The true story behind the slightly less than true stories in ‘Weird & Peculiar Tales’!
It’s December 21st, nearing the end of a year for which the Oxford English Dictionary extended its Word of the Year to include ‘several unprecented words of the year’. I’m sure if each of us had a £1/$1/€1/etc for each time we’d uttered one of them, we’d all be rich.
Diwali and Hanukkah have not long passed, it will be Christmas on Friday, and in the northern hemisphere where I live, it’s Winter Solstice today and we’re all looking forward to the days growing longer again. So here I am wishing you season’s greetings!
I doubt I’m alone in finding my family traditions have been somewhat turned upside down more than once in 2020 and it’s more poignant than ever at Christmas. I won’t see friends or relations whom I’d usually see, I won’t have the in-laws here for Christmas (for the record, since there are in-laws and in-laws, this is a sad thing) and food shopping is more fraught than usual as collective madness has descended yet again.
But we do have our decorations up and we’ll have a nice meal and despite the various trials of this year, we’ll have a great deal to be thankful for as we raise a toast to absent loved ones (some of whom will only be absent by geography and/or covid restrictions so we’ll be able to toast them by video technology).
In a writers’ Facebook group, someone asked what our characters might be doing over the festive season. It’s an interesting thought, so here goes with a few of mine.
Let’s start in the 1890s/1910s.
Katherine and Margaret Demeray live comfortable lives (financially that is, their adventures may be less comfortable) in the late 19th Century/early 20th Century and therefore celebrate in the sort of way popularised by Dickens. Of course they (and also their cousin Albert Lamont) are of French Huguenot descent. The ancestors who fled France in the 17th Century would have been Calvinist protestants – puritans – although by the late 19th Century, both families are a great deal less strict and have defected to the Church of England.
While I did a tiny bit of research to find out whether French puritans were quite as strict as English ones and how Huguenots might have celebrated Christmas, I haven’t dug deep enough to find out much. But apparently the Huguenots scandalised English puritans by celebrating Noël at a time when English puritans were trying to ban Christmas and replace feasting with fasting. So, I’m going to stick my neck out and assume that the original Demerays and Lamonts full-heartedly enjoyed the season’s festivities without shame and brought some French specialities with them which three hundred years later, their descendants Katherine, Margaret (and perhaps Albert) included in their Christmas feasting: oysters (not hard at the time as they were cheap); duck and pork terrine or maybe even imported fois gras; marrons glacés (candied chestnuts); les treize desserts – thirteen desserts – a Christmas tradition from Provence including a sweet brioche called pompe à l’huile. Plus of course, by 1890 I’m sure they’d also be tucking into English traditional meal of goose or turkey, chestnut stuffing and roast potatoes followed by plum pudding (to maybe make the thirteen desserts into fourteen).
In the days before anyone thought of choking hazards (which included my childhood in the later 20th century), Christmas puddings always included a sixpence. If you were lucky enough to find it in your portion (before you swallowed it), the money was yours and considered good luck. Other silver trinkets might be put in the pudding, each representing what the future held, such as a tiny wishbone (to bring good luck), a silver thimble (for thrift), or an anchor (to symbolise safe harbour). Maybe the Demerays had a silver bean in theirs from a French tradition when the person finding it would be King for the Day or Bean King with similar traditions in Britain too.
Which links nicely to…
The third Murder Britannica book Murder Saturnalia is set in a particularly hard British midwinter in AD192 between the Roman festival Saturnalia on 17th December and the rather more ancient Winter Solstice on 21st December. (At the time, Christianity was illegal and no-one in any event had thought to connect the unspecified date of the birth of Christ with December. 25th December was a Mithraic festival and not reassigned for another two hundred years.)
There are all sorts of political shenanigans going on Rome in AD192 and Emperor Commodus is not only more bonkers than most, he’s also heading for an unexpected New Year’s Eve surprise, but no-one in my story is too bothered as Rome is a long way away. Nothing – not even the river freezing solid – stops anyone from eating, although Lucretia’s nephew Fabio (who’s undercover as a hired musician) is mainly living on stew and beer. Lucretia is happily prepared to gorge on all sorts of delights – stuffed chestnuts, spiced chickpeas, fried cubes of breaded cheese – but since the village where she comes from doesn’t really celebrate Saturnalia she’s rather horrified on arriving somewhere else to discover that for a day or so, she’ll have to cook for the slaves rather than the other way around.
