What’s Going On?

‘Where now?’ said the taxi driver.

‘I’m not sure,’ said Margaret.

‘What’s happening?’ whispered Nellie. ‘What’s going on?’

It’s a good question.

After fourteen months in some form of lockdown, things are changing. Within a couple of days, I’ve gone from not having any face-to-face ‘dates’ in my calendar to adding five meet-ups during July and August. 

After all this time being a hermit, it’s a little daunting. 

At work, I started a new role in January and have had to learn it remotely, longing for the ability to whisper in a colleague’s ear ‘what’s going on?’ when things got confusing (which is a lot of the time). 

But recently, despite having to book a socially-distanced desk through a matrix (rather than pitch up and squeeze between other people wherever there’s a laptop-sized gap as we used to do) some of my colleagues returned to the office. 

On that day, our daily team-meeting took place with most of us (provincial members like me) on Teams and four (ones living in or near London) in the office. I felt a pang of nostalgia for the commute, and even Croydon. I thought how nice it will be when I can finally catch up with my work friend in person and go for a cup of tea and debrief, rather than do it over Teams, which really isn’t the same.

I imagine it’s not too many months before I’ll go back too. And while one of the downsides will be that I’ll have to dress properly (rather than wear a smart top and a scruffy pair of leggings because people can only see me from the waist up) I’m hoping by the time I do, I won’t want to whisper ‘what’s going on?’ anymore, because I’ll know.

In my non-work world, despite being a bank holiday weekend, the rain has stopped and the sun has come out. Perhaps since I no longer feel like I’m in an aquarium, my mood has shifted to the positivity that can only happen when a British writer of a certain age can dry three loads of laundry on the line and feel like the work-in-progress is back under some sort of control. 

I paused work on it yesterday afternoon just before the above snippet. 

Things had taken an unexpected turn because Margaret has fifteen year old Nellie with her when this wasn’t in the original plan. Consequently, I later fell asleep wondering where she ought to tell the taxi driver to take them next, for which I needed to consult a map.

Perhaps in consequence of this uncertainty and/or because of clams in my dinner, I dreamed that I met one of the people I’ve made plans to meet (she knows who she is) and she was running amok: leaping over railway ticket barriers, being rude to officials, demanding food and excursions and generally not being the law-abiding, refined individual she usually is. 

(Of course, since I haven’t met her in person in the last fourteen months, this may be her new normal.)

Shaking that dream out of my head when I woke, I got up and worked on the next bit of the work-in-progress until about eleven a.m my time. 

It’s 4 p.m. for Margaret and she needs to be somewhere else at 5 p.m. I’d got her to the first stop to offload Nellie and she’s been asked again: ‘What’s going on?’ to which she has to answer ‘I wish I knew.’

I needed to stop there for a bit of thinking time. So in the spirit of the era, and because we needed something for lunch, I went off to cook some nibbles from ‘The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book’. I don’t know why Margaret’s recipe didn’t get in there, as the ones that did are every bit as vague as hers might be. I had to do a fair amount of guessing of measurements, temperatures and timings with the ‘Egg Patties’ although a little less with ‘Chocolate Macaroons’ but they turned out all right and with a bit of tweaking, I’ll make them again.

Of course, life being what it is, I never got back to the work-in-progress today. 

Margaret is still stuck in… (clues below) and she’ll have to wait until tomorrow (my time) to (hopefully) get to her appointment at 5 p.m (her time) and deal with… you’ll have to wait and see.

Whether I can do this before or after work is yet to be seen. 

Thankfully for Margaret (and unlike me in my new role) I do know what’s going on in the story. I just need to get Margaret to the point when she does.

***

WHERE IS MARGARET DROPPING NELLIE? The following paragraph will not be in the final book. But may give you a clue if you know where Connie from the Caster & Fleet series ended up living and where a certain Mr Holmes may have met the woman of his dreams. In 1911 that woman might now be a little older, but after all, what’s age to crime-busting?

‘Who are you waving to?’

‘That’s my friend Connie’s house. She’s a REAL Lady Detective.’

‘Coo! Like that Caster & Fleet who get in the papers?’

‘Funny you should say that. Oh and…’

‘Who you waving at now?’

‘Mrs Holmes – she’s a Lady Detective too.’

‘She looks a bit .. what’s that word … menopausal.’

‘They’re the best sort of detectives. Don’t take any nonsense and if you mess them when they’re having a hot flush, they’re likely to grabble you to the ground and tie your limbs in a reef knot before you can say knife.’

