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/

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.

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?

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A Novel Idea

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

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

It’s hard to answer either.

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

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

This was where my confession comes in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I was consumed by guilt. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes they can!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ID 201797590 © Chrissiecreative | Dreamstime.com

Father’s Day with Roderick

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine years have passed, and hearts can heal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner for Two at Margaret’s

It’s the evening of a cold February day in 1911. 

Dr Margaret Demeray is returning to her Bayswater flat after a long day in a central London hospital. Meanwhile, Fox is leaving the north London hotel where he lives to join her for dinner. 

***

Fox feels nicely anonymous in this hotel. It was modernised a few years ago and the Victorian clutter has been replaced by clean, simple elegance with clear views in public rooms and down corridors. 

His suite comprises a small sitting room, bare but for a small table and chairs, a small sofa and a desk in which he keeps the bare minimum of items, an adjoining bathroom and a bedroom complete with large bed with a dark blue cover, gleaming wardrobe, dressing table and bedside tables.

Before leaving for Bayswater, he straightens the clothes in his wardrobe so that none of them will crease, and then straightens his only photograph of Margaret which is on the left hand bedside table. It’s snapshot of her drawing in a sketch book, one of her ridiculous hats discarded to the side. Because of the way she’s sitting, her face is obscured by a long curl which has come loose and has the sun shining through. His memory colours it glowing auburn and he chuckles at her insistence that it’s brown.

The drawer contains a bible supplied by the hotel, two magazines:  Motor Cycling and The Penny Magazine and one book: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes

He and Margaret would like to visit the Cévannes and perhaps find the place where her Huguenot ancestors came from. He’s teased her by suggesting they do so by donkey and stay in a tent. He’s hoping when he tells her that he’d really like them to travel by motor cycle and stay in remote auberges, she might be might think it enough of an improvement to say yes. 

Also in the drawer, Fox keeps a photograph of himself aged four sitting on his mother’s lap. They are both smiling, cuddled up in a large leather chair with a spaniel puppy at their feet and his father behind, looking down on them. No one who went through his things could know who any of them were. Nor could they identify where they were. It’s impossible to see the numerous tables and portraits and whatnots and plants and ornaments which filled that room – indeed the whole house, but Fox can see them in his mind’s eye and smell his father’s pipe-smoke and his mother’s perfume. Visiting Margaret’s father’s home brings it all back, only with more talk of dragons and with a suburban instead of country view from the windows. 

The puppy was called Bouncer and died during Fox’s first year at university. 

One day he’ll have a dog again.

Fox checks his appearance in the long mirror. After some consideration, he changes his cufflinks to ones that suit his tie and the handkerchief in his breast-pocket better. Checking that the room is neat, he dons his overcoat, collects his hat and picks up the wine he bought earlier. He couldn’t borrow the car this evening and he doesn’t want to use the motor-cycle and get grubby and creased again, having spent half an hour scrubbing himself clean after a day spent undercover. His journey to Bayswater will be a little tortuous but he smiles. He can’t wait to be somewhere where he isn’t anonymous.

***

Margaret is glad to be home. The tube was stiflingly hot, but outside the February air is close to freezing point. 

The shared outer door of the house where she has her flat is cherry-red with gleaming brass fittings. The little covered porch with its boot scrape and sisal mat has been swept out and today at least, Margaret doesn’t need to balance on the doorstep removing muddy shoes to leave there.

Inside the front door, the hall – which runs right down to the garden is tiled in red and black and rather dark. What light comes through the quarter light on the door catches the metal fittings on the elephant foot umbrella holder and various hefty pieces of Benares brass which the Winsons brought back from India when Mr Winson retired in 1900, four years before he died.

Afterwards, Mrs Winson sold the upper floor and attic to Margaret (although she only uses the latter for putting things into that she doesn’t really need or want anymore but can’t bear to get rid of).

Margaret tends to find herself creeping up the carpeted stairs and is never sure why. Mrs Winson, who is rather reserved, will occasionally pop out into the hall to see what’s what but when she does she’s always smiling and friendly if a little baffled. After seven years, Margaret is still unsure if this is shyness, disapproval of Margaret’s profession/odd hours/friends or simply deafness. However Mrs Winson willingly takes care of Juniper, Margaret’s cat, unless she’s away when Margaret’s sister Katherine flat- and cat-sits instead, so she can’t disapprove that much.