I could get very carried away describing Roman food. The trade routes were fantastic, preservation skills high and you could live in Britain and eat foods from the other side of the Empire. I daresay they were expensive, but let’s be honest, in a Midwinter festival, everyone who can push the boat out usually does.
Pork was high on the list of feasting food (although probably not the way Lucretia cooks it), and to link to the Demerays, also mulled wine and a kind of thirteen desserts at the end. If you want to read about the sorts of things the Romans ate at Saturnalia, this is an interesting article. Pass The Flamingo: Io Saturnalia or even watch some of the dishes being prepared here Celebrating Saturnalia with Cato’s Globi.
A batch of globi was made for me on Saturnalia by a dear friend this week as a surprise! They were a bit like deep fried cheesecake balls! It cheered me up no end as it should have been publication day for the book, but you know – 2020 and all that. News in the New Year I hope.
However, I do have some book treats if you’re looking for something new to read:
The Case of the Peculiar Pantomime Katherine and Connie think it’s time to shut up the detective agency for Christmas and have a rest, but someone at the Merrymakers Music Hall has other ideas.
Wartime Christmas Tales. A collection of stories set during World War Two by a number of international writers including me.
Whatever your situation this December, whatever your beliefs and traditions, whether, whatever or however you celebrate, I hope that after everything this year has chucked at us, you have a refreshing time and that stepping into the New Year brings you light, hope, peace, respite and books!
Hi Sim, welcome to my blog. Can you tell us something about yourself?
I’m Sim and I make words into adventures.
I was born and raised in the county town of Dorchester, Dorset, I began scribbling away stories on scraps of paper since before I can remember. I spent a lot of my childhood on adventures, walking the dogs in the woodland surrounding Thomas Hardy’s cottage with my family. Something about the cottage and ‘the man what wrote stuff’ who had lived there sparked a fire inside me. It was from there I began to focus on writing more seriously.
In 2012, I signed up to Open University to study Creative Writing alongside working full time. I’m not quite sure how I made it out alive, but I graduated with honours and began using the skills he had acquired to edit and redraft old work.
In 2019 along with some talented friends, I set up the first-ever literary festival in Blandford Forum, Dorset. The events were a huge success with both writers and readers alike.
As of 2020, I’m now a member of the National Association of Writers in Education and was named Indie Author of The Month (October 2020) by Chantelle Atkins. I’ve since become part of the team at Chasing Driftwood Writing Group CIC.
What’s your earliest writing memory?
I actually still have what I believe to be the first story I ever wrote. Albeit it doesn’t really make any sense. It was a thriller which switched perspectives between the pursuer and the victim in an abandonned warehouse/museum. It left the reader wondering who was actually the predator and who was the prey in the end. I have never shared it with anyone but I might rework it and post it someday.
What was your favourite childhood book and why? And do you still read it?
My favourite book from childhood was called The Babysitter by R. L. Stine. It is a 4 book series and I absolutely loved the suspense. The story line was pretty basic… babysitter all alone receiving creepy phone calls and being watched… but I was hooked. Stine is a phenomenal children’s author and I still have my copies!
I used to carry my copy of The Babysitter around in my bag to keep me focussed on my dream of publishing my own work someday. I know, I know… We all have weird quirks!
Can you visualise your characters? If so – which actors would play your two favourites?
I can! I have always said I would love for Rachelle Lefevre (Victoria, Twilight 2008, New Moon 2009. Julia, Under the Dome 2013) to play Abi Millar. In fact, my artist for The Willow graphic novel has used her likeness as inspiration.
I think Aja Naomi King (Michaela, How to Get Away with Murder 2014) would make a great Taylor!
How does the location of the story impact on them?
Denver Falls is full of mystery, echoes from the past ripple through the town and the ancient woodland surrounding it. But the things that go bump in the night aren’t the only things to be afraid of. Sometime people can be just as terrifying.
Will there be a sequel?
There will certainly be a sequel. Books 2 and 3 are currently in the planning stages. These will share the same title and be split between the two books.
Return to Denver Falls: Part One
Return to Denver Falls: Part Two
I am hoping to have book 2 ready for Summer 2021.
Thanks Sim, that sounds great. And finally, where can we find your books and media links?