‘I can’t imagine being that old. To be honest, I can’t imagine being as old as you – begging your pardon, doctor – but one day, I want to be that scary.’

‘Good for you, Nellie. You’re a girl after my own heart.’

Words and all photographs bar that of the fox copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Fox photograph: Photo 31122236 / Fox © J Vd | Dreamstime.com

Sisters, Sisters (chatting with the Demerays)

My own sister was born when I was three and a half. My delight wore off when I realised she was getting more attention than I was.

She had dark brown hair and big brown soulful eyes. I was mousy and sulky looking. She seemed good at making friends, I was rubbish at it. She, despite being a tomboy, was given pretty frilly clothes. I, despite being a romantic daydream, was given practical ones. Was I jealous of her? Yes. Were we close as children? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Whenever we shared a bedroom, I’d tell her or read her stories. When there was a thunderstorm, she’d climb into bed with me. When bullies picked on me, she’d offer to beat them up. Otherwise, except in the holidays, the gap was too large to cross for us to be close.

It wasn’t until we were twenty-two and nineteen, when she moved from the family home to start her first job, that we ended up sharing a house and became closer. We could argue without anyone going off in a sulk or feeling misunderstood – they were honest, open arguments which we worked through until we had a win-win resolution.

I think she’s dippy. She thinks I’m bossy. But it doesn’t matter.

I know we’re both extremely lucky in this regard. I know plenty of siblings who can’t say the same. But as for us, my sister is one of my very best friends. One day, we’ll go on a mad-old-lady road trip together. Although I’m not entirely sure which I trust least: her driving or her navigating…

All this got me thinking about two of my characters who are sisters. I’m working on the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die at the moment. The main character, Margaret Demeray ‘started out’ (in a book sense), as the annoying younger sister of Katherine Demeray in The Case of the Black Tulips which I co-wrote with Liz Hedgecock. The gap between these two sisters is nearly nine years. By the time it’s 1911, they are very close but maybe it wasn’t always so. Here’s an extract from the sequel, where something Fox says reminds Margaret of a moment from her childhood:

***

When Margaret had been aged seven, the family went on holiday in the New Forest. Running off on her own, she’d found a perfect, climbable young oak, just waiting for her. She removed her shoes and stockings, knowing any damage to them might give her away afterwards, then climbed.

Thirty years later, she recalled the bark scraping her bare legs, the ache in her arms and the freedom of feeling hidden in the leaves with no one to tell her what to do. She saw Aunt Alice and Katherine hunt for her, their voices anxious and strained. ‘Meg! Meg! Where are you?’

It was Katherine who spotted the shoes and stockings at the bottom of the tree and peered up into the branches. ‘Come down this instant!’

‘No!’

‘Come down!’

‘Oh Kitty, you come up. It’s marvellous!’

But Katherine refused. She’d stood there hands on hips, with the all the dignity a sixteen year old can manage, looking snippy.

At the time, Margaret had been convinced that her big sister had wanted to climb the tree but was too boringly absorbed in being nearly grown-up to let herself try.

But now that Margaret thought back with an adult mind, Katherine’s remembered face was not so much angry as hurt and terrified.

***

So, thinking about this and because I’ve got a small request at the end, I thought I’d interview both Katherine and Margaret to see how they’re similar or different, and what they both remember of the incident in the New Forest.

It’s January 1911

What is your full name? Do you have a nickname (if so, who calls you this)?

Katherine: Katherine Mathilda King née Demeray. My immediate family call me Kitty sometimes. Not my husband though.

Margaret: Margaret – I’m not telling anyone till I have to – Demeray. Only my father, sister and aunt call me Meg. 

Where and when were you born?

Katherine: Fulham, 4th May 1865

Margaret: Fulham, 16th January 1874

Where do you live now, and with whom?

Katherine: In a house in Bayswater with my husband James, 16 year old son Ed and four domestic staff.

Margaret: In a flat in Bayswater with my cat Juniper.

What is your occupation?

Katherine: I’m a private investigator working with Connie Lamont.

Margaret: I’m a pathologist in St Julia’s Chest Hospital for the Poor.

How would you describe your childhood? How much schooling have you had?

Katherine: Our mother died when I was fifteen. Until then everything was very happy. But then our father took me out of school on the grounds that a middle-class girl didn’t need a formal education as she’d never need to work, she just needed to find a husband. He continued teaching me at home but it was very eclectic and patchy as he tended to go off for months on his travels. Aunt Alice took over as much of our nurture as she could. She was only in her early thirties and I now realise she set aside any matrimonial hopes to help raise us. I fear I gave her a hard time but I was heartbroken about losing Mother and bitter about leaving school. 

