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.

Once More With Feeling

Somehow it’s New Year again. 

My daughter has gone back to university and all the Christmas food has been eaten except a few chocolates and enough cheese to make macaroni cheese for fifty (and the Christmas pudding which we’ll have tomorrow).

I stopped doing a ‘round robin’ Christmas letters a long time ago, around about when I joined Facebook. But this year I wrote one for a few friends I haven’t seen in person for years and who aren’t on Facebook much or at all. Turned out, when I started writing, that 2021 didn’t add up to a great deal. ‘Ooh,’ I thought. ‘There was that trip to Silchester with Debbie.’ Then I thought a bit harder and realised ‘that trip’ was in 2019. Somehow 2020 and 2021 have merged into one – a sort of roller coaster of lockdowns being imposed and lifted, of silence and noise, of anxiety and relief, of being able to travel and/or see people and then not being able to and then being able to again, of Christmases and holidays not being the way (or with the people) we’d expected and so on. 

Meanwhile some things have sort of trundled on as if nothing has changed – my husband and I were never furloughed so have kept doing the day jobs, my children continued (somehow) their university work. 

As you can tell from previous Januaries (sp??), I’m not much of a resolution maker (or keeper). The loft remains chaotic, my nails nibbled, the crochet abandoned, the choir I briefly joined has not been revisited. But I thought I’d have a quick look back at former January posts, and saw these New Year’s good wishes from Val Portelli in January 2020, at a point when my life was a little upside down, but before we all realised the whole world was about to turn upside down. They were:

  1. A secret writing space
  2. Trained housework fairies
  3. Self cleaning and ironing clothes
  4. Self cooking and washing up meals
  5. Empty, peaceful train journeys
  6. Supportive work colleagues
  7. Considerate offspring
  8. Strong anti-bodies as soldiers for ailing relative
  9. No plot holes, and
  10. A successful writing year

In retrospect they have a sort of poignancy. But, if I apply them to 2021 too, this would be the outcome:

  1. After first asking in 2005, I finally had a shed built for me to write in in July 2021. It’s furnished with odds and ends from the attic, and my husband keeps joining me in there, so it’s hardly secret, but it’s lovely!
  2. I’m fairly sure the fairies returned to fairyland in 2019 and I can’t say I blame them.
  3. I gave up the ironing years ago, but the washing remains visible only to me.
  4. Sadly not, although my husband still argues he loads the dishwasher better than I do. It’s simplest to agree. It keeps him happy.
  5. I only had one train journey in 2020 and two in 2021. I don’t miss the 6:45 am commutes to London twice a week, but I miss the rhythm and ‘out of the world’ feeling of train travel for writing in.
  6. My colleagues are amazingly supportive.
  7. My offspring are lovely, despite their early adult life not being remotely as carefree as they’d expected and I’m so proud of both of them.
  8. We got through. Sadly, not all our friends did. If you’re bereaved too, I’m really sorry.
  9. My plot holes overflowed. I spent even more of 2021 removing sub-plots than I did in 2020! I blame Covid. Not sure if it’s the lack of train travel or some sort of anxiety induced brain fog which means my ideas get more tangled than my crochet.
  10. Big old novels ‘Murder Saturnalia’ and ‘Death in the Last Reel’, novella ‘The Good Wife’ and short story collections ‘Invitation For Christmas’ and ‘Night Navigation’ all came out somehow. I’m content with that. 

I’m not even going to try and make resolutions for 2022 – writing or otherwise – out loud. I have aspirations and things I hope to achieve, but if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s not to assume everything will go to plan. After all, there’s the Yiddish saying ‘Der mentsh trakht un got lakht’ meaning ‘Man plans, and God laughs’, and didn’t Robert Burns say ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley’ (go awry)?

But I will say that I’m working on a sequel to ‘Death In the Last Reel’  (the third book in the Margaret Demeray series) and also a sequel to ‘The Good Wife’ which will be a short novel rather than a novella.

I’ve just started reading ‘The Thief on the Winged Horse’ by Kate Mascarenhas and I have ‘Old Baggage’ by Lissa Evans next on the pile (and a pile of non fiction too as ever), but I plan to be more disciplined about reading and follow this suggestion for reading in 2021. It’s from the The Book Hangout Spot Facebook page. Here are the suggestions and my thoughts so far