Names hold power. People gain identity when they’re named. It may not be the identity they want, or in the case of foundlings or slaves bear any connection with their ancestry but it’s the one they’re given. In older times, the right birth-name might protect a baby from another realm and a ‘real’ name might be given at puberty to indicate something crucial – perhaps even a secret, spiritual name known only to a select few.
The parents’ religious beliefs might lead them to name a child after a saint or prominent preacher or an idea, although nowadays, it’s quite possible to be called Joseph, Spurgeon or Makepeace without any religious implication at all.
Whatever you’re called and why, do you shape your name or does it shape you? Will you turn out differently depending on whether you’re called Andrew or Aloysius or Artichoke?
My own name isn’t even a noun. It’s an adjective, the feminine of Paulus, Latin for small. I am small, but my mother says she just wanted a name that couldn’t be shortened. Naturally it has been shortened most of my adult life, although never by my mother.
I was asked for suggestions when my sister was born and am responsible for her being called Julia which I chose from a book about a little girl who had a fluffy chicken. Given that I was three at the time, I suspect my sister is named after the chicken. Mum thought that no-one could shorten Julia either, but naturally they do.
As far as my own children were concerned, my husband and I argued and argued until we finally agreed. This involved, believe it or not, trailing through the cast lists in a TV listings guide to find something we both liked.
In contrast, you’d think it would be comparatively easy for a writer to name characters. I invented them, so I should have free rein. But actually, even though I do substantial research, it’s the character who tells me what they’re actually called.
In Murder Britannica and Murder Durnovaria, the characters are almost entirely Romano-British. Some are citizens and have adopted Roman or Romanised names. Others aren’t and/or haven’t. Lucretia is really called Rhee, but her father, wanting to get the most of the Romans re-named her Lucretia which means ‘profit’.
The average Briton in the 2nd Century AD would have spoken what is now broadly covered by the word Brythonic which over time became Welsh, Cornish, Cumbric and Breton with close links to Gaelic. The richer and more influential Briton would also have spoken Latin. And then they’d probably have mixed things up, had nicknames and dialects. My Romano-British characters therefore might be called something Latin, Brythonic, Welsh or entirely made-up.
Some have names which fit their personalities: Eira (Welsh for snow) is rather cold and Deryn (Welsh for bird) is more comfortable with nature than people. Then there are Dun and Gris whose names suit two muddy grave-robbers. However, while I was writing the third book, Dun reminded me in Brythonic and Gaelic, Dùn means fort and there’s more to him than I’d given him credit for. (If you love words, here’s a fascinating site to explore Brythonic Word of the Day).
It’s easier with more recent eras. Lists of the top 100/200 names are online, although US ones pop up before UK ones and I don’t always realise until I see ‘Earl’ as a popular name for boys that I’ve crossed The Pond by accident. You can even see how your own name has fared over the last 100 years.
Once in the right country, I’ll find the approximate decade when a character would have been born and see what resonates.
In The Wrong Sort to Die (set 1910), the main character Margaret (born 1874) had originally come into being as the younger sister of Katherine (born 1865) in The Case of the Black Tulips (set 1890). Katherine is one of my favourite names but I can’t actually recall how I came to ‘discover’ Margaret. She probably just told me when I wasn’t paying attention. Fox however, just popped into my head fully formed and fully named (if of course, that’s really his name).
The book also features a Goan Catholic who’s moved to London, married an Englishwoman and had children. Goan Catholic names have Portuguese roots and I found ones online that he and his English wife were most likely to give their children which might subsequently be Anglicised. They felt just right in the end.
Like many writers, I have novels in a cyber drawer. Some have characters whose names feel perfect. But not all.
In 2015 I wrote a 50,000 word novel for Nanowrimo. This formed the basis of a longer book which I edited and sent to Beta readers for input. To my disappointment, they mostly concluded that the main character is very boring. After I’d licked my wounds, I had to agree. For more than half the book she is extremely passive and remains in a horrible situation for no logical reason.
At the moment, she is called Sarah. I have no idea why I picked that name but now thinks she’s somehow a grown-up human version of my old doll Sarah-Jane who equally didn’t have much personality. Maybe that’s what’s part of her problem.