Margaret’s inner front door, which is cream, could do with another coat of paint but it’s nice to close it behind her. She puts her keys on the hall stand – a narrow table with a marquetry scene and some rather intricate curlicues and carvings. It was her maternal grandmother’s and somehow reminds her of that dainty old lady with her lace and brooches and the colourful, incomprehensible embroidery she never seemed to finish. 

To Margaret’s left is the W.C. which is plain, hygienic and functional. Next to it is the bathroom which is also plain, hygienic and functional. Margaret would like it to be prettier but is not prepared to compromise on cleanliness, partly because her woman-who-does, Dinah, only comes four days a week and on the others, cleaning is Margaret’s responsibility. The bathroom has bottles of coloured bath-salts to brighten it and smells of a heady combination of rose-scented and Pears soap. Margaret has painted a wreath of roses in enamel around the edge of the basin to make it pretty. The bath is enormous – easily big enough for two.

Opposite is Margaret’s bedroom. She bought the Arts and Crafts furniture seven years ago. Since today’s not one of Dinah’s days, it’s just as Margaret left it that morning. The deep purple eiderdown on the double bed is slightly askew. All the cupboard doors and clothes drawers are ajar. She’d think she’d been burgled if she didn’t know that she’d simply woken late that morning. Margaret regrets changing her mind about what to wear at the last moment and dumping her now creased blouse and skirt on the chair rather than hang them properly. She tidies up before replacing her day dress with something prettier, then brushes out her hair, leaving it loose. 

She opens the window to call her cat. Despite the cold, Juniper is sunning herself on the low roof of the ground floor extension directly outside. On summer days, Margaret sometimes joins her. Once out she went out there in the pouring rain at night, however she doesn’t recommend it.

On her bedside table is a photograph of Fox looking quizzical and a variety of reading material. Today the options are: an article about new dissection techniques, A Room With A View by E.M. Forster, The Road by Jack London and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Margaret is capable of reading all of them or only one of them depending on how her day has been. Alternatively she might open the drawer in the left-hand bedside table. Inside that are her prayer book and New Testament which she consults occasionally, and also the copy of Heidi and The Blue Fairy Book which were given to her for the Christmas when she was six. She remembers Katherine reading them to her and the comfort they found as two recently motherless girls whose father was lost in grief. When she’s had a bad day she’ll read Heidi, when she’s had a really bad day, she’ll read the fairy stories.

Leaving her bedroom, Margaret goes to check that she at least left the kitchen tidy. She’s a keen cook and wishes the kitchen were bigger and better-equipped. She has a medium sized stove, a large sink, a small piece of counter, some wall cupboards and a pantry against the coldest wall. She’d like a fridge but apart from the expense and the weight, there’s no room unless she loses the pantry. Although she has a shelf of cookery books, Margaret tends to cook by instinct. She likes curry and fish but rarely cooks them as the smell pervades the whole flat, which is one reason why she doesn’t let Fox loose in the kitchen, as he tends to burn things in his impatience. The other reason is that he leaves an unholy mess. Margaret has sent her two favourite recipes to Mrs Aubrey Dowson, who is collating recipes for a cookery book to raise funds for the suffrage cause. She – Margaret that is – is rather worried that she got the measurements wrong since she usually does everything by eye and had to guess.

Margaret collects two glasses and cutlery and goes to the sitting room. 

This is her favourite place. A sofa and armchair covered in a modern, warm-red floral design face the fire. On the mantlepiece are photographs, various ornaments from fancy modern candlesticks to an object whittled out of a twig by her nephew when he was eight which he swore was a cat, a clock, invitations and postcards. It’s awful to dust. 

To one side of the fireplace on a low table is the new telephone. Margaret has mixed feelings about the telephone. There has been not one single crisis since it was installed, but it always rings at the wrong time. 

The art is eclectic, some of it Margaret’s own work. There are seascapes, portraits, scenery, sketches of London. One wall is dominated by a bookcase which needs reorganising again. Poetry, Nietzsche, a book on obstetrics and The Spell of Egypt have somehow got jumbled together. 

A small desk covered in papers is set to one side but she hasn’t time to tidy it. 