Margaret: I was six when Mother died and I barely remember her. Father, while good fun sometimes, always seemed very distant. As Katherine says, he was forever going off to do research for his books and when I was thirteen, he disappeared for years and we thought he was dead. I gave Aunt Alice a hard time too. She seemed so very determined we be ladylike and it was so very dull. I can’t thank Katherine enough for arguing the case for my staying on at a good school till I was eighteen, and when Father disappeared and the money started to run out, asking our uncle to pay the fees.

Did you ever climb trees as a little girl?

Katherine: no. But I remember Margaret doing it. It was less than a year after Mother had died and Father took us to the New Forest, then retreated into his room to write his books. We were all so miserable. And then one day, Margaret disappeared. She was only little. I thought someone had abducted her or she might be lying injured somewhere and we’d never find her again and that would be another person lost to me. It was one of the worst few hours of my life.

Margaret: I’d forgotten that completely until recently. I can only say that at the time I just too young to realise how anyone else might feel. I suppose I was partly running from all the grief that was dragging us down which I couldn’t understand or manage. All I can remember of that day is feeling free for a while – light – as if a weight had dropped. To be honest, it was one of the best few hours of my life. I’m really sorry.

Did you have any role models?

Katherine: I had people I didn’t want to be like. I didn’t want to be as diffident as Aunt Alice or as judgmental as Aunt Leah but… actually my role model was our lodger Mina Robson. Her life had gone a bit wrong, but she just picked herself up and did something rather than wait for someone to rescue her. She quietly gave me the courage to do the same when I decided to find a job against Aunt Alice’s wishes.

Margaret: I could name any number of famous female doctors, but the honest truth is that Katherine is my role model. If she hadn’t had the courage to get a job and then start working with Connie, I daresay I’d have settled for trying to find a rich husband rather than think a woman could do anything more interesting and then doing it.

When did you have your first kiss, and who with?

Katherine: proper kiss? It was with my husband James when I was 25.

Margaret: I’m not telling but I certainly didn’t wait till I was 25.

What is your greatest fear? 

Katherine: failing the people I love.

Margaret: losing the people I love.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Katherine: nice clothes. We went through a long time of having to alter old dresses and trying to change a skirt designed for a 1880s bustle to a simpler 1890s style was no mean feat. I don’t know what we’d have done without Aunt Alice.

Margaret: Yes. Nice clothes all the way. And hats. And handbags. And shoes.

Would you be able to kill? 

Katherine: No.

Margaret: to protect someone or stop an evil? Yes. I wouldn’t want to, but I think I could.

What three words would others probably use to describe you?

Katherine: determined, short and (unfortunately) carroty-haired

Margaret: principled, fiery and (if you ask Fox) impetuous

What smells do you associate with your childhood?

Both: Ada’s baking!

Katherine: no-one made cakes like she did.

Margaret: Even thinking of it now makes my mouth water. Come on Kitty, let’s find a tea-shop.

***

Now it’s your turn:

Questions sought! 

Liz Hedgecock and I would love to do a Q&A about the Caster & Fleet series. For this – we need some Qs of course.

We’d love to know from anyone who’s read the books whether you have any burning questions about the process, the plots, the spin-offs – serious, curious or plain silly. Please either comment below or email me at paula@paulaharmon.com. (In case you don’t know: we have six books in the original series which is set in 1890s London, featuring Katherine Demeray and Connie Swift, plus a Christmas novella. We got so involved in our books that we individually took two side-characters and decided to find out what happened to them in spin-off series. I just have one in the Margaret Demeray series (so far – hoping the second will be out later this year) set in the 1910s and Liz now has four in the Maisie Frobisher series set in the 1890s. All are available on Amazon.)

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon.

Photograph – https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-two-women-car-image52012634

All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Viewscapes

They say that eyes are the windows of the soul, but I’m not convinced.

If we could look into someone’s eyes and gauge exactly what sort of person was behind them, the world would be a much happier place. We’d immediately see the kind heart or the cruel one. We’d know whether it was wise to accept that drink, that lift, that date, that election promise, that viewpoint. 

Sadly however we can’t, and get caught up in trappings, attractiveness, eloquence and prejudice instead.

So what about windows themselves? Are they the eyes of a house?