So I’ve since concluded that Sarah can’t be her real name and put the book very much back in the cyber drawer. While the sub-subconscious works out how to make her more engaging (and more importantly, pro-active) I’m living in hope that she’ll wake up and tell me what she’s actually called because that might really help.
Research though can lead to unexpected ideas. Recently, I bought a second hand book called ‘The Romance of Parish Registers’. It’s a lot more fascinating than it sounds. For example: how about the surname Clinkadagger recorded in Cranford parish registers in 1630 or Drybutter recorded in Barking between 1558-1650? And a register in Denham Bucks records that Henry Criple married Easter Christmas on 7th September 1704.
I have been pretty conventional with my naming so far, but who knows? It may not just be Sarah who needs to less boring…
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.
Welcome to my website Stephen. Thanks for taking part in an author interview.
Please tell us a little about yourself
I’m Stephen Deutsch, novelist, composer and filmmaker.
I was born in New York and moved to the UK in 1970, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1978. I was trained as a pianist and composer, spending the first part of my career composing music for concert hall, theatre, television and film. I have been a lecturer in film sound and music, and have edited a journal on that subject, The Soundtrack, and later The New Soundtrack. My first novel, Zweck, a historical comedy about music, was published in 2016. I am the co-author of a coming book – Listening to the Film: A Practical Philosophy of Film Sound and Music. I have written plays for television, broadcast on the BBC.
Thank you. I’d love to know more about your writing process and inspiration. For example, do you like to reflect a sense of place in your stories? If so, how?
As I write historical fiction, a sense of place and time is essential. I try to immerse myself in the lives and times, the locations and events through which the characters lived. Researching this gives me much satisfaction.
What’s your earliest writing memory?
I seem to remember singing a song with made up lyrics in school. I was about six years old. The teacher took it down and put it in the school yearbook. I can’t remember it now, but I think it had to do with rain.
If you were encouraged to write/create – who encouraged you and how?
My mother groomed me to be a famous musician, encouraged to perform, play and sing. Not to write. It didn’t quite work out the way she imagined.
What was your favourite childhood book and why? And do you still read it?
I loved Alice in Wonderland. I was lucky enough to compose music for a TV adaptation some years ago. But the book is far better, I still read it from time to time.
What did you get in trouble for at school?
Talking too much. Nothing has changed.
How do you keep yourself motivated when your writing doesn’t flow?
I trick myself. I come to the desk thinking that I would just review the previous day’s work, and before long, ideas begin to arrive. Even though I know that this is a subterfuge, I fall for it every time.
Can you visualize your characters? If so – which actors would play your two favourites?
I do visualize my characters, especially because they were real people and I know what they looked like. Any casting, however inspired, would distort their reflection.
How much of yourself is in your stories?
Hard to say. I write every single word, so my own voice must penetrate through…
Do you like town or country?
Why did you pick your genre?
The cliché is ‘it picked me’, but clichés become clichés because they are most often true.
If you like to write to music – what do you choose and why?
I never write to music. Either it’s too interesting, so it distracts, or it’s simply banal, which distracts me even more.
If you had to pick five pieces of music to sum up you and/or your life – what would they be and why?
- The B minor Mass by J.S. Bach, because I simply can’t imagine the mind that created this monumental, overpowering work.
- “Hit the Road, Jack” as sung by Ray Charles. Part of the music which resonated in my childhood.
- “Here comes the Sun” by the Beatles, reminding me of the happy two years I lived I San Francisco.
- Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto as played by Yuja Wang. Reminding me of what I aspired to, and how sensible it was for me to stand back and let a real genius play it. I also would never have been able to carry off the frocks as she does.
- My own String Quintet. Because it’s the best music I have ever composed and I’m proud of it.
What makes you happy?
Work. Thinking, reading, talking to friends.
If you could go anywhere (real or fictional) – where and why?
I’d like to revisit Orvieto, Italy when the plague ends. The most magical place in Italy, especially at sunset.
What could you not live without?
Optimism. Fortunately, I still have some lying around somewhere.
Who are your two main characters in your latest book Champion?
Herschel Grynszpan was a slightly built lad, 17 at the time of the assassination, he had dark hair and deeply-set eyes. As an undocumented Jewish adolescent living in Paris just before the war, having left Germany because of the persecution he felt as a Jew, thinking to emigrate to Palestine (as it then was). In October 1938, he receives a postcard from his parents – they had recently been bundled with 25,000 other Jewish residents of Hanover, put on a train – but not in the same way as Jews were later transported to the Ghettos and the death camps; they were in 3rd class compartments – then dumped in the rain on the Polish border.
Herschel was so enraged that he bought a gun and murdered a minor German official at the German Embassy in France, and this act was used as the excuse for Kristalnacht. He was arrested and was being prepared for trial, when the Germans invaded. And his adventures after that form a big part of the story.
Max Schmeling was a Nazi icon, not altogether wholeheartedly. And especially after his spectacular defeat of Joe Louis in 1936, he was feted everywhere in Germany, even having tea with Hitler and watching the fight film with him. His wife, Anny Ondra, who had starred in Hitchcock’s Blackmail – as well as many German films – was also similarly celebrated as part of this ideal Aryan couple.
Like many Germans, Max was uneasy about the regime – so many of his friends, artists, writers, musicians had disappeared, so much of what the Nazis stood for went against the sense of honour with which he had been raised. But ethics and morals, however resolutely he held them, did not prevent him from capitalising on his fame. But he was not a racist, of this I have no doubt. He defended his Jewish manager and was a major benefactor of Joe Louis in retirement – as well as after his death. During Kristalnacht Max sheltered two young Jewish lads in his hotel room until the violence subsided.
Will there be a sequel?
Hope not. Not by me, in any case.
Where can we find a copy of Champion?
Thank you Stephen. I wish you every success with Champion, which is a great book: well researched and beautifully written.
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.
‘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.
How do you feel about ice-breakers?
Only asking because right now, I’m organising a meeting. It’s been in the offing for a while so I should be prepared but I’m not.
I know that ice-breakers can make some people feel exposed and I don’t want to do that to anyone. But I’ve found one which might be useful. It’s based on mindfulness. The idea is that everyone notes down – for themselves alone – their mood, the things that are on their mind right at that moment and then, having recognised them, put them to one side ready to take part in the meeting.
We are a scattered remote-working team of people who don’t meet face to face very often. We have a challenging year ahead, but who knows what mountains people are facing in their personal lives which make work issues seem mere mole-hills.
The reason I’m behind with this is that for me, normal priorities have recently been struggling for precedence. The last two months have felt like two years. All jokes about January aside, the one that’s passed really does seem to have been twice the length of normal and February hasn’t been much better. Good friends have been going through terrible times and for my family, things started to unravel in December when my mother was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. My mother is over eighty but very lively and energetic. She doesn’t however, like to make a fuss, part of which is probably a wartime generation thing and part of which is the way her family was. Perhaps this is why when something didn’t look right, she didn’t mention it to anyone for nearly a year and then only in passing when talking about something else. (If you think something looks (or feels) odd – don’t hesitate to have it checked. Please see links below.)
Thanks to our wonderful National Health Service, Mum had a successful mastectomy in mid January. Then for no reason anyone has yet established and with a speed which shocked everyone, Mum contracted sepsis. My sister and I were told she wouldn’t survive the night. But Mum wasn’t ready to give in just yet and to everyone’s honest surprise, she survived and is back home regaining her strength day by day.
I’m not saying any of this to gain sympathy since, as I say, some of my friends are going through even worse things and I’ve no doubt some readers may be too (other links below too). This is about me trying to rebalance and saying thank you to all those who’ve been there for my family recently.
I’m sure you can appreciate that over the last few weeks, everything but my mother, whether work, home-life or writing took a back seat. As for my vague new year’s resolutions…
I never returned to choir practice after the first meeting because my evening routine has now changed.
I did start learning to crochet which came in handy when sitting in intensive care (but I’ve got to be honest, no-one is getting a blanket any time soon unless they’re the size and robustness of a beetle who doesn’t mind draughts).
And in terms of writing – which in my case this January was supposed to be generally editing something which was already behind – it stalled completely. Whereas when my father was very ill I found an outlet in writing, when Mum was, I simply froze. Perhaps that’s because Mum’s illness was so unexpected, while Dad had been ill for many years. Somehow, this time it was different. All I wrote for three weeks were texts, messages and emails.
During a lot of sitting around in the hospital, I struggled to read a novel, but did manage to read a book on the history of forensics (don’t ask me why this was easier, I’ve no idea), and trawled social media a little. On writers’ groups, I often saw people post that they just couldn’t think of what to write or get on with what they were writing. More often than not, the response was pretty much ‘just do it’. I might have replied in a similar vein: ‘you can do it – just ten words even if they’re nonsense’ but this time I replied ‘you can do it – but maybe not just now. Sometimes ten words is too much. Sometimes you just have to give yourself a break. The right time will come.’
In terms of my spiritual awareness resolution – I feel I might actually have achieved that one. Friends and family of many faiths and none were sending prayers, positive thoughts and lovely messages. My sister and I can’t thank you all enough. We felt completely surrounded by support and love in those dark, awful days when we thought we’d lose our mother. The kindness of friends, the gentle courtesy of strangers in that terrible time were like gold.
Just little things made a difference.
The little chap in the photograph – about whom you may hear more in future – is Quirius The Curious Squirrel. He arrived in the post one day when things looked bleak – made with love by my wonderful friend Liz – just at a time when I was desperate for something to make me smile. Quirius sits by me when I work at home (that is when he’s not dressed up to go undercover… as I say, more in future perhaps) and keeps an eye on me to make sure I’m focussing on the right thing at the right time.
Whether or not I use that mindfulness ice-breaker at the meeting before we go on to something more business focussed, I’ll certainly try it for myself to try and keep myself on track.
This is what is on my mind… This is what’s happening that’s affecting my mood… I acknowledge you but now I’m going to focus on something else for a while.
Perhaps it might help you too.
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.
Breast Cancer & Sepsis
For anyone feeling overwhelmed just now – some helplines – someone will listen
They say there are three types of people: one who thinks their glass is half-full, one who thinks it’s half-empty and one who says ‘beer? I never ordered beer!’
There’s actually a fourth type.
Dad would say: ‘despite all evidence to the contrary, my glass is not simply full, it’s overflowing and while you’re asking silly questions can you buy me a doughnut to eat with my drink?’
Dad’s enthusiastic plans and reality were not so much loosely connected as operating on parallel lines that would never actually meet.
He had many schemes:
- we’d move to a fancy house by the sea;
- I’d have lots of fashionable clothes;
- I’d go to a posh school (akin to the ‘Chalet School’ where everyone was extremely nice to each other and they had lots of adventures);
- we’d go on holiday to a French gîte (a new trend at the time);
- he’d buy a brand new fancy car like one on ‘Top Gear’. (At the time, I should point out, ’Top Gear’ featured cars affordable by ordinary people.)
What I actually got was:
- the dark house we already had, which was possibly haunted (or at least the cat and I thought a corner of my bedroom was);
- hand-me-downs from various richer cousins;
- the school I was already at where I was bullied and the main adventure was hiding from them;
- Maybe a crumbling holiday let in Britain, one of which had a hole in the ceiling from which I was fairly sure a massive spider peeked when I was in bed
- a car which was pretty much a tin-can held together with duct tape. And I really mean mostly held together provided you factored in several pit-stops on a long journey to patch it up again.
Sometimes Dad did get frustrated when life didn’t go to plan but generally he simply ignored things going awry and everyone else got frustrated instead (mainly with Dad).
I’m not even going to pretend I’m like him in this respect. While my glass is probably half-full in general, I find plans going to pieces overwhelmingly stressful until I get to the point when I give myself a shake, which is sort of where I am at the moment.
One of my friends posted an image today – many are available – which is about what is or out of your control. In brief:
- In my control are my thoughts, my words, my deeds, my reactions.
- Out of my control is pretty much everything else.
It made me feel a bit better because it made me reflect on what I can and can’t do and what I should or shouldn’t let get to me.
When asking me about writing on top of working full-time and having a family and all the other stuff, people often ask ‘how do you manage?’ and usually I just answer ‘it’s difficult but I fit it all in somehow’. The second half of this year, I have to be honest, the answer is more realistically ‘I’m not managing’.
Don’t read this as a complaint. I’m overjoyed with all that I have, including good health, an interesting (if sometime exasperating) job, a lovely family and all the other stuff even though this year has been stressful on most of those fronts for one reason or another.
Creativity whether cooking, photography, painting, sewing or more usually writing generally keeps me sane and lets me channel something else for a bit to reboot my energy.
In the second half of this year however, work plans haven’t gone to plan and since this impacts on my time and energy for creativity, I’m in a bit of a vortex of frustration.
With work, obviously one of the things that keeps me going is that it pays the bills but I’m also fortunate to be working towards a worthwhile goal in a great team with people I consider to be good friends.
Writing of course, I could stop at any time. Only I don’t want to largely because I know I’d be utterly miserable without it – even the difficult aspects of it (e.g. when something won’t come out right, or editing chapters is like wrangling thirty cats into a cat-carrier built for one).
I can’t do anything about some of the things that have gone awry with work – they are well and truly out of my control. I can’t therefore do much about the lack of time I have at the moment. I can simply make the best use of the time I do have and focussing on what I can do, rather than fretting about what I can’t is a great release.
Something that keeps me going rather than giving up is knowing I’m not alone.
I have a number of writer friends. Some I’ve known for years, some for a short while. Some I’ve never even met in person and will probably never meet. But at one point or another, each of them has found their writing targets going to pot. Illness has meant one took longer than she’d have liked to finish her project. Another is struggling with ‘blocks’ of various kinds – perhaps caused by doubts in their (considerable abilities) put in their minds by other people. Another, like me, thought they’d have ‘finished’ something by now but reviewing and revising has taken much longer than they thought. Another finds they can’t find an audience for a book which is just as good if not better than many that sell in the thousands.
It’s hard not to get discouraged and feel out of control but I’ve been encouraged by others who understood when things are a struggle. Just a few words here and there have helped immensely.
So just in case you need it too, whatever the thing is that you’re facing at the moment – try to focus on what you can do and how you react and have a virtual hug from me.
Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.
One of my favourite books, Have His Carcase, is one in which the heroine finds a very fresh corpse on a beach and takes so long to get help, the tide has come in and swept it off by the time anyone can get to it.
Whenever I read the efforts she has to make, I can’t help thinking ‘why doesn’t she just…’ until I remember it’s 1932 and she’s a long way from civilisation let alone any kind of phone or telegraph office.
At least Dorothy L Sayers was writing about her own era so she knew what her characters’ challengers were. We have to research.
When writing fiction set in the past, it’s easy to forget what wasn’t around at the time. It’s hard to explain to my teenage children for example, let alone remember, that when I went to university, I had to communicate with all my friends and family by letter. It wasn’t even particularly easy to telephone unless you fancied queuing in the rain while someone told her boyfriend for the 300th time how much she loved him.
With Liz Hedgecock, I’ve been writing the Caster & Fleet series which is set in late 19th Century London. Our characters, Katherine and Connie, met in a cafe on a rainy day in November 1890 and soon found themselves unexpectedly solving a mystery. Despite disapproving relations and romantic distractions, they haven’t looked back since.
I’m often asked how realistic we think our characters’ freedom is. Liz and I like to think their adventures are as likely as adventures in books generally are. It would be rather dull if they simply followed the norms for their generation and class. And we also know that a great many women didn’t do that anyway – they travelled the world, applied for jobs they weren’t expected to, refused to ride side-saddle, rejected corsetry. Connie and Katherine haven’t done any of those things but they push the envelope nonetheless (and frankly, if you told Katherine to ride a horse, I daresay she’d refuse to do it side-saddle too.)
However, they’re still stuck with 19th Century communication techniques. There were more postal deliveries per day than there now. They can afford telegrams, they have a telephone each but a great many other people don’t, including Katherine’s in-laws in rural Berkshire which may only just about have some sort of telephone in the telegraph exchange by now but nothing out to any of the houses, no matter how grand. So contacting people quickly is challenging.
(This didn’t stop me from writing ‘Katherine had a series of emails to look through’ the other day, perhaps because I’m about to go back to work after a short break and am dreading doing the same thing.)
If you’ve been following the series, I hope you’ll be thrilled to know that book five in the series is ready to purchase. ‘The Case of Fateful Legacy’ starts in November 1894 with a party to celebrate James’s birthday and the success of Connie and Katherine’s business. Even the news of the death of a rather cantankerous old lady in the village can’t spoil the mood. And then – it turns out that the death might not be so simple at all and James’s sister is implicated. Connie has gone home – should Katherine bring her back to investigate? Of course she should.