  • January: A book you read at school: Old Mali and the Boy’ by D.R. Sherman
  • February: A book you wish you’d read at school: ‘Anita and me’ by Meera Syal. It didn’t exist at the time, because Meera is around my age, but it’s a great book – an eye opener of what it was like to be a British Asian contemporary living in a rural community (as I did, only mine was mono-cultural) watching the same TV programmes but with a different viewpoint. I wish we’d had more exposure to contemporary British people of a different ethnicity through the books we read at school. I think it would have made a massive difference in the long run to people’s perceptions and their decisions as adults.
  • March: A book published within the last year: ‘This Much Huxley Knows’ by Gail Aldwin.
  • April: a non fiction book: ‘The Great War: The People’s Story – Kate Parry Frye’ by Elizabeth Crawford
  • May: a book you wouldn’t normally choose: I’m thinking Science Fiction – any ideas?
  • June: a book that will improve a specific area of your life – no idea whatsoever!
  • July: a book that a friend recommended: ‘The Singing Sands’ by Josephine Tey
  • August: a book that you can read to your child: ‘Treacle Walker’ by Alan Garner
  • September: a book that you listen to: ‘The White Russian Caper’ by Phyllis Entis
  • October: a Pulitzer prize winning book of fiction: ‘The Night Watchman’ by Louise Erdrich
  • November: a comedy: ‘The Flat Share’ by Beth O’Leary
  • December: your choice: I’ll decide closer to the time!

Any suggestions gratefully received and I’d love to know if you’ve got any reading plans too.

AND FINALLY – if you’ve got this far. Two offers for a very short time in the US & UK:

The Case of the Black Tulips’ is 99p/99c until 6th January 2022

‘The Wrong Sort To Die’ is 99p/99c until 8th January 2022

Happy New Year! And may 2022 be a good one and full of peace and fulfilment.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image File ID 104038561 | © Artur Szczybylo | Dreamstime.com

Where to Begin?

This year, it feels like I have mostly been writing the sequel to The Wrong Sort To Die.

When I started writing, I never thought I’d write a series. But here I am, looking to release book two in the third series I’ve written or co-written. 

Writing a sequel is quite different to writing the first in a series.

Writing a new book is like meeting new people. Or it is to me.

Generally, the main character becomes a sort of new friend and there’s an element of excitement in finding out all about them: their strengths and weaknesses; the things which are likeable and the things which aren’t; their hopes and dreams. This is true even if there’s some element of myself in a character, because whereas I have a good idea why I’m the way I am, I don’t always know why a character is the way they are, until they reveal their pasts and secrets. This possibly sounds bonkers, but there you go.

The difficulty with sequels is that the characters are no longer new friends, they’re old ones. 

As an author, you have a reasonable idea of what they did immediately after the end of the first book and what they’d want to be doing in the second if pesky things like mysteries didn’t get in the way.

The additional difficulty when you’re writing a book set in a real past, is that even with fictional characters, the world they’re living in needs to be researched. If the era you’re writing about is fairly recent, then there are so many rabbit holes to get lost in and there may be a lot you might want to include but can’t. And even then, having carefully plotted things out and written huge great wodges of the first draft, you double-check a fact and it throws the whole plot out when you find out that you can’t include something you wanted to. And then, even when you’ve sort of adjusted for that hurdle, the damn characters decide to go off piste anyway.

This is partly what happened to me, although to some extent, I think it’s part of my creative process. The good thing (from my perspective) is that the bits I’ve had to cut out of book 2 can go into book 3 without too much difficulty.

Death In The Last Reel’ starts six months after the first book, in January 1911. 1911 was quite an eventful year for Britain. I filled an entire wall with key events which I could potentially use, leaving me in a major dilemma as to where to start the book. 

  • In January, there was an armed siege in the East End of London when the anarchist gang who’d gunned down three policemen were cornered. It was the first such incident in Britain to go on newsreel. If you click here you’ll see Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary watching events unfold along with a ridiculous number of bystanders. 
  • The first international Women’s Day Marches took place in March, although not in Britain. Perhaps the authorities were afraid of a recurrence of the violent clashes between suffragettes and the police on Black Friday
  • Despite escalating tensions between Germany and Britain (two British naval officers had been arrested for spying in Liepzig in late 1910 and were subsequently sentenced to imprisonment) the Emperor of Germany (e.g. Kaiser Wilhelm II) and Empress came on a state visit. 
  • There was a Festival of Empire in the Crystal Palace. The Titanic was launched. There were aviators both male and female making history, there were strides in communications. There was the introduction of national insurance to assist those in need. There was the hottest summer on record.
  • But there was also major social unrest, with strikes and riots throughout the year, starting with a six week strike at the Singer factory in Edinburgh in March. (A fictional book I enjoyed about this is called ‘The Sewing Machine’ by Natalie Fergie.)
  • Creaking European monarchies and empires, unaware that their days were numbered, formed alliances in fear of war and made small aggressions against each other and larger ones in North Africa and the Middle East.

110 years later, 1911 appears to have been in a turmoil which seems far too familiar, but perhaps at the time, without mass and social media to scare them, if people weren’t directly affected by something they weren’t as worried by it. The newspapers were full of information, but I can imagine people were just as likely to prefer sensation and gossip in the illustrated press than pages of tightly printed political description as they are now. And perhaps people being people, most of them preferred to keep their heads firmly in the sand anyway, assuming that nothing could possibly happen. If they saw newsreel at the cinema, perhaps they saw it as part of the general entertainment, rather than something to fear.

