What Three Things?

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

The idea is to answer the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want…

I’m afraid of…

I’m hindered by…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Hallowe’en 2020 – Post Event Evaluation

‘Failed!’ shouted the new Head of Haunting, slapping a ghostly performance dashboard. ‘All you have to do was scare people witless. One night. Once a year. That’s it. We talked it through. We had a plan. But you failed.’

We didn’t have a plan,’ muttered the Elf Queen. ‘You did.’

The Head of Haunting flicked her a glare. ‘I’m getting the flip chart and sticky-notes.’ He vanished into another dimension.

‘Oh no,’ grumbled a spectral Train-Driver. ‘He’s going to do modern management. That’s what comes from recruiting fast-screamers. None of that rubbish in my day.’

‘When was your day exactly?’ breathed the Chief Ghoul.

‘Before the Romans,’ said the Train-Driver. ‘Started on a ghost chariot, then half a millennium later I got a carriage with skeleton horses, then in 1860, I started running the midnight special from Waterloo to Hades. Mwaha—’ He slumped. ‘My heart’s not in it this year. Not that I’ve got one. The druids removed it. Weirdos.’

‘Meh. Druids,’ said the Elf Queen. ‘They weren’t as weird as the Rock Shifters. All those stupid massive stones – “right a bit, left a bit, can’t have them misaligned or the elves’ll come in”. Like a lump of rock’s gonna stop The Fair Folk from crossing the veil.’

‘Unless the lump of rock’s got iron,’ suggested the Ghoul. ‘That does for you and witches doesn’t it?’

‘Like that’s logical,’ said the Spokeswitch. ‘The Rock Shifters didn’t have iron. And what do you think my best eye-of-toad boiling cauldron was made of?’

The Elf Queen sighed. ‘Life used to be simple. We crossed the veil, had a bit of a laugh and popped back again. My grandmother says… Oh hang on, he’s back.’

The Head of Haunting reappeared and pinned some transparent flip-chart covered in sticky-notes to the ether. One by one, the sticky-notes slid off and vanished. ‘Right!’ he snapped. ‘Ghosts, ghouls and witches: the Existential-Dreadograph didn’t shift one bit on Hallowe’en. What went wrong?’

‘We tried,’ said the Train-Driver after a pause. ‘But humans seem beyond scaring this year.’

‘Humph.’ The Head of Haunting turned his icy glare on the Elf Queen. ‘What’s the elves’ excuse? All you had to do was lure a few foolish mortals back to our realm. But I gather not one of you did. In fact-’ he flicked a ghostly finger down an eek-Pad, ‘-according to the data, none of you has crossed the veil since last Winter Solstice. Why not?’

The Elf Queen shuddered. ‘What fool would want to visit the human realm this year? And as for luring people back, we wouldn’t need to lure them. They’d be fighting to come here even if we admitted there was no gold or lover waiting, just… processing.’

‘It’s true,’ breathed the ghoul. ‘Hallowe’en was wasted this year. Everything is already too scary in the mortal realm. Put away your problem-solve mate and admit the truth. We just can’t compete with 2020.’

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

Modesty

I’ve been thinking about modesty lately.

Modesty is, of course, a human concept.

The sparrows nesting in our eaves have not been modestly tweeting that they’re nice bird-next-door types, while worrying in case they’re showing too much down.  No they haven’t. 

Instead, they’ve spent a warm, dry spring reproducing at least three times – usually right in front of us. They flaunt their feathers and yell how fantastic they are from dawn till dusk only stopping to mate, argue or fly into our house. 

Modesty is also cultural. What a person should do with clothing, hair, arms, legs or even faces, has rules (many contradictory) in every human group and era you can think of. 

Take a photograph of my great-grandmother aged 19, taken in the 1890’s. She shows an inch of skin below her collarbone and had to plead to show so much flesh. Roll on the 1920s, and my grandmother (her daughter) as a teenager, causes horror by cutting her hair and wearing knee-length skirts. Quite what either of them would make of my daughter’s fashions is anyone’s guess. I expect my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather would be apoplectic, so it’s just as well they’re already well and truly dead. 