If you like a country-house murder mystery, this could be for you. With action in rural Berkshire and rainy London, it will take more than toddler tantrums and troublesome relations to stop Katherine and Connie seeing that justice is done.
Out now in paperback and e-book. ‘The Case of the Fateful Legacy’ opens a box of secrets no-one knew existed.
I’m suffering book bereavement.
There’s probably an equivalent for artists and musicians and it hurts.
Book bereavement is when a piece of writing is complete, leaving a gap in your life you don’t know how to fill. (Readers can feel much the same when a good book ends.)
In my case, I’ve just finished writing a novel and I’m missing my main characters so much I don’t know how to stop thinking about them. It’s a really odd sensation to have about people who, let’s be honest *whispers* don’t really exist at all. The thing is, they feel real to me.
This sensation may be intensified by the fact that I took last week off work purely to write and wrote nearly 36,000 words. Fundamentally, except for a few hours spent eating and having to live in the real world, I was imagining, dreaming, writing and living in my novel for nine days and nights.
For those of you who’ve stuck with me so far: who are these people who are still hovering about and what’s their story?
The main character is Margaret Demeray, the younger sister of Katherine from the Caster & Fleet series.
Liz Hedgecock and I decided we’d do spin-offs which we would write singly, rather than as a collaboration and I chose to see what happened to Margaret when she grew up. (You’ll have to wait and see what Liz comes up with.)
The book is set in 1910.
I picked the year partly because the fashions – with the possible exception of hats – were lovely (which is perhaps not very rational) and partly because it was a kind of tipping point historically. King Edward VII has just died, the women’s suffrage movement is gaining momentum, the old monarchies and empires of Europe, including Britain’s, are quietly sabre-rattling as they struggle for dominance.
Margaret is thirty-six, the age when a woman is supposed to be in her prime. (I can’t really remember because at that age I had baby well under two and was expecting a second.)
Margaret’s life is much more interesting. She is medically qualified and working in a teaching hospital. She has been asked to speak at a scientific symposium, the only woman to do so. She has great women-friends, equally determined not to be overshadowed by men, and has maintained her independence. But somehow she has also become engaged to a man so hung-up, he appears to find kissing her a chore. Perhaps if he were a little more passionate, she wouldn’t keep putting off the wedding. But as it is…
Then a stranger asks about the nameless subject of Margaret’s most recent post-mortem and her world turns upside down.
Obviously, the first draft being hot off the fingertips so to speak, it’s too close to read through and see what works, what doesn’t and which loose ends are still flapping. And it doesn’t have a name either.
Oh well, I’m sure my subconscious will tell me at 4 a.m. or during a business meeting sometime soon.
Today I’m back at my day job (the one that pays the bills) where there is regrettably very little scope for creativity, unless you count obtaining statistics and then turning them into a pretty graph. So perhaps to distract myself from having left my main characters wondering what they’re supposed to do next, I did a bit of number-crunching of my own.
My husband and I have recently started counting steps and we have been making ourselves do a circuit of our town pretty much every day to reach our 10k.
So I’ve created a graph to show how many words I wrote each day last week against how many steps I walked. On the basis that statistics are supposed to prove something, these seem to prove nothing except it is possible to write words and do exercise, even if your husband has to drag you out of the house and put up with your mind being somewhere else entirely as you walk. (For the record, it rained all day on Friday 8th, he wasn’t home till late and it was more appealing to stick at writing rather than waste time walking round town getting drenched. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.)
For anyone who actually cares about the words side of it, an average under 4,000 words a day may not seem a lot given that I was writing for around 8 hours a day and I’ve been known to write 1,500 on an hour and half train journey. Every writer has their own way of doing things. Some people write to a strict plan, some to no plan at all; some pour everything out and worry about it afterwards, some do a bit of editing as they go along.
I start with an outline, some idea of who’s who, what they’re up to and where they’ll end up, but let the rest fall in place as it comes to me – which as I said above sometimes occurs at 4 a.m or in the middle of a business meeting. My process last week was: get up, review the previous day’s writing, tweak it, often move it about or hold it back, and then crack on with the next part. I think there was one day I did more tweaking than writing.
For now as I write this, I must put Margaret, her friends and her enemies firmly to one side, because it’s lunchtime and I’m going to do some steps.
Only 7,353 more to do. Sigh. I’d rather be writing.
Words copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.
Graph: my own with dodgy stats