When I told my German pen-friend (in English) that a house looked down on a river, she thought the idiom highly amusing. 

‘How can a house “look”?’ she said. ‘It’s not alive. It doesn’t have eyes.’

I hadn’t thought it a peculiar thing to say until that moment. But I mentally shrugged. It seemed fine by me. Almost every house I’ve ever been in seems to have a personality. 

Between birth and going to university at eighteen, I lived in six homes: one flat and five semi-detached houses. I don’t remember the flat, but I had a dream a few years ago in which I ‘knew’ I was there, lying in my pram ‘watching’ part of my little world – a dark hall and dark shrubbery in the garden. My mother says this is about right. 

I remember the next two two houses as being dark too. I’ve no idea why. They were both relatively new, built with typical big 1950s/60s windows. Maybe it was the Victorian and Edwardian inherited clutter and furniture inside that made them dark. I recall that my bedroom window in the second house/third home came down to the floor. After bedtime, unbeknownst to my parents, I’d get up to read by the light coming in from outside, whether the last of the summer sun or by the orange light of the street lamps.

I was about six and a half when we moved to the third house/fourth home. It was brand-new and had huge windows. The one from the sitting room was actually a patio door, but being at the back, faced a high hedge at the end of our very small garden. However beyond the hedge and visible from my bedroom window was a barley field. I would watch for hours when the barley was growing, watching it swirl and dance like the sea. In my mind’s eye, it has perpetually swished in golden-green waves ever since, but I’ve just checked, and like most of what were then meadows round a village, it’s now buried under houses and probably has been for many years.

We moved to South Wales about two years later and rented our fifth home/fourth house for a few months while the sale of one house and the purchase of another went through. 

The house we rented was also brand-new, half way up (in fact clinging to) a mountain, front-door nose to nose against a forest. There was nothing to see but trees out of those windows, but out of the back, we could see for miles towards other distant mountains, across our village and across the narrow-gauge single-track railway line and the river to another village where our next house would be. 

There was something like a twenty foot drop from the sitting room windows to the sloping back garden. A couple of years ago, the village featured on one of those ‘perfect home search’ programmes and lo and behold, in the background of one shot was that row of houses still clinging to the mountain, including ours. 

‘I’d forgotten that drop,’ I said to Mum.

‘It was dead handy,’ she replied. ‘Once I found some fillets of fish in the freezer which had frozen to each other, so I dropped them out of the kitchen window so they’d break apart when they hit the garden.’ 

(Is it only my mother would think this was a normal and logical thing to do?)

Neither that house nor the one before had personalities – they were perhaps too new. 

But the final family home we had more than made up for their lack of it. 

I pretty much loathed that house from the off, but had no choice of course but to endure it for the ten years till I went to university. I won’t go on about it now, although there are hints in The Cluttering Discombobulator which includes our first year there. But chaotic (and I swear sometimes downright malignant) as that house was, the one thing you couldn’t fault it on was windows. 

From the front, you could see up and down the long street. As a little girl, you could see when a friend was coming to play, or see the path to the woods and as a teenager, you could (as I did) sit for hours and look out at the rainy evening, waiting for headlights which might mean that the boy who’d broken your heart had changed his mind and was coming to visit after all. 

The sink where my sister and I did the washing up (arguing throughout the process every time) was at the side of the house in the kitchen extension (which makes it sound more glamorous than the freezing, leaking, draughty place which it actually was). You could see right down the road and once I watched a neighbour walk his beautiful Irish setter up the hill as he often did, only remembering when he disappeared out of sight that he’d recently died. The window above this extension was the bathroom window which I once climbed out of to put tar on the worst of the leaks aged nine (yes honestly) and had to break in through aged twelve when we got locked out.

But it was the back of the house which had the best views. 

I missed my English barley sea. Our bit of Wales had rougher, wetter, harsher countryside. And the scenery was wilder too but no less beautiful for that. 

From my bedroom, you could see clear down across a tussocky field to the trees lining the river edge, then up the slope to the other village and up to the mountain’s top. In autumn and winter, you could see the trains screech along the railway. 

The house had been built before central heating was normal and all but one of the fireplaces had been bricked up long before we arrived. When my parents eventually put radiators in they didn’t include the bedrooms (which was more normal in the UK at the time than you’d think). They were all therefore cold and in winter, there was occasionally ice on the inside of my window but I didn’t really mind, the bed was warm. My room faced west, so I’d often kneel up in bed at night and look out  to watch the late summer sun setting past the mountain, knowing that the sea was not so far beyond. 

