close, but Sabrina sounded a bit more spellable/pronouncable as a girl’s name in England than Gwy.

I’ve always felt I had a strong connection with the river. I have a vague memory of being a child in a caravan which had been on tour to perhaps the Forest of Dean, which my parents had parked for the night in maybe Broadoak or Newnham, and waking to find that the river – during the Severn Bore had burst its banks and was at the bottom of the steps outside. (This was the sort of lack of planning my father was famed for.) And when I was a teenager, my parents hired some sort of riverboat for a holiday on the Severn which encompassed Tewkesbury and Ironbridge. We even took the cat (who spent most of the time hiding under the sink) and the hamster (who was unbothered by the cat because the cat was scared). As I was a teenager of course, the whole thing was mortifying. There I was with my parents and annoying little sister with almost zero chance of meeting an interesting boy (unless he was also lumbered with ‘ancient parents’ and operating a lock). My mother has a photo album which includes a photo of me looking rebellious and sulky while on bilge pump watch duty. (I still have no idea what I was supposed to be looking for and I’m married to a keen sailor).

But parents and embarrassment aside, I loved the river.

While we lived in Gloucestershire my boat-loving husband and I had vague ideas that one day we’d get some sort of canal boat but then we moved to Dorset where it’s seaworthy boat or canoe territory. The Severn only got a mention when a Gloucestershire saint, St Kynaburga, under her more modern name of Kimbrose after whom Kimrbose Road in Gloucester is named, became the name of a fictional hospital that one of my characters trained in.

Roll on rather more years than I want to think about and I’m planning a new series with Liz Hedgecock. We’ve visited a book barge in London. We’ve visited Worcester a couple of times. We’ve even stayed in an Airbnb which is a dutch barge. We have two characters in a contemporary mystery to create…

And there’s a river in my head. A major, navigable river, with lots of pretty towns on its banks.

And a few conversations later, I have a character: Fi Booker who’s ditched a corporate career to run a book barge on the river Wyvern….

I wonder what the inspiration was?

If you want to know more, here’s the blurb.

As soon as they meet, it’s murder.

When Jade Fitch opens a new-age shop in the picturesque market town of Hazeby-on-Wyvern, she’s hoping for a fresh start. Meanwhile, Fi Booker is trying to make a living from her floating bookshop as well as deal with her teenage son.

It’s just coincidence that they’re the only two people on the boat when local antiques dealer Freddy Stott drops dead while turning the pages of a book. Or is it?

After a grilling from the unfriendly neighbourhood policeman, Jade and Fi are left shaken. Can they prove they didn’t kill Freddy Stott? Was he even the intended victim? And can they trust each other?

Local gossip reveals a host of suspects, but with the police taking their time and hostility towards them growing in the town, Jade and Fi decide to investigate. Will that make things better, or much, much worse?

Murder for Beginners is the first book in the Booker and Fitch cozy mystery series, set in and around the English market town of Hazeby-on-Wyvern.

To buy or borrow (via Kindle Unlimited) Murder for Beginners on Amazon – click here.

Say When

I’ve just undertaken the annual calendar ritual. The old calendars are in the recycling and the new ones are ready for action. Though the concept of new year (and its date) is a human/cultural construct, there’s always the hope that like shedding a skin, as we say goodbye to the old and hello to the new, things might change.

Even if just now, the shadows of war, unrest, financial crises and political shenanigans persist, any reasonable person must hope that something lovely will be in the offing for everyone in 2023, or at the very least, something better.

As I’ve said before, I’m not terribly keen on looking back and beating myself up about things I haven’t achieved, or patting myself on the back about things I have. Nor am I keen on making pledges or resolutions. After thirty odd years of working in a target-driven environment – with aims, objectives, service level agreements, milestones and so on – I’m not desperately keen to tie myself down too much in the rest of my existence too.

But all the same, here are some of things that went as planned plus an unexpected bonus:

  • I went on a short break with my adult daughter to Barcelona, which was just lovely. We spent a few days walking miles, visiting Gaudi sites, eating lots of lovely food and otherwise just relaxing.
  • Two of my books became available as audiobooks and over the next year or so, I intend that others will be too.
  • The Treacherous Dead, the fourth in the Margaret Demeray series, is now published and the fourth is underway with a view to publication later in 2023.
  • And the bonus? Liz Hedgecock and I decided to start writing a new series – contemporary cosy/cozy murder mysteries set in the sort of English town where nothing ever happens (or does it?) The first is out later in January, and if you want to know more about the series look no further than The Booker & Fitch Series.