A table is set against a wall. It can be brought out into the middle of the room if necessary, but for two, it’s fine where it is and Margaret lays it for dinner, exchanging the small vase of flowers for one of the fancy candle sticks. 

She puts a recording of Debussy’s Clair de Lune on the second-hand gramophone before looking out of the window into the little park and then along the pavement. 

She never knows when or how Fox will arrive. 

If, one day, he landed a bi-plane in the park, it somehow would not surprise her. She hopes he’s had a safe day. She’s now known him eight months – he’s elusive, annoying, unpredictable and she knows infinitely less about him than he knows about her.

Then she spots him. 

He’s walking along whistling, his hands in his pockets and a bottle of wine under his arm. 

Her heart pounds as soon as she sees him and as ever, she’s not entirely sure if it’s just love or knowing that whatever else is true, without him, her heart may as well not beat at all.

***

Fox tucks the wine more safely under his arm and starts to whistle as he increases his pace. The air is crisp and dry. He’s nearly at Margaret’s flat and sensing her watching for him makes him feel warm. He’s now known her for eight months – she’s short-tempered, often spontaneous about the wrong things and frequently secretive about the silliest issues. He hopes she’s had a good day and not too tired to finally tell him what’s on her mind. 

His hotel could be anywhere or anyone’s. 

Her flat is very much here and very much hers. 

But does it really matter? 

A home is never really bricks and mortar. 

If you want to know how Margaret and Fox met in 1910 – here’s the link to The Wrong Sort 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. Photo 463547 / Art Deco © Alphavisions | Dreamstime.com

Imaginary Friends?

Did you ever have an imaginary friend?

This question was posed on a Facebook group recently. Some said they’d had several, some had had none. Some hadn’t, but their children or siblings had. Some had ones who when they explained them to adults appeared identical to dead relations the child hadn’t actually known, which is a whole potential story in itself. 

It got me thinking.

Had I had imaginary friends? 

When I was seven and in my second primary school, there was a time when I communicated with my reflection at playtime (recess). We (my reflexion and I) were called Trixie and Trina (I can’t recall who was who) and were twins separated into two different worlds by some spell/disaster and the glass was the only meeting place. I can’t remember what we talked about apart from being sad we couldn’t be physically together. I hadn’t long moved schools and was very lonely, having left my first best friend behind and knowing I’d never see her again. The fact that I was top of the entire junior school in spelling and reading but hadn’t made any friends got into my school report, but no one noticed I was talking to a reflection in playtime until a couple of school bullies decided to target me. I never dared to do it again. Fortunately, not long afterwards I made friends with a real girl who was on my wavelength (I knew this because she also wanted, more than anything, a flying unicorn). 

Thinking back, I feel a little guilty about Trixie and Trina. Are they still stuck on either side of a reflection simply wanting to be together again?

Roll on two years and (after another move) 144 miles west and I’m on a bus with my little sister. She’s been thwarted in her desire to have a dog and shouts at me for sitting on Sandy, an imaginary corgi puppy. I am mortified by the other passengers’ horror and the sympathy I’d had for my sister’s disappointment fades completely.

Roll on even more years and 100 miles back east and my son, aged four, tells me off for putting my shopping in the Tesco trolley on top of his imaginary sheep. 

As he’s now grown up – stuck at hime with us because of lock-down – I asked him if that was the only imaginary friend he’d had and he said ‘I had loads, I had an entire team of Pokemon at one point and they did everything with me’. Recalling watching him in swimming galas and football matches, I’m somehow not surprised.

I tried to work out if I’d had any, other than Trixie and Trina and initially thought ‘no’. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that when I was eight or nine, after another move of schools and another lost best friend and I spent a lot of time wandering about alone, talking to unseen spirits in the woods and river – that was something similar. 

I did make friends with another (real) girl around the same time. She was on a similar (e.g. highly imaginative) wavelength, and we created a series of convoluted stories to play out. One was sort of science fiction – involving an almost impassable jelly-like force field between worlds in which an enormous mutated fly was forever stuck and we acted it in the fields at school. Sometimes we could get through the jelly wall, sometimes we couldn’t and bounced off. We must have looked utterly bonkers to everyone else. 

We remained friends till after graduating university (by which time acting things out had been replaced by writing stories and boyfriends) but then lost touch for twenty-five years until she turned up at my father’s funeral. 

As we reconnected, pretty much the first thing we emailed to each other was ‘Do you remember the jelly wall with the big fly in it?’ 

Later, she said ‘Do you still have that map of the woods you drew with all the magic portals in it?’ 

I confessed that it had long been lost. 

Then she said ‘You had me completely convinced about all those magical beings there. I thought they were real for ages.’

I was taken aback on three fronts. Firstly, I rarely ever convince anyone of anything. Secondly, I wanted to say ‘but they were real.’ Thirdly, I wondered why I’d thought ‘were’ rather than ‘are’ and felt a deep, visceral disloyalty.

Were they imaginary friends? I never thought of them as either imaginary or friends. They were just there, among the leaves and bracken and bluebells, just out of sight in roots and hollows, or sparkling from the light shining through branches or on river wavelets. I could say what I wanted to them and they neither offered criticism nor advice. They never spoke at all. They just listened.

On the Facebook thread referred to earlier, someone said ‘I didn’t have one as a child, but I have one now.’ 

I’m not sure if they were being serious of course, but I felt a pang of mild jealousy. Why don’t I have one now that I’m an adult? I thought. Then I remembered my invisible household ghost and the invisible household elves. 

The former is ‘just’ a series of odd, inexplicable sounds in our rather strange (not old, just strange) house. He never communicates in any other way (yes he’s a he, I don’t know why, but he is). He’s not a ghost in the sense of being the spirit of a dead person. He’s just a noisy, companionable entity, who normally makes the house seem less empty when I work from home alone. I never speak to him, except at night when I tell him to shut up because he’s thumping about in the attic while I’m trying to get to sleep. 

The invisible household elves, who have some sort of form I can visualise, turn up when I’m doing housework or a major domestic overhaul. I think because I find those exercises immensely boring, my mind ambles off into some realm where I’m watching myself, considering myself objectively and somehow that morphs into a conversation with or listening to a conversation between a failed brownie called Ælfnod, a disruptive laundry fairy, a despairing grooming elf and potentially a mischievous dishwasher fairy and naughty garden pixies who recently snatched my husband’s glasses and hid them in a part of the garden my husband hadn’t been in. 

Are these my adult equivalent of imaginary friends?

Maybe someone who’s got this far without calling for men in white coats, will think it’s because I’m a writer and they’re the same as characters. But they’re not. Book characters are external from me almost entirely. They turn up, they make themselves known, they complain when I try to make them do something they wouldn’t do in a million years. Sometimes, without a qualm, I kill them off. There may be elements of me in them, but only elements.

Without asking a psychologist, I can work out that imaginary friends are almost certainly personifications of parts of one’s own psyche. This is why I think they exist and why they’ve been valuable for me at least.

As a child, they were companions to a little girl who was lonely, serious, imaginative and out of sync with her generation.

Now perhaps, if my household companions count as imaginary friends, they’re a reminder not only to take myself too seriously but also to just let my imagination run wild just as I once did at nine when it was as easy as breathing.

They are the part of me that may be honest and critical but is also validating and affirming. They make me laugh at myself but also accept myself. Basically they say ‘be yourself.’

So how have my household companions managed during lockdown?

The invisible household ghost is rather quiet. I’m never in the house alone these days as there are three other people also working from home. Does his silence tell you more about him, me, or my ability to hear anything over the sound of four adult people on video calls, and in the case of the younger two, also video games? Has he left, or is he just pottering about in the attic till he can be heard again?

And I have to confess, I haven’t heard from the invisible household elves for nearly a year either. But as I say, they tend to turn up when I’m doing a clear out so this may give you an idea of the state of my house. 

I kind of miss them all. Perhaps it’s time to send my three mortal house-companions off for a walk, have a quiet cuppa and then get the duster out. I wonder if they’ve missed me too?

If you’ve got this far and want to hear how I first met Ælfnod, you can see me read the story ‘Dust’ by clicking here, or check out ‘Perspective‘ or ‘Personal Grooming‘ or ‘Interview with a Laundry Fairy’ or check out the book ‘Weird & Peculiar Tales’.

To find out more about my invisible household ghost, check out ‘Ghost Coin’ and ‘Quiet Company

To find out about the woodland and river, check out ‘The Return’ and also the book ‘Kindling’ which features the same woodland in some of the stories, though not always in a serious context.

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.

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