And oh – when there was a thunderstorm! While rain hammered down on the roof above and sliced through the grey air, lightning seemed to set the mountain on fire, the village appearing and disappearing in violent flashes as I watched, mesmerised. 

I’ve never had a view like it in a home since. But maybe I haven’t needed one in the same way. 

Perhaps I needed that view then, because I always wanted to be somewhere else: because when I wasn’t yearning for the place I’d left until it became mythical, I wanted to travel to new worlds, into the west, into the storm, and as adolescence struck, looked forward to growing up and leaving my family home to create my own home.

These days, I’m content where I am and more or less with who I am. 

I’m still lucky enough to have good views from my house, but none to compare with a mountain. 

Often, if I look outside, it’s for writing inspiration or because now I’m doing the day job from home, the wildlife, the neighbours’ cats and the innumerable delivery vehicles are sometimes more interesting than what I’m supposed to be doing. 

So are windows the soul of the house? Or the soul of the person inside the house looking out? 

On reflection, I honestly think it’s a little bit of both.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.Illustration 215064943 © Galina Yureva | Dreamstime.com

Choose to Challenge

‘Maude and I are going to Switzerland for 19th March while you’re on your mission,’ said Margaret.

‘Really?’ said Fox. ‘Is this to do with International Women’s Day? Why Switzerland?’

Margaret shrugged. ‘I’ve never been there and they’re not doing it in Britain.’

‘I might come with you before heading over the border,’ said Fox. 

‘Keeping an eye on me?’

‘No. Because I agree with the aims: votes and decent working conditions for all – it’s a thousand pities people are more interested in the latest society gossip, the coronation and playing “our empire’s better than their empire” to notice how close we are to tipping into anarchy or war.’

‘You think that’s the choice?’

‘Quite possibly,’ said Fox. ‘Don’t you?’

The first international Women’s Day was celebrated on 19th March 1911 and occurs a few days before the beginning of the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die which I’m working on just now, so the above might theoretically be a conversation held a while before that.

My character, Dr Margaret Demeray is a determined person. She believes firmly in equality and safe working conditions but I doubt she’d be oblivious to the sort of things that were said about suffragettes and the men who supported them in for example, postcards like these

In the United Kingdom, the suffrage movement was gaining momentum. On census day 1911, Emily Davison allegedly hid herself in the Houses of Parliament as a protest – here’s a fascinating article researching the truth of this. Many other women refused to be counted as part of their defiance in a document which recorded for women but not for men, how long they’d been married for example. Whether Margaret will is yet to be seen.

Margaret of course, is a creation of my imagination, but the inspiration for her comes to some extent from the older women on both sides of my family. 

I had nine great aunts and two grandmothers, who would have been aged between three and sixteen in 1911. I never thought to ask any of those I knew what they’d known or thought about suffragettes, although one did recall with delight that she’d turned twenty-one in 1928, the year that the voting age for women was dropped to be the same as that for men.

None were sentimental women. None thought womanhood had anything whatsoever to do with swooning or weakness or subservience. Not one ever gave me the impression they thought girls took second place to boys or that I should do less than make the most of every opportunity which came my way.

Ten of them had some form of career at least until marriage and I can easily imagine that most of them could have made senior management nowadays if they’d wanted to. 

They could be funny and they could be affectionate, but they also thought nothing worse than an indulged child. There was certainly no place in their mind-sets for crying. We were expected to get on with things, however crippled with shyness we were or lacking confidence or fearing criticism. Painful as that frequently was, it was a useful life skill, although having uncritical and supportive parents probably helped a great deal.

Since growing older, I started finding out more about them and they stopped being simply old relatives and became people. As far as I can establish, every single one rose to every challenge with determination to become valued women in their families and communities with strong ethics and views which were their own opinions and no one else’s.

Two, in 1941, then in their fifties, picked up the pieces (literally) when their home and business was destroyed by a WWII bomb and started up somewhere else, but not before making a cup of tea in the rubble immediately after the raid (which they’d escaped while hiding under the stairs) because how could you think without one?

One (whom I never met but wish I had) doubtless scandalised her highly conventional mother with Edwardian new age philosophies, esoteric books and curios. My father inherited the last two, a fair amount of which I recall from my early childhood.

Her youngest sister (who I did know) went travelling the world as soon as she retired and thrilled us with tales of camel rides, deserts, bazaars and souks, lighting a flame in me to want to do the same one day.