With all that going on in 1911, where on earth should I begin book two in the Margaret Demeray series? 

To start with, the background against which she’s living her fictional life.

Given that St Julia’s (the fictional chest hospital for the poor where Margaret works) is close to the East End (it’s theoretically situated somewhere between Bank and Aldgate tube stations) it seems logical that she’d know about the tensions in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. Those tensions were complex. The area was a hot-pot of cultures, religions, backgrounds as refugees from Russia and Latvia joined the crowded streets filled with the descendants of those who’d been incomers themselves a generation or two before, who themselves had replaced previous incomers. Political agitation and turf wars were constantly rumbling away. (A fascinating book about the area’s history is called ‘The Worst Street in London’ by Fiona Rule.)

And given that the intelligence organisation for which Fox works is aligned with the police, it seems logical he would be involved in the the siege of Sidney Street, while also worrying about foreign aggression, since his job is trying to ensure that if a war comes, Britain is best placed to win.

So that’s the historical background.

Then there’s the story inspiration. 

Margaret likes going to the cinema, so I did some research into the moving picture industry. Cinema was, of course, still relatively new and considered a bit of a fad which was unlikely to last. Films were short – often between fifteen and thirty minutes, even when they were dramatising entire novels or Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps that’s why when the industry started, there were several female directors and studio owners. (The Girls We Should Thank For Kickstarting Hollywood) I wanted to reflect this in the book and while looking for the films which were out at the time (like ‘The Lobster Nightmare’) noted that the first British film (1895) was called ‘Incident at Clovelly Cottage’, filmed in a residential street in Barnet. Sadly, apart from a few frames, both the film and the plot are long gone. But this was another bit of inspiration. What could happen in such a quiet, innocent-looking street? Is the woman with the pram as innocent as she appears?

The second bit of inspiration was while reading a book called ‘Odd People: Hunting Spies in the First World War’ by Basil Thomson (which is a rather strange book I heard about while going on a virtual walk in London during lockdown tracing the geographical and historical traces of MI5 and MI6). In it, the author recounts a situation where someone very insignificant reports something very serious to the police. They eventually discount it as total delusion. My immediate thought was ‘What if it’s not delusion? What if it’s real? What if the insignificant person knew something important?’

And naturally, at the heart of the story are Margaret and Fox themselves. What’s happened to their relationship since the end of book one? How will the fact that they’re both strong-willed, very private, very independent and in their late thirties affect how they deal with that (see Dinner for Two at Margaret’s)? And of course, did Margaret’s battles with the male status quo end with her success at the end of book one, or are they about to get worse? 

If you want to know – the book will be out at the end of November 2021 and there’s a little more information below the image.

BOOK TWO IN THE MARGARET DEMERAY SERIES WILL BE AVAILABLE FROM 30th NOVEMBER 2021

DEATH IN THE LAST REEL

‘Stop standing in the way of bullets.’

‘I will if you will.’

Does the camera ever lie?

1911: After the violent murder of three policemen in the line of duty, tensions between London constabulary and Whitechapel anarchists simmer. Meanwhile accusations and counter accusations of espionage further weaken relations between Germany and Britain. Can Margaret Demeray and Fox find out which potential enemy is behind a threat to the capital before it’s too late?

In the shadow of violence in the East End, just as Dr Margaret Demeray starts to gain recognition for her pathology work, a personal decision puts her career at the hospital under threat. Needing to explore alternative options, she tries working with another female doctor in Glassmakers Lane. But in that genteel street, a new moving-picture studio is the only thing of any interest, and Margaret’s boredom and frustration lead to an obsessive interest in the natural death of a young woman in a town far away. 

Meanwhile intelligence agent Fox is trying to establish whether rumours of a major threat to London are linked to known anarchist gangs or someone outside Britain with a different agenda. When another mission fails and he asks Margaret to help find out who provided the false intelligence that led him in the wrong direction, she can’t wait to assist. 

But enquiries in wealthy Hampstead and then assaults in Whitechapel lead unexpectedly back to Glassmakers Lane. How can such a quiet place be important? And is the dead young woman Margaret a critical link or a coincidental irrelevance?

Margaret and Fox need to work together; but both of them are independent, private and stubborn, and have yet to negotiate the terms of their relationship. 

How can Margaret persuade Fox to stop protecting her so that she can ask the questions he can’t? And even if she does, how can they discover is behind the threat to London when it’s not entirely clear what the threat actually is?

TO PRE-ORDER THE EBOOK – CLICK ON THIS LINK

A Novel Idea

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

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

It’s hard to answer either.

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

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

This was where my confession comes in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I was consumed by guilt. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes they can!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image credit

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