Modesty also means not demonstrating pride. 

This is also human.

A bower-bird doesn’t worry that the nest he’s created is over-the-top. He doesn’t quietly tweet that he’s rather pleased. No – he makes the nest as over-the-top as possible so a female can see that it’s the best and only one she could want and therefore he is the only possible mate worth having.

Human attitudes to blowing one’s own trumpet do vary from place to place and era to era. In Britain, verbal self-deprecation is the norm. Part of the pleasure of watching ‘The Apprentice’ is hearing the candidates’ outrageous claims about themselves because it’s just so culturally abnormal to say such things out loud here. (Just to be clear, there’s a lot of double-thinking behind this, so if one British person gloomily says ‘this could be worse’, another British person knows it means ‘I’m really really really proud of this’. I appreciate that this is very, very, very illogical.) 

Things are changing. At school, my children were encouraged to publicly talk about things they were proud of. In my day, anyone doing that would have been called uppity and told to shut up.

So why has modesty been on my mind recently?

Firstly, I’m of a culture, generation, upbringing, gender and figure that means I worry about how much flesh I show, despite believing that if someone wants to walk around naked that’s none of anyone else’s business. (Although it’s maybe not wise in the British climate.) 

But since the breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve got so used to stripping to the waist for complete strangers, that I’m now a little afraid of bumping into a friend in the supermarket in case she asks how well my scars are healing and I show her there and then without thinking. (Given that I wouldn’t have shown as much as a freckle a few months ago this shows how trauma impacts hard-wired behaviour.)

Secondly, I’m of a culture, generation, upbringing and possibly gender that finds it hard to talk about my achievements in case people think I’m full of myself. 

This makes promoting books difficult.

I planned to set up talks in 2020 for Murder Durnovaria and The Wrong Sort to Die. Covid-19 put paid to that. I’d also intended to write some press releases but what with one thing and another, so far I haven’t. I have started an online course about advertising, yet I was daunted on the first day when tasked to praise my own books. I’d feel so much more British saying ‘this is really quite nice’ and hoping people understood.

Is this cultural, human or just me? Most writer friends say the same thing.

Imagine introducing a lovely but unconventional boyfriend/girlfriend to your lovely but eccentric parents. You’re not sure what they’ll make of each other. You want them all to get along so much, but you’re afraid they won’t and that even worse, they’ll all think you’re mad. That’s how I feel about advertising my own lovely writing to lovely potential readers. 

Worrying about promoting makes it hard to actually write anything that might need promoting sometimes and I was having one of those days yesterday.

Then my daughter told me about a creative project of her own. It’s modest (in the third sense of the word) but it’s doable. ‘I’m scared,’ she said. ‘But if I don’t try, I’ll never know if I could succeed.’ 

It reminded me of when I thought exactly the same thing, which ultimately led to me publishing Kindling and The Advent Calendar. 

I remembered why I write. I’m still doing the day job, so it’s not for money. But I’ve got richer in friends, richer in satisfaction and when Val Portelli and Liz Hedgecock liked my work enough to want to collaborate, I was truly honoured. 

I’ll never be very good at boasting about my books and am not sure if this is modesty or laziness.

But I’ll keep on writing, because there are stories inside that still want to get out, even though the current one is coming out in a chaotic muddle that I’ve yet to unravel.

I’ll keep on writing because from time to time someone says how much they enjoyed a book which is, after all, what I want. I don’t expect my books to change the world, but if people find pleasure reading them and are consequently happier, then maybe the world (which is a bit of a mess at the moment) might seem – if only for a while – like a better place. 

Being part of that makes me very happy. 

And immodest or not, and even if it makes me feel a little exposed, I also feel just a little proud.

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

In Two Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My creative mind says ‘yuk’.

I know which I’m listening to this time.

junkfoodbird

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

Fresh Fruit and Little Monkeys

When I was nine, I worked for perhaps three weekends in a zoo. 

It was a tiny South Welsh concern called Penscynor Bird Gardens (later Wildlife Park) and originally housed birds, monkeys, an aquarium and llamas. When I was fourteen or so, our school cross-country route ran through the llamas’ field and they used to chase us. When I say ‘us’ I mean the obedient/boring (take your pick) three girls who used to run the route properly rather than hide in the woods gossiping and/or smoking until the games lesson was over.

Anyway, back to the job when I was nine. I don’t know how my father found out about it but he said I could earn 50p every Saturday. This sounded like a great plan as my usual weekly pocket money was 15p if I was lucky, and I loved animals.

Or at least, I loved the idea of them. My total zoological experience (apart from owning a cat) was the many hours I spent observing mini-beasts, reading books about realistic (rather than anthropomorphised) animals and watching wildlife programmes like The World About Us and Jacques Cousteau. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said a writer-naturalist, like Gerald Durrell or Joyce Stranger. The fact that I was terrified of dogs, didn’t like strong odours or being excessively dirty, and generally left the unpleasant parts of animal care to my mother didn’t seem to factor in my thought processes.

So I took the job.

My role chiefly consisted of chopping up over-ripe fruit for small noisy, fast-moving and seemingly incontinent creatures from marmosets to toucans before helping clean out their cages. 

It was an extremely hot summer. The air in the cages was sickly with the stench of blackening, squashy bananas, oozing melons and the acrid odour of droppings. High-pitched chattering monkeys and birds snatched at food through a haze of fruit flies as fast as I could pile it in their bowls. I remember the gold of the summer light through the leaves above the cages’ roofs, the monkeys’ oh-so-innocent eyes distracting me from what their tiny pickpocket hands were doing, flashes of iridescent fur or feathers, the whisk of wings or tails overhead. I think I’d have liked it if it hadn’t been for the smell. Maybe.

The second weekend, they were photographing for the new brochure and asked me to stare into the fish-tanks like a tourist. Being self-conscious or vain (take your pick), I was torn between being thrilled, and wishing I were wearing something more glamorous than an old tee-shirt, shorts and wellies, but I duly did as asked. When the brochure came out, there I was, looking very solemn and with a slight overbite I hadn’t known I had which I’ve worried about ever since. 

My parents kept the brochure for years. Of course, it’s since fallen foul of two house moves and is nowhere to be found. Nor have I so far found anything online except for images of the cover.

I can’t remember how long I lasted, but it wasn’t long. The experience dampened my urge to be a naturalist and by the time, three years later, a huge stag beetle climbed down inside the back of my blouse causing me to scream so loudly that my father nearly crashed the car we were in, I went off zoology altogether. This was just as well given my abysmal performance in science.

I still can’t bear over-ripe fruit but I wasn’t put off cats or writing and perhaps if there’s a lesson I should have learnt then but didn’t till later, it’s to know where your strengths are, concentrate on them and not feel bad about it. 

The Bird Gardens remained part of my life till I went to university because on most days you could hear the peacocks shrieking across the valley. 

A tiny, tiny bit of me wishes I’d stuck it out and been part of that mad enterprise in that most unlikely of places but I didn’t and never got to return as an adult because the Bird Gardens have long since closed.

But by one of those small-world flukes, I recently discovered I’ve ended up living 134 miles away in the same town as someone who attended the same secondary as me, albeit ten years later.

‘Do you remember the Bird Gardens?’ she asked.

‘Oh yes.’

‘Did you hear about the chimpanzees escaping and getting into the school?’ 

‘No!’ I exclaimed. ‘Why didn’t my parents tell me?’

But my mother hadn’t known and when I emailed an old schoolfriend, she hadn’t heard either.

‘Fancy missing that,’ she said, sending links to photographs of the place as it is now, an abandoned ghost-zoo. ‘Why didn’t it happen when we were there? The chimps would have been less trouble than some of the kids, not to mention brighter.’ 

She had a point. It would have been even more fun than the day our French lesson was enlivened by watching the windows of the chemistry lab being flung open to let twenty kids dangle out gasping for air while dark, presumably noxious fumes coiled round them and up into the aether.  

A couple of months ago, as lockdown was biting, my former schoolfriend sent a link to a newspaper clipping about a wallaby seen one night bouncing through the village where our school was. The photographs are blurry, unreal and mysterious as what appears to be a wallaby is hotly pursued by what’s stated to be a police officer.

In quiet understatement a witness worried ‘it’s a bit chilly to be out as a marsupial in Wales’ and RSPCA Cymru said ‘it’s certainly unusual footage’.

Was it really an escaped pet? Was the pursuer, in fact, really a policeman?

Or was it really, a ghost of a memory trying to get back to the Bird Gardens.

I like to think so. 

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Words copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon and photograph ID 58034269 © Makar | Dreamstime.com. All rights belong to the authors and material may not be copied without the authors’ express permission.

Between

I exist in the impossible land of the folksong, the acre between foam and strand.

Liminal space. Interstitial.

I’m waiting on the foggy threshold between two months ago and next week. A nowhere place.

They say one should seize each day, not worry about tomorrow or beyond tomorrow but I’m not good at these in-between times. I feel so healthy but know I’m not. The betrayal of my own body confuses me. How could I not have known there was something wrong? And now I have to wait to be put right.

Just like those days before childbirth, I pad awkwardly from project to project, unable to settle to things that normally calm me but instead doing thing I normally put off: cleaning, dusting, rearranging, hopeful, excited, fearful, disbelieving, confused and above all anxious to the point of nausea.

Fidgety, I excavate the strata of my jewellery box – the nearly oldest items are from my teens – some no longer fit, others no longer appeal. Older still are two rings that were once my grandmother’s. Each piece reminds me of moments, emotions, people. Each was once a loving gift or spontaneous purchase. Whyever do I have so many earrings? The light catches on tiny facets of colour. I shall clean these neglected sparkles and wear them again if only for the memories they recall. After this is all over, I shall give most of them away.

Cooking is the only other thing I can sometimes concentrate on.

I find a recipe for my husband’s birthday – a special dish but tricky. It has so many fiddly, unfamiliar steps but my mind stops whirring while under knife, then pestle, then spoon, rich colours merge and flavours blend.

As it slowly cooks, I put the spice jars away. Their shelf is full and chaotic, it had taken me a while to find what I’d required. I must sort that cupboard out – empty the old, out-of-date bottles then check to see what I need to replace.

A jar of paprika tumbles off the shelf as I rummage and the lid pops off. Powder red as dragon’s blood spills everywhere. How ridiculous that something so silly makes me want to cry. But I don’t. I rescue what I can and replace the lid firmly. Then I start my inventory, extracting every other bottle to check its age.

Whyever do we have so many jars of mustard seeds?

I tip the bottles and watch the seeds roll and tumble, trying to remember through the fog of anxiety what they traditionally represent. Is each orb a worry or a grain of faith?

I tip the out-of-date ones away. They trickle down a mountain of out-of-date spices. The chaos of reds and browns smell and look like expired magic. I decide that the discarded mustard represents seeds of worry.

I retain just one jar. But its contents represent tiny seeds of faith to help me cross the space between sea and shore.

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

Of Rags and Richness

I seem to have become infected with some sort of reverse-Midas touch which means pretty much everything I touch is breaking down. This includes the fridge-freezer, the oven door, the car (or at least a warning light has come on) and the laptop which has ‘lost’ its word processing system. And yesterday, when I was teaching my daughter to sew, the sewing machine stopped working.

In the early hours of this morning when I was trying to formulate a short story and realising it was rapidly turning into a novel, I returned my thoughts to sewing, which as a creative activity, helps me zone out completely. Right now, the more I can tune out the better.

I learnt to sew very young. Until I married I made a lot of my own clothes, partly because I was an odd shape: short, thin, with no hips but an ample bust. After marriage I largely stopped because we had a small house and it wasn’t as easy having bits of sewing over the place and living on toast for a couple of days while I was making something. And the way I mutter to myself when things go wrong drove my husband mad. Now that my son has pretty much moved out though, I’ve reconfigured his bedroom as a sewing room and am starting afresh.

As I was thinking about this at six a.m., I considered my characters and their relationship with clothes.

Aunt Alice in the Caster & Fleet books is partly drawn from my paternal grandmother only with added primness and shockability (my grandmother wasn’t prim and not especially shockable although that might have been because she didn’t really realise what was going on). My grandmother had been brought up to be a housewife. It would be her husband’s job to  support her, while she played her part by being thrifty and skilled in cooking, sewing and parenting. Which she was. She adored pretty, bright, well-fitting clothes, took a lively interest in prevailing fashion and delighted in discussing dress-making ideas and helping develop my skills. This filtered into Aunt Alice.

Katherine in the same books is even shorter than I am, but doesn’t have a bust worth talking about. While that would have been an advantage to me, it wasn’t to her in the late 19th Century.  She’s also in a situation where the rug has been pulled out from under her financially. She can no longer afford a dressmaker but must rely on Aunt Alice’s skills. She herself can sew of course, but she’s not really patient enough to put as much effort in as she would need to, not to mention the fact that she has a job keeping her occupied every day. She’s very conscious in the early books that what she’s wearing is very slightly out of style, or has been re-modelled. While she’s grateful to Aunt Alice, she’s also a little envious of her better off friends, particularly Connie. Katherine also struggles with fashions which don’t really suit small, flat-chested women. This is pretty much a reflection of how I felt in my younger years when fashions didn’t really suit small, busty women and I didn’t have any money for new clothes.

Her younger sister Margaret, who appears from time to time in the Caster & Fleet books and now has a book all of her own set in 1910 is positively clothes obsessed. She remembers her teenage years when she was always a little out of style, and now she’s fully grown up and has a professional career, she will splash out on the latest hats and a few evening dresses that she perhaps can’t quite afford, simply because they’re beautiful. She has the advantage over Katherine of being taller and busty. She may find the bust a nuisance in the 1920s, but right now, she’s quite happy in clothes that are elegant and perfectly skim her figure. (Yes, I’m jealous of Margaret. She reflects how I wish I was and has a confidence in her appearance I won’t have if I live till I’m 100.)

Moving back several hundred years Lucretia, is also obsessed with the latest fashion (as soon as it arrives from Rome to West Britain). Her mental self image is fixed around eighteen. Then she was small and curvaceous with long dark, wavy hair and while probably not exactly pretty, she was certainly striking. Nowadays – the wrong side of fifty – she’s very curvaceous and says the appearance of the odd silver strand of hair is a trick of the light. Just in case though, she has a collection of wigs sourced from all over the empire: one with black Indian hair, one with blonde German hair, one with red hair (the source of which may be a henna plant) and one which mixes them up a bit. She also wears as much make-up as she can without falling forwards under the weight of it. Most of the cosmetics are lead based and therefore toxic, but even if she realised, she’d probably say beauty has its price. It’s perhaps as well she doesn’t have access to a full-length mirror and can keep in her head the image of herself as young and beautiful and not have it dashed by reality – though of course, she’d say that was a trick of the light too.

Nowadays of course, I’m probably closer to Lucretia than Katherine in looks, though I couldn’t bear all that make-up. I’d say I couldn’t bear the thought of a wig either but not having seen a hairdresser since January, my silver strands are rather taking over.

I am still short, with no hips and an ample bust. Sadly I am no longer thin. And equally sadly, unlike Lucretia I do have a full-length mirror and am not deluded enough to think I still look eighteen. Oh well – I’m ready for a different dress-making challenge. Bobbins at the ready sewing machine – I’m coming to fix you.

Welsh costume

(This is from a rather blurry polaroid of me and my sister in a Welsh costume made by my mother for St David’s Day when we lived in Wales. All the other little girls wore short skirts but my father was determined we should be ‘authentic’. As we were English this seemed a bit pointless but that was Dad for you. My sister is now taller than me.)

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

 

Lost Sometimes

I remember when the sky was always an impossible blue.

The days when I left home after breakfast not to return till evening.

When with a friend, I’d lie in fields of barley or under larches or hide from little sisters among the bracken or in hawthorn trees or walk among plants taller than our heads …

or more often than not… 

I’d sit alone in the quiet copse or by the whispering river, deep in my own thoughts and worries and dreams and ideas: lost.

Lost in the waiting room between worlds: the one which was and the one which might be, the one which I feared and the one which I hoped for.

There was sometimes a joy in feeling lost, caught between a range of possibles none of them yet real.

Sometimes of course, lostness meant fear. 

Turning the wrong way on an unfamiliar road, walking further and further hoping for something I recognised. Too terrified to turn around. Fearing I’d never see anything I knew again. Feeling guilt in trusting a stranger’s hand …

Or falling into the fast-flowing river all alone, tumbling toward the not-so-distant waterfall, catching at last on branches till I could drag myself out and dry in the sun so that no-one would ever know…

Or older now, driving in fog or heavy snow, too fearful to stop. Has my turning been missed? Am I too close to the edge? Will I drive like this forever?

And in the end the heart-calming, velvet warmth of being no longer lost but safely home.

Yesterday I felt lost and I feel lost today and tomorrow I will doubtless feel lost as well. It’s the way things are right now.

I’ll be feeling lost for a while, caught in the space between what is and what might be, between knowledge and doubt and possibility, on the edge of the cliff contemplating tumbling down or the possibility of flight.

Yes, there is a little fear, but just now…

the sky is that impossible childhood blue again.

I accept the lostness. Not abandoned, not angry nor terrified but in a waiting room between worlds: the one which was, the one which is, the one which might be, the one which I fear and the one which I hope for.

I hesitate under tall trees on a path which forks into side-trails and copses, hesitate on the edge of a river which twists out of sight and dithers towards side-brooks and weirs.

I feel lost but I’m all right. I will own the lostness and I’ll wait until the unknown is known and the possibles become probables.

And today I am content under this impossibly clear sky, closing my eyes and imagining all those unknown worlds around me as blue – from opal to indigo – each as beautiful and embraceable in its own way. 

Sometimes it’s all right to feel lost. 

I don’t know quite where I am today, but I am all right.

Lost Sometimes – music by Dissimulated

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

 

 

 

Broadening the Mind

I love research. It provides the best excuse to get side-tracked I can think of.

At the moment, because I’ve been writing or plotting two historical mysteries set over 1,700 years apart, I’m surrounded by books about Roman-Britain, Roman cookery and Celtic traditions as well as ones on Victorian/Edwardian slang and dialect, maps of late 19th Century London, pre-WWI politics and (much as it would amaze any of my poor suffering science teachers) forensics and biology. I confess that I find dabbling in the dialect, slang and cook-books the most fascinating. 

Waiting their turn in terms of having the accompanying novels written, I also have books about the home-front in WWII and everyday Tudor life. One of the latter is called ‘Delightes for Ladies – to adorn their Perſons, Tables, Cloſets, and Diſtillories: with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters’ by Sir Hugh Plat. It includes fascinating recipes for everything from marchpane (marzipan) to hair dye. 

If you’re in the same boat as me after several weeks of lockdown and missing the hairdresser, you might be interested in the hair dye recipes but I’m not going to quote them for fear someone will try them. In brief, the one for blonde dye includes honey, turmeric, rhubarb and alum among other things. The one for brunette dye includes sulphur as one of its less toxic ingredients. Apparently it wouldn’t stain the skin but I’m not convinced. Maybe it doesn’t stain it, but I’d have thought at least one of the other components might dissolve it.

Of all the research books I have, there’s one which would have been really useful for my new release if I’d remembered I had it.

“The Queen” Newspaper Book of Travel – A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts 1912’ is one of the books I’d snaffled from Dad at some point but forgotten I owned until I was featured on the Jaffareadstoo Sunday Brunch Blogspot.

It originally cost 2/6 (e.g. two shillings and sixpence). In post decimalisation terms that’s 12.5p which doesn’t sound like a lot, but putting it into context, inside the book itself are how much it cost to sail anywhere in the world (£55 first class to Bombay) and advertisements for a nice watch or a nice vanity case (£25 each). 

The book tells you what to pack in terms of clothes for a round the world trip, what to anticipate in terms of local hotels, the speed limit for your motor car, how much it cost to send a letter etc.

In India for example, regardless of climate, ‘one should wear flannel or wool next the skin’ and preferably have a flannel waistband otherwise known as a cholera belt. (Apparently it was called this as well after the cause for cholera was discovered, it was thought that stopping your waist from becoming cold would prevent cholera. I wouldn’t have thought the average Briton of Celtic/Anglo-Saxon descent in 1912 would have found their midriff cold in India but there you go.)

Other advice includes: ‘don’t take alcohol merely as a beverage’ and ‘don’t treat constipation lightly, it is as dangerous as relaxation in a tropical climate’. 

I’m sort of assuming ‘relaxation’ isn’t a reference to slobbing about in your cholera belt drinking nothing but alcohol as a beverage.

The most startling piece of advice is what to do about undies when on a long voyage (in context, I presume the underwear referred to was knickers/panties). 

It boils down to ‘I found four or five of everything quite enough for use on shore, and for the voyage I always take old things, and give them to the stewardess or throw them overboard, so that I had no need for my soiled linen bag on board ship, never having anything to put in it. I am sure this is the best way. It is often exceedingly troublesome to get washing done at the port of debarkation, and it is always expensive, and on every account it is better to keep one’s cabin fresh and empty. Even if the things are rather good to throw away, it makes little difference in the cost of a long trip, and they aren’t wasted, for the stewardess gets them.’

I’m not entirely sure which is the odder image – a stream of substantial early 20th century knickers floating down the Suez Canal behind a steamer or the stewardess’s face as she’s handed armfuls of grubby undies at the end of the trip.

As I say, I didn’t realise I had A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts 1912 till well after I’d finished writing ‘The Wrong Sort To Die’.

In case you’re wondering what this new novel is about, it’s a spin-off from the Caster and Fleet series which I wrote with Liz Hedgecock. 

Written by me alone, it’s set in 1910. The main character is Margaret Demeray (the younger sister of Katherine of the Caster and Fleet books). Margaret is thirty-six and a pathologist at a London hospital for the poor. She has a thirst for justice and equality. She’s very independent, has a short fuse, is irritated by having to fight her corner in a man’s world, but perhaps just a little vulnerable too.

Here’s a brief blurb:

Dr Margaret Demeray is approached by a stranger called Fox to help find out what’s killed two impoverished men. How can a memory she’d buried possibly be linked to the deaths? And how come the closer she gets to Fox the more danger she faces herself? 

I’m looking forward to swotting up on ‘A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts’ for the sequel, when Margaret will definitely leave the British Isles, although not on a long enough voyage to be tempted to throw her underwear overboard. 

Or maybe she will. I’ll have to see.

The Wrong Sort To Die’ is available for pre-order with a publication date of 30th June 2020.

Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photographs from “The Queen” Newspaper Book of Travel 1912