My favourite great aunt dedicated herself to teaching, never losing her interest in young people. As a retired lady in the late 1970s, she plonked herself down next to a group of punks in Glasgow bus station. She said they recoiled a little, clearly expecting her to tell them they were a disgrace, but she simply started chatting and as they relaxed, she learned all about how they got their mohicans to stand up, how many safety pins they needed and all about punk culture. 

It’s a thousand pities that 110 years after groups of women and men marched for fairness, equality and safe working conditions, these are still far from the experience of people, even in the developed world and that we still need an International Women’s Day, but we do. This year’s campaign theme is #ChooseToChallenge.

I knew plenty of contemporaries even in the 1970s and 1980s who felt second rate to their brothers and that there was no point to further education or trying for a career. But I was fortunate to have very determined (if sometimes a little uncompromising and occasionally downright eccentric) role models, who challenged any suggestion that their whole focus should be their husbands and children. They embraced everything the world could offer them but knew how to be phlegmatic if life didn’t turn out as expected.

Maybe they’d be horrified by my appallingly untidy house but I think they’d appreciate that even though it’s sometimes a struggle, I have just about balanced my creativity with building a career, raising a son and a daughter who are staunch feminists and that I’ve never once thought that being a woman should hold me or anyone else back.  

I am not entirely sure how they’d feel about being the inspiration for a number of my characters, from shy, proper, but quietly brave Aunt Alice, to somewhat mad Tullia to straight-talking Margaret via various other characters, some of who haven’t met the general public yet. But I hope they’d take it as a compliment and on International Women’s Day, I’d like to salute them.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Illustration 136452856 © Maryia Naidzionysheva | Dreamstime.com

Timeline of Women’s Suffrage

Twenty Significant Women in History

Ten Famous Women Mathematicians

Most Influential Women in British Science

Twelve Famous Female Painters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photograph 51997062 © Everett Collection Inc. | Dreamstime.com

Chopsing – Video Interview

Some people describe me as talkative, others as reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Three Things?

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

The idea is to answer the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want…

I’m afraid of…

I’m hindered by…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Two Minds

I was one of those weirdos at school who was good at both English and maths.

I craved both pretty things and books. I liked to be girly and have adventures. I loathed wearing trousers but despite always wearing a skirt, I could climb trees, could go exploring and when necessary, could slap a trouser-wearing bully in the face.

I’m still that girl really. My mind has two distinct paths of travel.

My day-job is project-based and I plan, process-map, analyse and present data etc etc in meticulous detail. But when it comes to writing….

I really do try. The plans for my first two novels (neither of which have seen the light of day) were intricate. But one is convoluted and illogical and the other is miles too long. The thought of all the editing required to make either of them readable is enough to make a statue weep.

I’ve since learnt a lot. I’ve accepted that creatively, I’m more of a panster than a detailed plotter. (That’s a writer flying by the seat of their pants. Perhaps I should I say I’m a skirtster.) I’ve stopped shoe-horning characters into a plot and instead let the characters decide what to do with the situation chucked at them.

So if they do something stupid, it’s not my fault, it’s because of the contradictions in their personality. Margaret while analytical and scientific, relaxes by sketching. She’s independent, capable and brave, but underneath afraid of letting people close enough to let her down. How rationally she behaves depends on which aspect of her personality is predominant at any given moment.

In the ‘novel in progress’ (set around 14 months after Murder Durnovaria), the main character Fabio (last seen in Murder Britannica) wants to be left alone to create music. To do that, he needs to tune out of what’s going on around him. But he’s also an excellent hunter for which of course, he needs to tune into what’s going on around him. At the point I’ve got to in writing, he’s got things the wrong way round and hasn’t noticed the pack of wolves watching his every move…

So depending on how they respond, Margaret might end up in even deeper trouble or equally she might gain something important. And Fabio might end up as a tasty meal  unless the wolves want something else and he needs to react emotionally rather than logically.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to balance opposing things like: writing about a bitter winter when for me, it’s midsummer, and describing busy taverns when pubs have been shut for over three months.

The bird in the picture below clearly thought being in two minds gave her options. In a pub garden last year, she risked getting close enough to snaffle a piece of ready-salted crisp to add to her nutritious beakful.

My analytical mind wonders whether crisps are a good accompaniment to earthworms.

My creative mind says ‘yuk’.

I know which I’m listening to this time.

junkfoodbird

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

To Hamster or Not To Hamster…

Meeting a good friend the other day and having to elbow bump when normally she’d drag me into an engulfing embrace felt rather surreal and very sad. I never knew until social distancing became advisable how much I’d miss hugging. Being unable to hug my mother and having to keep a two metre distance at closest, is just awful, especially as it was Mothering Sunday yesterday.