Things that were mixed blessings (and out of my control):

  • My team returned to working in the office in Croydon two days a week. In some ways was hard to adjust to after two years of home-working. After the quiet of my own space, it was odd to be in a noisy office again, especially as most of our meetings are still online (even with each other), so it’s often very noisy. But it’s great to see my colleagues in person again and go out with them after work. And the other plus side of commuting to and staying in the outskirts of London is that I’m able to visit Val Portelli, after a few years when it hasn’t been possible.
  • Later in the year, my team moved from the Croydon office back to the central London one, which was another shift again. This coincided with the death of the Queen, so I was able to go and see the floral tributes in Green Park, though I didn’t queue to view the coffin. We’re not a monarchist family, but even the children were moved that someone who has been there in the background all our lives has gone.
  • Both my children have now ‘moved out’ (though they do keep coming back). It’s lovely to see them be independent and start carving their own creative furrows, and it’s great to have a tidy(ish) house, but… yup I admit it, I miss them. Thank goodness for modern communication methods – family group chats and video calls.
  • My writing shed came into its own, even if I do have a tendency to want to fall asleep rather than write when I go in there as I’m so relaxed!

And then, here are my ‘failures’:

  • I planned to read a lot of specific books in 2022. I didn’t even get close. I read a lot of books. They just turned out to be different ones. Some were serious, some silly, mostly novels, a few non fiction. So I’m just moving that particular goalpost.
  • I planned to publish two books. As above, I published one, but due to some of the international politics of 2022, I decided to change some of the themes relating to a specific country, and also contracted a relatively mild bout of covid, so this took longer than expected. The other book is part written and I hope to get back to it in 2023.
  • I planned to take early retirement in September so I could concentrate on writing. The current cost-of-living situation meant this was adjusted to partial-retirement, so I’m still working part-time and yet to get into the routine I need. But I’m getting there.
  • I went to buy a calendar on the internet for the kitchen, large enough to write on and didn’t check the dimensions. Shame I don’t have a dolls house handy and some dolls who have pressing appointments to record….

Are these failures? I refuse to think so. (Except maybe the calendar.)

For me, family life, mental health, my friendships and marriage will always be more important than anything else.

The day-job even (or perhaps especially) now being part-time remains pressurised, and added into that are now the challenges of the commute.

(Of course, there’s the fact that I am very easily distracted and side-tracked, but we won’t talk about that.)

I’ve spend the last ten years in project work, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned is how to accept ‘slippage’: shifting goalposts and milestones with the mile number crossed out. Targets and milestones can be inspiring and motivating. They can be stressful, depressing. There’s nothing wrong with them in themselves. The important thing is to know when to move them.

So Happy New Year. And may 2023 for all of us involve more joy, more calm, more knowing when to move a target and more time to sit down and enjoy a treat or two.

Words copyright 2023 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Image: https://pixabay.com/photos/coffee-coffee-pot-cup-coffee-shop-1587081/

Hear All About It

My first recollection of stories on audio was listening to my father’s recordings of The Goon Show via reel-to-reel tape. Incomprehensible as the humour was to a three year old, it was hard not to enjoy songs called I’m Walking Backwards to Christmas and The Ying Tong Song.

Then there were records with a story combined with classical music: Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals, being the two I most remember. No matter how often I heard the first, the dramatic voice of the narrator never ceased to thrill me. Would Peter capture the wolf? Would his pet duck survive? In contrast, the beautiful soft narration in a French accent of Carnival of the Animals was relaxing. It created forever an understanding of the power of music and words combined (and a deep but unfulfilled longing to play the cello).

But the first audio books that were just for me were the Ponder and William stories by Barbara Softly, in which a little boy’s panda pyjama case comes alive to have adventure with him. These stories were not only on records, but on brightly coloured records – red and green I seem to recall. I would sit with my mother and listen to them over and over. ‘“Away sea! Away!” cried Ponder’ is the only thing I can remember (forever making me associate a panda pyjama case with King Canute).

After that, I could read to myself, but to help me, I had some of the Disney stories in little books with accompanying records. As I followed the words, I had to turn the page whenever Tinkerbell ‘tinkled her little bell’. I don’t remember anything similar for a while after that. I could read well and borrowed voraciously from the library, but there were (as far I can recall) no audiobooks available. The thought of listening to a story other than on the radio, sort of slipped my mind until…

The early 1990s: 

Pre-children, my husband and I did a lot of touring/camping in France. We rarely reserved a pitch but found out of the way places via a Michelin camping guide published in French, decided whether we liked them on arrival and then established whether they had any ‘emplacements’ available (this mostly worked… however that’s another story).

The journey was around 820 mile from home in Gloucestershire via the ferry in Portsmouth down to the Perigord. To while away the long driving time, I borrowed audio books (in cassette form) from the library to listen to en route. There was one which I will forever associate with being slightly lost in a mountainous, forested region of central France. 

After nearly thirty years, neither of us can now recall much (this is true of more than audiobooks). My husband was concentrating on negotiating ever narrowing roads in a car that had broken down twice by that point, and I was working out where we were on the map, comparing it with the campsite guide and practising my abysmal French for when we arrived and I had to book us in. 

What we can recall is that the story was a thriller with a luscious sort of femme fatale as one of the villains and also, I think, a volcano which was threatening to erupt before the hero could save the day. We lost count of how many times this wicked woman’s sexy figure-hugging dresses, long legs, rich red lipstick and glossy red nails were described, not to mention her mesmerising green eyes and long, silky dark hair, but somehow she got us to the campsite safely, without anything or anyone blowing up.

A decade later, I borrowed children’s audio books in CD format for long journeys from our home (now in Dorset) to visit my children’s grandparents in Wales or my sister in the Midlands. They were either thrilling stories for my son (the Shapeshifter series by Ali Sparkes for example) – reminding me of how good and gripping children’s fiction can be or silly ones for my daughter (Diary of a Wimpy Kid for example) – reminding me of how simply funny children’s fiction can be.

Now of course, audiobooks are available on apps and I often listen on long journeys by train or plane.

For me at least, the process of listening to a story rather than reading a story is quite different. When reading, my eyes are concentrating on the words which convert into images. When listening, my eyes are free to look elsewhere. 

So my perceptions of listening to a story include the surroundings as the tale. This goes back to childhood when my parents read to me. The Narnia books and Alice in Wonderland are inextricably connected to the big red chair that my father sat in while reading. Watership Down is associated with the vaguely orange glow of the interior of a 1970s touring caravan lit by gas mantles. 

Nowadays, audio books listened to while travelling links to the sense of motion and adventure. The story still goes into my head, it just goes in differently. And somehow I never lose the thrill of the story or the comfort of being read to.

There are some that say listening to an audiobook is not the same as reading. I disagree. Your brain processes it differently (or at least mine does), but oral story telling existed for centuries before the written word. Without those ancestors who passed down tales and sagas and myths from generation to generation round a fire, no one would ever have thought about writing or printing them when written language came into being. And so many of the same old stories appear in cultures and communities all over the world. The Flood story for example, versions of Cinderella and Snow White. (If you don’t believe me, read Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales). 

Audiobooks are not new, they’ve been around for nearly a hundred years. The first audiobooks were created for the visually impaired in 1934 and the first commercially produced audiobook (stories by Dylan Thomas) was made available in 1952.

Audiobooks are a boon: for those with sight impairment; for those who want to listen while doing something else – a craft, sewing, cooking, ironing etc; for those whose personalities or abilities make it hard for them to concentrate on a looking at a page, but who can and often do listen better while doing something else (my son, who has ADHD, for example recently listened to Dune, knowing he would never get round to reading it but really wanting to know the novel as it was written before seeing the film).

A story at the end of the day is a story. The enjoyment of a good tale, whether told in a book, a song, a film, a play or just told by someone sitting and speaking is an integral part of the human experience.

So without rambling on any further, here’s my news in case you don’t know. I have been really keen to get my own books turned into audio books and I’m pleased to say that the process has started. The Wrong Sort To Die, is now in audio book form and available from Amazon, Audible and iTunes. 

In case you’re wondering how the process works for an indie author, in brief, I created a document of extracts from the book and ‘auditioned’ those interested in being the narrator. It took some time to whittle down to the one I chose as there are, frankly, so many excellent narrators out there. I am delighted in the one I chose, Madeleine Brolly who narrates beautifully, managing the various accents and characters.

Once she’d completed her narration, I then had to ‘proof-listen’. It is very odd listening to your own words read back to you and odder when you’re listening while reading your own book at the same time. What pleased me was how caught up I got in it myself, even though I had written it. I am looking forward to working with Madeline on Death In The Last Reel soon.

For anyone who’s interested in hearing for yourself here are some links.

For audible in US, UK, France and Germany click on the relevant link below:

US – Audible – Click Here

UK – Audible – Click Here

France – Audible – Click Here

Germany – Audible – Click Here

Click here for the universal Amazon/Audible/iTunes link 

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

Image of CD: https://pixabay.com/vectors/cd-dvd-music-play-shine-digital-42872/ Image of cassette: https://pixabay.com/photos/music-cassette-audio-magnetic-tape-1436277/ Image of Ponder & William record from https://www.discogs.com/release/14520264-David-Stevens-Ponder-and-William-Part-2 Image of audiobook app and headphones (adapted) https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-illustration-concept-audio-book-headphones-vector-illustration-flat-design-image67839801

Apple Time in the Historical Experiment Kitchen

It’s apple season and also, after ten days of being banned from cooking due to having covid, time for me to do some cooking ‘archaeology’!

I have a project in hand, adapting the sort of recipes my characters might eat, into something that’s easy to cook in a modern kitchen with modern ingredients, and mindful of modern tastes (specially not boiling vegetables and pasta forever, and being less likely to want to eat brains). So yesterday, I made a Roman/Victorian dinner and the recipes are below.

For recipes which Lucretia in the Murder Britannica series might eat, I refer to Apicius’s Roman Cookery Book (my copy is translated by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum and published by Martino Publishing). My Latin is extremely rusty and the recipes themselves are more guidelines for someone who obviously knows what the normal methods are and another place I visit is the Tavola Mediterranea website where they have worked out ancient recipes from similar instruction and from which I’ve cooked some delicious food. It’s a fascinating website and well worth a visit.

For Margaret and Katherine of the Margaret Demeray and Caster & Fleet series, I use old cookery books, some facsimile, some original, with recipes that an ordinary woman of the late 19th/early 20th century might cook.

Of course their experiences would be quite different. 

Lucretia is rich and thoroughly enjoys as much imported food she can get her hands on, but she hasn’t actually cooked anything herself since she was a very young girl, so would relegate any cooking to an enslaved person, or send an enslaved person to buy ready cooked delicacies from a street trader. A Roman era kitchen was small and full of earthenware. It might have looked like this. I imagined street stalls like the one in the image below (excavated in Pompeii) in the forum in Durnovaria, selling hot pastries, sizzling meat, hot spiced wine and cider in my books. Lucretia wouldn’t have had potatoes, tomatoes, sweet (bell) peppers, chillies etc – all of which we take for granted. But that’s not to say she didn’t like spicy food – there’s ample pepper and fragrant spices in most recipes. Modern tastes of course don’t particularly fancy seasoning food with fermented fish (garum) but you can use modern fish sauce (e.g. the sort for Thai cooking), soy sauce or just salt in its place.

Meanwhile Margaret and Katherine are both middle-class and while both have domestic help (Margaret’s only coming in a few days a week in books one and two), they can both cook – Margaret with significantly more enthusiasm than Katherine. They have kitchens that we’d recognise – with a gas stove and metal pans. A refrigerator is a luxury item, so certainly in the first two Margaret Demeray books, Margaret doesn’t have one, relying instead of a cool pantry and shopping more regularly for perishable goods. It’s perhaps no wonder that the cookery books of the time rely a lot on canned and dried goods like tomatoes and fruit, and are heavily egg and cheese based. Chicken, which we think of as cheap now, was a luxury in Edwardian times (and in fact my parents both considered it a special Sunday food until the 1960s), so recipes for meat dishes tend towards mutton and pork. 

Margaret’s potential recipes look a lot more familiar than Lucretia’s and include curries and pasta dishes and vegetarian cuisine. But you can’t rely on them for timings – half an hour to cook spaghetti? (Was it a different construction then, or did Edwardians just not trust it?) And there’s advice which both agrees and conflicts modern ideas: cook potatoes with skin on but don’t cook vegetables too rapidly or you’ll spoil their colour. 

So going back to yesterday’s Sunday dinner. I experimented on my family with an adaptation of a Roman recipe for main course and a Victorian recipe for dessert. One which Lucretia might have ordered someone make for her and one which even Katherine could cook herself. NB – the pork dish is a good use of leftovers from a pork roast! They were both delicious and went down a treat.

And without further ado, here are the recipes:

PORK WITH MATIAN GRANNY SMITH APPLES

Adapted from Minutal Matianum by Apicius as translated by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

2 tablespoons olive oil
100g (4 oz) ground pork/pork mince 

3 leeks, cleaned and sliced

½ bunch chopped coriander 

500 g (1lb) cooked pork, chopped into large chunks
½ cup chicken stock 

1½ tablespoons fish sauce*
2 large firm eating apples, peeled, cored and diced
3 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
3 teaspoons ground cumin
3 teaspoons ground coriander

Handful of fresh mint leaves
2 garlic cloves
1/3 – ½ cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
¼ cup pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon cracked pepper for garnish

*(I used the sort you use for Thai cooking but you could use soy sauce or just season with salt to taste.)

METHOD

  1. Heat oil.
  2. Saute pork mince till brown, add leeks and coriander.
  3. Add chopped cooked pork.
  4. Add stock and 1 tablespoon of fish sauce and warm through.
  5. Add chopped apples.
  6. Pound together in a pestle or blend: pepper, cumin, coriander, fresh mint, garlic and add this to the pan.
  7. Mix vinegar, honey, pomegranate molasses and remainder of the fish sauce in a cup and add that.
  8. Heat through and thicken with cornflour or beurre manié.
  9. Serve with barley (Roman) or rice (borderline Roman) or potatoes (not Roman at all). I also served it with peas into which I’d mixed crispy bacon and spring onions (scallions).

APPLE HEDGEHOG

(For a version which looks more like a hedgehog and includes another ingredient, check out Mrs Crocombe’s demonstration here.)

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

1 kg/ 2lb Cooking Apples (about 5)

75g, 3 oz sugar

2 egg whites.

Two handfuls of slices almonds

A few raisins or sultanas or currants

A glacé cherry

METHOD

  1. Preheat an oven to 180°C or 350°F or gas 4.
  2. Peel, quarter and core the apples, put in a saucepan with a little water and 25 g/1oz sugar. Heat gently until just cooked (although if you overcook them a little, as I did, it’s not the end of the world. You just want them to retain some structure and not be mush).
  3. Put into an ovenproof dish and shape into a sort of hedgehog (a large mound of apples, with a smaller bit at the front for a head.
  4. While it’s cooling somewhat, whisk the egg whites into soft peaks, then fold in the remaining sugar.
  5. Cover the apples with the meringue mixture and decorate the ‘body’ part with flaked almonds.
  6. Put in the oven for about 20 minutes till the meringue is golden and the almonds just a little brown (keep an eye on it to make sure the almonds don’t burn).
  7. Decorate the face with a glacé cherry for a nose and raisins/sultanas/currants for eyes.

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

*photograph of street kitchen in Pompeii Dietmar Rauscher https://www.dreamstime.com/thermopolium-pompeii-ancient-roman-street-food-kitchen-thermopolium-pompeii-ancient-roman-street-food-kitchen-serving-image184835561

Postcard Whisperers

When I was a teenager, in the days before mobile phones (or at least before anyone normal had one) and emails and social media, I started filling a postcard album. 

To start with, I added postcards from schoolfriends, relations and my penfriend in Germany, who sent them from holidays taken in places as exotically distant from each other as the Isle of Wight to the Island of Zakynthos. Later, as a student, I added arty postcards bought from the likes of the shop called Athena (anyone remember Athena?).

And then, of course, I left university and left home and left the postcard album behind with my parents with the majority of the books I’d loved as a child and teenager. 

Eventually, my parents downsized from a fair-sized three-bedroomed semi-detached house to a small two-bedroomed bungalow. Even Dad realised that taking everything would be like trying to pour a jeroboam of champagne into a sherry glass. He asked if I’d mind him getting rid of my old books and like a fool I said no. Somehow though, the long-forgotten postcard album survived and went off with my parents in a large box along with some photographs going back to at least 1910 where my grandmother sat with her sisters, resplendent in auburn ringlets and starched pinafores.

My father only got rid of a fraction of the stuff he needed to before they’d moved and originally shoved what he could into the attic of the little bungalow. When the loft was insulated however, there wasn’t room and the contents were scattered in true hoarder fashion around the place. Inexplicably, various things which didn’t matter were inside the bungalow, while some irreplaceable things were put in an outside shed. I have no idea why. But that’s where they went. 

I didn’t realise this until 2013, my mother, now widowed, moved from the bungalow to an even smaller place near me and I had to go through the agonising process of reducing her belongings.

At some point in the time they’d lived in the bungalow, a hole formed in the roof of the shed. This is not something you want in South Wales, unless you want things to be rain-damaged.

The cine film my grandfather had taken of my father as a child (for example looking at planes on what was then a little airfield called Heathrow) and later films my father had taken of me and my sister as children, were destroyed by water. Maybe something could have been salvaged, but my mother had thrown them out before I knew anything about it. However there I was, on the last day before she had to move, trying to clear out what was left in the shed feeling despair. Among all the water-damaged things that should have been kept safe and dry, I found photographs that could not be salvaged and my old, forgotten postcard album with its pages all stuck together. They had to go.

Fast forward to 2018, by which time I’d forgotten the album if not the photographs, when I was researching for the Caster and Fleet series, in which Katherine Demeray is an 1890s Victorian typist. 

Procrastinating, I looked at a lovely old desk I have and thought how nice it would look with an old typewriter on top, even if I’d be too feeble to actually use it. I did an online search and found exactly what I was looking for… only it was well outside my budget for impulse buys. 

Well within my budget, however, was a sweet postcard with a female typist on it. 

It felt serendipitous and inspiring, so I bought it and later asked a local writer friend Helen Baggott (author of ‘Posted in the Past’ and ‘Second Delivery’) who researches old postcards, if she had any tips. (To find out the fascinating stories Helen has unearthed and about her books, visit her blog here.) It might be hard, she told me, since the date was obscured and the recipient had been at a ‘care of’ address. So… I propped the postcard up on the bookshelf and decided it was a project for another day .

Fast forward once more to this year. I was trying to visualise the sort of postcard which might have been sent in 1912 to Katherine’s younger sister Margaret by her friend Maude during the third book in the series, so I did another search. A lovely postcard of an Edwardian woman with a horse tempted me, but coming from the US, with shipping trebling the overall cost, it was well outside my budget. Then I found something similar in the UK, originally posted to someone living in the next county to where I live now. This time, I decided not only would I purchase it, but discovering that you can still get postcard albums, I bought one of those too.

A few evenings later, I put the postcard of the typist with the missing year and the postcard of the horsewoman from 1910 into their new album. Then, I decided to do a little digging just to see whether I could glean anything about the recipients of the postcards at all. Since I subscribe to both an ancestry site and the British Newspaper Archives, I thought that between them, I might find something out. And I sort of did!

I anticipated that the one with the Edwardian horsewoman and clear postmark of 1910 might be easiest, but it has so far proved hard to get very far. From the 1901 and 1911 censuses, I could work out who the recipient was likely to have been, but I haven’t so far established what might have happened to her before or after it was sent. She was, I think, either Lilian or Florence Stone (the writing makes it hard to know if it’s an L or an F), one of two sisters then in their early twenties, but after that I drew a blank except for a possible date of death many many years later of someone with the same name. 

But the one with the typist and obscured date has proved unexpectedly more serendipitous than I’d imagined it could do. 

After some squinting at the writing to work out what both the recipient and the person she was staying with were called, followed by a lot of rooting in censuses, birth and marriage records of people with the unusual to me (but apparently not in Yorkshire) name Dungworth, I worked that the recipient of the postcard was likely to be a Dorothy Dungworth born in Yorkshire who, at whatever date the card was sent, was staying with her maternal aunt in Kent. 

A little more rooting in the 1939 register, revealed someone with the right name and of the right age (then 40), living in Cardiff and registered as a journalist. Was it the same person? In the 1901 census, Dorothy’s father was recorded as a cycle maker (?). In 1911, her widowed mother was recorded as head of the household, earning her living as a stay maker. Could a girl from a humble background in Yorkshire really end up as a journalist in Cardiff? 

This is where the British Newspaper Archives came into their own. It seemed as if Dorothy had started her writing career by having a fairy story printed in a Yorkshire paper while still in her teens during the First World War. Was this perhaps how she helped her widowed mother with the household finances? Perhaps she was already out of school and working for the paper.

Ultimately, it seemed she did indeed settle in South Wales and wrote for various papers from the late 1920s, throughout World War II and beyond, winning awards and writing about subjects from women’s and workers’ rights to archaeology. 

That evening digging about in records was a good deal more fun than watching the TV or scrolling through social media. But it was exhausting. I haven’t managed to find time or energy to do any more digging since, but I will. 

However, the really curious coincidence is this. In the second Margaret Demeray book Death in the Last Reel, which I wrote after buying the postcard, but before I even thought about finding out about it, one of the characters is a girl from a humble background who wants to be a writer and starts by having a fairy story printed in the local newspaper

I don’t know why that particular character came into being (she came fully formed and remains very vivid to me), any more than I really know why any of my characters do. I don’t know why she wanted to be a writer (although it helped with the plot of course), and I certainly don’t know why it was a fairy story that she had published. 

The postcard to Dorothy Dungworth was watching over me while I pondered, plotted and wrote that book. Did something of her, whose story I didn’t even know then, filter through some creative ether?

It seems unlikely of course, but I do know something – I intend to find out more about Dorothy. And one way or another, I think she’ll end up the inspiration for a new character. 

I think she might even deserve a book of her own. What do you think?

(Oh and if you know anything about either Lilian/Florence Stone or Dorothy Dungworth – let me know!)

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

Why Choose A Woman?

In March I was involved in a literary festival, both as an organiser and as a contributor. One of the things I did was to talk about suspense fiction with Helen Matthews and Katharine Johnson. At the end, we opened the floor to the audience. Here are some of the questions, and some of the answers I gave. Feel free to ask me more!

Why choose a woman as a main character in eras when women couldn’t do much? Wouldn’t a man’s life be more exciting?

Who says? Just because until fairly recently, history portrays women (if mentioned at all ) as weak, ineffectual, sentimental, irrational, puppets or playthings, the epitome of purity or full of evil intent, does that mean they really were? History may record queens who changed the destinies of whole countries for good or ill, but there were other women, whose names tend to be forgotten, who made strides in science and arts (see list below), many of these came from very humble beginnings. They climbed mountains and traversed deserts, unhindered by long skirts and corsets. They were private detectives, social reformers, physicians. Why don’t we hear about them from contemporary writers? Perhaps because the writers were mostly men. Maybe those men feared or reviled powerful women or perhaps just simply weren’t interested in writing adventures involving them. Weak? Ineffectual? Not a bit of it. I want to celebrate the sort of women who really existed – not especially important in the greater scheme of things but full of life, intelligence, spirit and determination – and give them something more exciting to do than wait for their menfolk to come home from an adventure.

Why did you decide to write about particular eras?

Partly there’s so much potential. By the late second century in Britain of the Murder Britannica series, the Britons in my books have a degree of political control, and are undoubtedly enjoying everything the Empire has to offer: new foods, easier trade routes, the chance for their sons to join the army and travel and come back with citizenship and wealth. The Empire isn’t as rotten as it will be, even if the Emperor is bonkers. And in Western Britain there’s a reasonable chance you can get away with a little more (and have some fun) if you keep your head down a little.

The late Victorian era of Caster and Fleet is one where women are starting to flex muscles of independence. Careers are starting to open up Nursing has become respectable. A university education (if not a degree) is possible. The bicycle has revolutionised the lives of anyone who can afford one and train travel is affordable for many, opening up the country to people whose ancestors had barely moved five miles for generations. So what does that mean for two young women who can maybe get away from chaperones long enough to investigate crime? Will they rise to the challenge or be held back by convention?

By the late Edwardian era of the Margaret Demeray series, things have moved on again, the old age pension, national insurance and paid holidays are being introduced. But the popular images of the times (often called the Golden Era), full of glamorous elegant clothes and bright parties and rapidly developing innovations like aeroplanes and cinema, contrast violently with a dark underbelly of misery and discord among the poor, the increasing militancy of the suffrage movement, discontent about immigration and working conditions, so there’s a lot to throw at a woman who’s neither rich nor poor, who knows rich people and works among poor people, who wants the vote and social reform but has to decide what price she’ll pay to get it.

Do you ever feel conflicted about what’s going on in an era you’re writing about?

Yes it’s difficult not to be anachronistic about things which sit uncomfortably.

Slavery. Slavery in Roman times was an economic normality – no one would have questioned it at all. It was not a matter of race, but of conquest and also occurred among many of the local peoples of the Empire whether the Romans were there or not. It was unfair and mostly cruel, and a slave was without any form of basic human rights. It was a different sort of slavery to the kind which we tend to think of now. If a slave was freed, there was no social barrier to getting on in life. It was quite possible (and happened) for the grandson of a freed slave to become Emperor regardless of ancestry. However it was still slavery.

The British Empire in the later books. The Caster & Fleet series is set at perhaps the Empire’s heyday, in the Margaret Demeray series, twenty years later, cracks are starting to show, but an average subject in Great Britain might not have noticed. British actions in the Boer War were internationally condemned though how much of this filtered down to the general public is uncertain. The Indian independence movement was gaining ground, and of course the Irish Question was still waiting for an answer. As a modern person, it’s impossible not to feel an abhorrence for the jingoism of the late 19th/early 20th century, lauding the glories of an Empire the wealth of which was built on the suffering of people from across its many nations and which treated native peoples as second or even third class citizens in their own countries. It’s also hard to stomach the way the British government played cat and mouse with the Irish people less than a hundred years after the potato famine had been so woefully handled and probably in living memory of some of the survivors. Margaret and her sister Katherine can see a lot of this for themselves, but it’s unlikely that they’d have viewed it with exactly the same disdain that I do nowadays.

Are your characters’ conflicts ones you recognise for yourself?

Lucretia’s aren’t. She’s stinking rich and I’m not sure she’d recognise an internal conflict unless it hit her on the head and robbed her of her money. She had one once, but she’s long buried it. Or maybe she had two… Tryssa perhaps – having to decide whether to tackle Lucretia and rake up old memories for the sake of the truth, and then having to decide whether or not to move away from the only home she’s known – I can relate to that.

Margaret’s situation is much more relatable. She’s a career woman who in the third book has also recently become a mother. Combining a job she wants to excel at with a family she loves and never quite feeling like she’s giving her best to either, is something I remember very well.

Which character is most like you?

As other authors will say, most of my characters contain aspects of myself. But in terms of who’s most like me, in personality Katherine probably is – she’s a coper whom everyone thinks is confidant but who actually isn’t and who wishes people noticed when she’s struggling. In terms of size, shape and looks, I’m like Lucretia – short, plump, middle-aged. On the other hand, Lucretia wears three inches of make-up and is completely self-deluded. Sometimes, I think it would be quite nice to be self-deluded! But I couldn’t be doing with the make-up.

If you’d been there, what questions would you have asked about my books?

Lesser known women of note

Artists:

Artemisia Gentileschi

19th Century British Female Artists

Sarah Biffin

Female Mathematicians

19th Century Female Mountaineers

Victorian Female Private Detectives

Female Scientists

Women in Medicine

Women Explorers

Women in the Civil Service

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image credit https://pixabay.com/vectors/woman-thinking-sitting-desk-41201/

A Hint of Spices Past

Ingredients: a good book, time, tasty food.

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

VariatIon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now where’s my pinny?

Granny D’s Anzac biscuits

1 cup flour

1 cup rolled oats

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup desiccated coconut

1 tablespoon hot water

125g margarine

2 tablespoons golden syrup (black treacle may be used)

Method

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

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

Bones, Stones and Long, Long Roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I did.

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

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

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

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

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

Series or Standalones?

As a reader, I like a variety. 

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

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

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

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

Below Thirty or Over Forty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private Eye or Regular Citizen?

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

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

Small Town or Big City?

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

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

Contemporary or Historical?

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

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

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

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

Saves The Day or Gets Saved?

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

Birds or Snakes?

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

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

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

What about you? How would you answer?

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

New Beginnings Everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you still writing?’ she said. 

‘Not really,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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