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

Resolving Not To Resolve

At a work meeting via Teams on 31st December, a colleague asked who had achieved their 2020 resolutions. While there was the usual mumbling about getting fit and losing weight, most people felt just getting from January to December in 2020 had been enough of a challenge and had long since forgotten what they’d vowed to achieve.

Naturally this included me, so I looked back on the resolutions I recorded here

The plan:

  1. Publish two books
  2. Learn to crochet
  3. Maybe join a choir
  4. Live more sustainably
  5. Be more spiritually aware
  6. Get on with clearing attic

The reality:

  1. Despite the odds, I published two books and got into an anthology. The Wrong Sort to Die came out in June. I have a story in Wartime Christmas Tales and Liz Hedgecock asked if I fancied writing a short Christmas Caster & Fleet resulting in The Case of the Peculiar Pantomime in December.
  2. I learned to crochet enough to produce an indescribable thing. However, despite watching tuition videos, I never feel like I had enough hands to make the magic circle I needed to create anything interesting. I’m not sure I could even make a coaster.
  3. I joined a choir, then Mum got ill, then Covid-19 happened so… Maybe another year.
  4. The best I can say about sustainable living is that due to Covid-19, my husband and I have both been working from home and not using the cars (and in my case, train); we haven’t driven about much in our leisure time; we didn’t fly to Spain as planned in September.
  5. I enjoyed some aspects of the first lock-down. The skies were clearer, you could hear nature better, it was so peaceful. I liked having weekends when I didn’t feel I ought to be somewhere else and fortunately everyone in my household got on. On the other hand, while I’m lucky to live in a pretty country town, doing the same walk every day gets on my nerves sometimes. Also, my husband treats every walk like a route-march so I take to occasionally going on my own, ambling along the river, absorbing the sounds and sights. I think generally my head was buzzing so much with so many conflicting and stressful things in 2020 that I found both creativity and spiritual awareness extremely hard. Learning to be still is something I find hard naturally but I’ll keep trying.
  6. No chance on clearing the attic whatsoever. As we weren’t furloughed (which I’m glad about of course) we didn’t have the time in the week. At weekends, there was nowhere to take any stuff: the dump was shut and so were the charity shops. To add to everything already in the attic, when the country locked-down my daughter came home from university bringing all her stuff and then a couple of months later, my son came home after graduating, bringing all his stuff. I’m now worried that the odd creaking sounds in the attic are not the friendly household ghost, but the ceiling about to give way.

I note that I wished for you:

  • Space and time for creativity in whatever form that works for you
  • Space and time to connect with the world around you and maybe beyond you
  • Feeling loved and able to give love
  • The chance to wave goodbye to the things that dragged you down in 2019 and find things that lift you up in 2020
  • That your joys might outnumber your worries and if not, you might find comfort through the worry
  • That you might realise that your very existence is part of the jigsaw which makes the world tick even if that sometimes doesn’t feel blindingly obvious

I hope that somehow those came true despite everything, but I doubt I’m the only one who felt a greater than usual pleasure taking down my 2020 calendars marking a year which seemed simultaneously to go on forever and yet somehow not quite happen.

We have several calendars. 

The appointments one in the kitchen has a column for each person and we block out the weeks when we’re going on holiday. After March, all the blocked out weeks which should have been holidays mocked us. From January to August 2020 almost all the appointments were in my column and worried me sick. They were either reminders for me to take Mum to hospital or reminders that I needed to be taken to hospital myself.

Meanwhile, my writing calendar had writing goals and deadlines mapped out. I failed to meet every single one.

But… I’m tempted to keep both calendars, to remind me of worries which turned out to be manageable and that though plans went awry, the world is still turning. 

My 2021 writing goals calendar is a Moomin one, because if there’s a fictional world I wouldn’t mind moving to, it’s theirs. Moominmama, regardless of comets, floods, Moominpapa’s midlife crisis or Moomintroll’s adolescent moodiness remains perfectly turned out. She knows that if coffee and cake can’t solve the problem immediately, then waiting for a bit then offering coffee and cake probably will. She reminds me very much of my paternal grandmother.

So, I’m not making 2021 resolutions, I’m simply going to try and follow my grandmother’s (and perhaps Moominmama’s) philosophy: 

  1. If everyone puts other people and the common good first, then no-one will ever come second. 
  2. Only worry about things you can control and even then, don’t worry but plan.
  3. If your plans go to pot, adapt. The world will not end. Go with the flow and you may end up somewhere even more exciting than you’d expected and if not – refer to no. 2 and 5.
  4. Whenever you can, do something creative just for fun without necessarily judging the result.
  5. If you can do it without breaking no. 1, treat yourself from time to time without guilt. Life is too short not to.

Happy New Year!

(And if you’re reading this between 4th & 11th January 2021, just to let you know that Murder Britannica will be on Countdown Deal on Amazon UK & US as hopefully the third in the series is on the way.)

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.

Roaring into the Twenties

The nicest thing happened to me on 31st December. Val Portelli emailed New Year’s wishes for me:

  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

Thankfully, I already have number 6. Numbers 2, 3 and 4 are sadly unlikely but I’m hopeful for the others.

How can it possibly be 2020?

To me the Twenties are the 1920s – an apparently golden age full of possibilities between the War to end all Wars and the Great Depression; a time when things appeared to be getting better as people entered a brave new world. 

Unfortunately, the problem was in the word ‘people’.

A hundred years later and it’s hard to see what we’ve really achieved.  The last decade seems to have unearthed political extremes, better means of communication but less listening, more openness but less courtesy, more globalisation but less tolerance, the means to see the world in virtual reality without realising if we’re not careful, that’s all we’ll be left with. 

Looking back on a decade which started with economic collapse and ended with ongoing political unrest and environmental disaster, and on a personal level has included bereavement and worry about the health of loved ones, it’s easy to feel depressed. 

But on the plus side, it’s been the decade when my children grew into delightful young people, my husband and I have been employed, our health has been good, I started writing seriously and I met loads of new people some of whom are now among my best friends.

Looking at 2019 itself, I checked my 31st December 2018 blog and found it nicely vague.

There were ‘targets’ in my head and I achieved most of them. I published Murder Durnovaria and The Seaside Dragon, I took part in organising and running the first literary festival in my town and with Liz Hedgecock, I published The Case of the Fateful Legacy and The Case of the Crystal Kisses.  I couldn’t however, finish other projects without resigning from a demanding day-job. That’s not currently feasible.

Being typically human or at any rate me, it wasn’t till I reflected that I realised I’ve been so busy feeling like a failure for the things I couldn’t finish to feel pleased with what I did achieve.

And for 2020? I could be as vague as I was for 2019 but instead I’ll be a little more specific. All things being well I hope to:

  • Publish two books
  • Learn to crochet
  • Maybe join a choir
  • Live more sustainably
  • Be more spiritually aware
  • Get on with clearing attic

But as for today, I think I’ll follow my friend’s lead and send you some wishes for 2020.

  • May you find space and time for creativity in whatever form that works for you
  • May you find space and time to connect with the world around you and maybe beyond you
  • May you feel loved and able to give love
  • May you wave goodbye to the things that dragged you down in 2019 and find things that lift you up in 2020
  • May your joys outnumber your worries and if not, may you find comfort through the worry
  • May you realise that your very existence is part of the jigsaw which makes the world tick even if that sometimes doesn’t feel blindingly obvious

With the very best wishes for the New Year and many thanks for reading!

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Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image by Kranich17 from Pixabay

Val Portelli’s book recommendations for 2020

Liz Hedgecock’s new series ‘Maisie Frobisher Mysteries’