Who could imagine I’d also be missing the twice weekly commute to London? I always knew it was unhealthy. I never thought it could kill me. But I do miss the routine and I do miss meeting my colleagues face to face rather than just by video conferencing.

At the point of writing, the UK is not yet in lockdown. In my town, awareness of the seriousness of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) situation seems only just to have sunk in. I went for a walk at lunch-time and not only were more than 95% of the shops/businesses shut but I only saw about ten people. One of them, forced to pass me on a narrow pavement, nearly fell into the gutter trying to put as much space as possible between us. I felt like saying ‘I am holding my breath you know’ but of course that wasn’t physically possible since I’m not a ventriloquist.

Until today, the clearest sign that some people did know there was an issue was the panic-buying. Last Friday, a plague of ‘locusts’ apparently stripped almost every shop of fresh fruit and vegetables. I’m still completely baffled as to what they planned to do with them. You can only store that sort of stuff for so long. I’m not convinced that so many people know how to make edible soup any more than they know how to make edible bread with the yeast that’s long disappeared from the shelves. I dread to imagine the size of the hoarders’ next credit card bills.

I’m also angry. This behaviour impacts on shift-workers, the vulnerable and anyone who can only buy what they have money for on any given day. And the likelihood that a lot of that hoarded food will ultimately go to waste is shameful when people go hungry even in rich countries. 

When my mother took me to the shops as a little girl, she did it on foot with a fixed sum of cash, This meant that she only bought what she could carry. Perhaps that’s a simple solution to panic-shopping: no-one can buy more than can be put in a basket. 

I doubt I’m alone in feeling like Coronavirus has thrown me into a whirlpool of emotions:

  • Anger – see above. Why can’t people look out for each other instead of themselves for once?
  • Anxiety – have I got coronavirus unwittingly and am passing it on to others despite being very largely social distancing for the last two weeks? 
  • Disbelief – How can this be happening when the sun is finally shining and everything appears so normal till I go into a shop or turn on the news? Is this really happening on a global scale?
  • Confliction – What can I trust in the news and social media? Do I really want the country to go into lock-down when this will mean being stuck indoors for weeks?

Oddly on a writing/creative front, while I couldn’t concentrate when Mum was ill, I could easily concentrate on it now as even the most unlikely of my plots seems more believable than the current state of the world. Having said that, although my ‘book-in-edits’ is set in 1910 and not about any sort of virus, I do find that I keep worrying every time a character shakes hands, hugs or kisses – which would rather spoil some of the plot. I really need to get a grip.

It’s hard to think of positives sometimes, particularly when the media tends to focus on nothing but the bad, but there are a few things in links below which I hope you find helpful whether you’re self-isolating on lock-down or just generally looking for something positive to read. And while every single person who’s unexpectedly at home (whether also trying to work or not) with a child/teenager (or partner who’s like a caged animal when stuck indoors) has my sympathy – I hope this will turn out to be a time of bonding rather than discord. Time to break out the board games perhaps? 

One thing that did make me chuckle this week was finding out that the German expression for panic-buying was Hamsterkauf – I can’t think of a better word.

I hope that’s cheered you up too if you didn’t know it already and if you’re going to hamster anything – I hope it’s good memories, shared experiences, appreciation of the important things, creativity and of course – books! 

So as promised, here are more offers:

The Case of the Black Tulips the first book in the Caster & Fleet Victorian mystery series written by Liz Hedgecock and me is currently (23rd March) 99p/99c instead of the usual £2.99/$2.99. A frustrated typist, a bored socialite, an anonymous letter…

Murder Britannica is currently £2.99/$1.99 before returning to normal price of £3.50/$2.99 on 25/3. A self-centred rich woman, a plot to get rich only ruined by a series of unexpected deaths…

Weird and Peculiar Tales a collection of short stories by me and Val Portelli will be on a countdown deal from 26th March starting at 99p/99c. An anthology that contains exactly what the title implies.

In case you’re wondering about the photos, they’re pictures of my daughter’s erstwhile hamsters Frodo and Pip, to remind everyone that you’re lot cuter when you aren’t hoarding more than you need – apart from books of course – you can hoard those as much as you like!

Apologies for the blurriness but hey – they’re still nicer to look at than a virus.

As ever: keep well.

 

 

10 Nature Activities for children while self-isolating

Activity Ideas for children of all ages while self-isolating

Coronavirus: Hope Amid Outbreak

The Volunteer Army Helping Self-Isolating Neighbours

Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

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

 

Accurate Records?

bring your blue shield to get a husband out of bed rather a lot of effort and he didn’t want it to have a cup of tea wrinkly…

No, I haven’t finally lost the plot (well ok maybe I’ve lost a plot but not The Plot). If you can stick with me long enough, I’ll explain that phrase later.

Is it really six weeks since I last posted anything? I just hope your autumn hasn’t been as exhausting as mine. 

As mentioned previously, my youngest child has gone to university, rendering the house empty of children (and depriving the washing machine of fodder). I remember leaving home and thinking ‘hooray – free at last’ because my parents – while being neither over-protective or over-restrictive were – let’s face it, parents. Knowing my daughter thinks the same is a little unnerving but I guess it’s my turn. 

I’ve also been privileged to be involved in organising the inaugural Blandford Literary Festival which takes place 18th-24th November 2019. If you live anywhere near North Dorset, check it out. There really is something for everyone.

Then there’s been work which has been rolling out/not rolling out/gearing up/gearing down/gearing up again/gantt charting/deadline meeting/deadline delaying/impacted by whether/when/how Brexit happens etc etc. Less said the better frankly.

Finally there’s been WORDS. I wanted the sequel to Murder Britannica to come out this July. But I ended up editing for what feels like a hundred years because of all the various distractions and pressures. Since Murder Durnovaria is set in a real place, I had a lot of background stuff to get right and it took me ages to realised a sub-plot needed to go. Meanwhile, a spin-off featuring Margaret Demeray from the Caster & Fleet series is still in edits. There’s only so much one can do when working, wrangling offspring and trying to keep on top of life in general. Sometimes it’s just the wrong time for stuff. 

But Murder Durnovaria is now on pre-order!  And children’s book The Seaside Dragon (formerly The Treasure Seekers) is finally out. 

So anyway, I promised to explain about the opening to this post. Well, my occasional co-authors have been busy too. Val Portelli is releasing the revised version of her Mediterranean romantic novel ‘Summer Changes, Winter Tears‘ on 22nd November and Liz Hedgecock has not only just released a children’s book called A Christmas Carrot (which is illustrated by my daughter) but has also been writing a spin-off from Caster and Fleet. To draft this she dictated into an app while walking – you can read all about her experiences here. She suggested I might like to do the same.

One of my excuses for not doing so is that I usually walk with my husband and he might disown me. My real argument is that I don’t always draft in a flow. Sometimes I spend more time ‘crossing out’ and rephrasing than writing. But given that I always tell my children not to be afraid of new experiences, I decided to try. I downloaded the app and being away for a short-break in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, I looked out of the window and started dictating my thoughts. These were recorded as:

Later in the morning the train still haven’t arrived wondered why she got a self talking to these things and with and people but she was really feel too thick to be doing something would be just cooking school is awesome bring your blue shield to get a husband out of bed rather a lot of effort and he didn’t want it to have a cup of tea wrinkly.. “Get out of bed you lazy AF she said and quotations probably she thought I would have worked out well.

I’d like it on record that I actually referred to my husband as a lazy oaf and have no idea what words the app transliterated as ‘cooking school’, ‘blue shield’ and ‘wrinkly’.

A couple of days later, I tried the app again and did actually try to ‘write’ something. This produced something marginally more coherent:

Open quotes I’ve got happy doing that the poultices and dealing with the herbs but I’m not so sure about is the transfusions and infusions I’m always worried that the lady to come to me will you Sumrell and I’ll get blamed for it there forever after me women you know what they’re like monthlies and headaches and stomachaches there was fussing about medicine men they just leave it to last minute and I nearly dead anyway if you can help me with that I’ll be really grateful”

It’s not exactly Ulysses is it? (And I’ve no idea who Sumrell is but I might use the name sometime.) I hope all the comma haters are happy since clearly I don’t use commas (or indeed full-stops) in my head!

I’ve yet to be convinced I can dictate streamlined thoughts, partly because I’m not sure my thoughts are terribly streamlined. All the same, I might try again sometime, maybe lounging like Barbara Cartland on a chaise-longue rather than walking through town and down by the river-bank. 

After all – it might frighten the otters. They’re a protected species aren’t they?

 

record-1264177_1920

Words Copyright (c) Paula Harmon 2019 not to be reproduced without the author’s express permission. Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay