This? Or That? What do I prefer in fiction as reader and writer?

I recently saw one of those memes on a Facebook page where you had to choose between This or That for your mystery reading preferences.

I’ve never been too good at choices. When I was doing A level languages, if I was under pressure and had two options for a translation, I invariably chose the wrong one. I get slightly stressed by menus and even more stressed when handed a book token and told to pick just one book. What kind of monster is capable of that? 

Anyway, I thought I’d share my thoughts as a reader and a writer and I’d love to know how you’d answer the same questions. I’m not necessarily answering in relation to mysteries by the way.

Series or Standalones?

As a reader, I like a variety. 

I enjoy a good series where I become invested in the world and the characters’ personalities, triumphs and failures and see how they cope with whatever plot is chucked at them in each book. Then, after so many books (so far the most I’ve read in a series is about eleven) I become a little bored, because it’s hard for any author to come up with a way to keep changing the personal and plot challenges for a character and there’s a risk that both will become repetitive.

I also like standalone where an author has captured a period in time for the character(s) and created a complete, satisfactory tale. If it’s really good, of course I want to know what happens to them after the book ends. I’ll miss them, I’ll miss the world, but at the same time I’m content to never find out and simply imagine. 

As a writer, I like variety too. Of my novels, all that I’ve published so far have been in series or will be. As a writer, I too wanted to know what happened next. In the first book in each series, I’m getting to know the main character myself and it’s an adventure. Subsequently I don’t have the same element of discovery, so I have to find something different to explore. E.g. in the first book, you deal with at least some of the character’s wants, fears and challenges. In the second book, you don’t want to revisit all of them, so what’s left over and what’s new? As a writer, I don’t want to get bored with the characters either and feel that at some point, you have to wave them goodbye as they head into their own unknown future (hopefully to get a rest).

In my cyber drawer, however, there is one standalone and others planned. I was once asked whether the one which is written could ever be a series but I feel as if the answer is ‘no’. The story is complete in itself (or will be when I’ve finished editing it) and I’m happy to let the characters go and wish them all the best for the future without feeling the poke about in that future myself.

Below Thirty or Over Forty?

As a reader, I honestly don’t care! As long as the characters are rounded, believable and interesting, they could be two or ninety-two.

As a writer, my characters range in age because that’s how they came to me. 

Katherine in The Case of the Black Tulips in 1890 is twenty-five. Her younger sister Margaret when it comes to 1910 and The Wrong Sort to Die is thirty-six. Lucretia and Tryssa in the late second century of Murder Britannica and its sequels are fifty-something. Each had their challenges to deal with. 

Katherine is in a class where women aren’t supposed to work but sit around waiting to get married. She’s also living in an era where at twenty-five, she’s somewhat on the shelf but her ‘intended’ has disappeared. Many of her options (if she doesn’t want to lose her reputation) are limited but… it’s also an era when things are starting to change for young women in terms of careers and mobility and escape from scrutiny. The advantage of being twenty-five is that she is that she is ‘of age’ but still young enough to have plenty of time to marry and have children if that’s how things work out. 

Twenty years later, Margaret is widowed and being in her mid thirties could be considered very much on the shelf and potentially running out of time if she wants children. However, she has a career (even if that’s a struggle in a male dominated world) and she is old enough to have more confidence in herself than a younger woman might. 

Lucretia and Tryssa of course lived in an era when fifty was relatively old. But once someone had got to that age, having survived the first five years of life, subsequent infections and bearing children, they had as good a chance as anyone of living to perhaps seventy and they are both very much of the view that they frankly no longer care what anyone thinks. They will do exactly what they please. 

The point is – every age has its advantages and disadvantages to explore and none of them need to be boring or stereotypical.

Private Eye or Regular Citizen?

I like reading both, although I probably veer a little closer to ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary situation and having to resolve it. Because they have no real training, it makes it more interesting to see how they manage.

As a writer, I think I feel much the same way. I used to sit on the bus on the way to work thinking ‘what if one of these average people going to an average job suddenly had to deal with something completely and utterly out of their experience?’

Small Town or Big City?

My gut reaction is that I prefer to read about small towns but when I think of it, many of my favourite books have been set in cities. There’s all the gossip and curtain twitching and established relationships in a small town where everyone knows everyone else which makes for a narrow playing field of characters and consequently strong tension. But then there’s the anonymity of a city where it seems no one knows or cares about anyone and characters have more freedom to roam or get lost or be hidden, and sometimes the city itself becomes a character in its own right or rather, the different districts become different characters – the genteel aunt, the rough diamond, the snooty toff. 

As a writer, my books are set in both. While the Caster & Fleet series and the Margaret Demeray are set in London, the Murder Britannica series is a little more parochial. Murder Britannica itself is set in Pecunia, a fictional town so far off the beaten track most of the locals don’t even know there is a track. Murder Durnovaria is set in Durnovaria a real civitas (a town set up by the Romans but run by the local nobility). It’s therefore fairly large, but certainly not city size, so they have all the amenities and a lot of the politics but not many places to get lost in. Murder Saturnalia is set in fictional Vademlutra, a small town a short distance away. It’s larger than Pecunia and knows precisely where it is (not far from a lot of more important towns and rather too close to a Roman fort for the locals’ liking), but basically everyone knows everyone else and have grown up together. Does this mean they know each others’ secrets? Nope.

Contemporary or Historical?

As a reader, I’ll read anything at all as long as it grabs me. As far as mysteries are concerned, I possibly choose more contemporary than historical books, but only just.

As a writer, you can see that so far, the mystery books I’ve published have all been historical. 

There are some advantages to that, since I can find out what was what in any given year (or a close approximation) and it’s not going to change even if I delay publishing the book. On the other hand I have to get things as accurate as possible from language to attitudes. Some of the later don’t fit into modern thinking. Concepts and acceptability of Imperialism and colonisation for example, are very different nowadays. Margaret undoubtedly has some pride in her country, but she is keenly aware of its faults. She is one of many who want greater democracy and equality and she’s also growing doubtful that imperialism is a good thing. She is certainly aware that some of things the British Empire has been responsible for are unquestionably shameful. There’s a limit to how far I can push this without making her sound anachronistic, but there were sufficient British women fighting for Irish and Indian independence who would have been contemporary with her to make it more than likely that someone like Margaret, with a strong social conscience, would at the very least question the status quo.

I haven’t so far written a contemporary mystery although that’s not to say I won’t! My cyber drawer novel isn’t a mystery precisely but it is contemporary. The downside of a contemporary book is that I started it five years ago and already some bits are a little out of date! Digital technology and social media for example are now totally different. And we won’t mention certain viruses.

Saves The Day or Gets Saved?

As both reader and writer, I don’t want my character to need saving all the time. I’d much rather they were saving someone else (and/or the day). But they have to have some vulnerability or they become ridiculous (like those films and books where basically the hero has been shot, beaten, crushed etc etc and ought to be dead and yet is still going and has the energy to kiss the grateful heroine at the end). And now and again, it’s nice to give my character a rest from solving everything and let someone else get them out of a pickle (and also to get a kiss afterwards perhaps)!

Birds or Snakes?

I have no idea how to answer this as either reader or writer! 

If it’s a threat then… I think on balance, I’d find birds a little more scary and harder to outrun than snakes.

If it’s a pet however, then I’m picking a cat, a dog or, of course, if the book is right, a dragon. Please let it be a pet. And please please let it be a dragon.

What about you? How would you answer?

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Credit for image Pixabay.

New Beginnings Everywhere

The sparrows have returned to our garden from wherever they shelter over the winter.

From what started as four sweet little birdies a few years ago, a small army of spadgers now congregates each morning on one of the trees to eye up our house. They’re clearly ready to start roosting again which involves a lot of lewd or violent behaviour right in front of us on the fences and decking; a fresh brood of chicks yelling for food from dawn to dusk every few weeks; general clattering and bickering. What’s not happening on the decking, happens in the eaves of our house, where they periodically pull out the nails which hold the tiles in place (presumably they don’t go with their desired decor) and from which they occasionally get into the loft.

Tomorrow is the start of the Chinese Year of The Water Tiger, and the day after is Candlemas. In some countries, they don’t take their Christmas decorations down till Candlemas Eve, after which the new year really starts and in others (in a throw-back to pre-Christian traditions perhaps), Candlemas involves pancakes (or more accurately crêpes) whose round, golden shape symbolises the return of the sun as spring approaches. (I like this idea – one can never have enough pancakes, crêpes or galettes and I was wondering what to cook for dinner on Wednesday.)

So even though January is ending, there’s always a chance for a new beginning.

Have you ever made a fresh start that started out draining but in the end worked out empowering? Or do you need to make one and it scares you?

As a teenager/young person, I’d expected that writing would be my career, but life didn’t work out that way. Was I disappointed? Yes. Did I ever think I’d pick up that abandoned ambition? No. For a long period, it seemed impossible, and every time my dreams were nearly in my grasp again, something would take them away.

Back in 2005, my youngest child was due to start school. I was working three days per week and despite being a team-leader, had almost secured an agreement to continue that working pattern after September. Finally, I was going to have two whole days to myself to start writing! I didn’t really know what I’d write – I had a few ideas, but nothing concrete. Then… my husband became seriously unhappy at work and the chance to move into another role in Dorset rather than travel back and forth to London from Gloucestershire presented itself. He’d always wanted to go back to the south coast where he’d been a student and the job was right up his street. I quite fancied an adventure. I said ‘yes, let’s go’.

Initially however, I found the transition much harder than I’d expected. I hadn’t realised how much I’d miss my support network and how hard it would be to make a new one. I hadn’t realised quite how hard it would be to establish myself in a new role and gain respect (especially since the one I’d been given – just after a merger of two parts of my organisation – was unpopular) while still working part-time and not knowing anyone at all. And to make things worse, I couldn’t keep my proposed working pattern. I had to rush between school and work, being at work, and then as chief child carer rush the children to and from various after school activities. Any hopes of time to myself were knocked firmly on the head. 

This was a very low point in my personal plot. I wrote something about trying to explain to the post office about forwarding mail while we were selling one house, buying another, and renting an interim one. It was read aloud on Terry Wogan’s breakfast show. But that was it. Otherwise, I kept writing ‘humorous’ emails to old friends, one of whom got in touch as she thought I was losing what few marbles I had. At some point, I wrote down in the third person a story encompassing what I was going through and how it made me feel. It was cathartic, but only a few people have ever read it.

But… it was a while before I realised that from a creative point of view some things had changed for the better and that this had given me a new starting point.

With the move, I’d also left behind some of the things that were hindering me – other people’s views on what I should write in particular. And I’d learned a lot about the world and myself since I was a teenager/young adult. A kind of freedom from what other people thought made me begin again.

Around 2010, I started some stories, planned out some novels. One lunch break, I wrote down a paragraph from a possible Roman murder mystery. My dad (still living in Wales) and I started a little contest between ourselves writing silly stories. When he died in 2012, an old school friend with whom I’d lost touch turned up at his funeral. She was the kindred spirit from the school year below, with whom I made up stories and acted them out, who had the same mad imagination, who had also been a little ‘odd’. 

‘Are you still writing?’ she said. 

‘Not really,’ I said.

It turned out she hadn’t stopped. As we rekindled our friendship, she encouraged me to start again and ultimately enter a local writing competition in 2015 in which I was short listed. After that, I joined a local writers’ group.

And one evening on the way home from work, I heard someone talking about self-publishing on the radio, and I bought his book and thought ‘I could do this’. 

Then I discovered a Facebook writing group. I had no idea these existed but and after a while I worked up the courage to join and share little bits of writing.

This was now 2015, ten years after that traumatic move. What happened next was a like popping the cork on a bottle. All that pent up, frustrated creativity came pouring out. I pretty much wrote Kindling and The Advent Calendar in the space of two months while also doing Nanowrimo. Now I admit, that that particular Nanowrimo novel is still in a cyber drawer, but the following year, I published the two collections of short stories and the year after that The Cluttering Discombobulator and the year after that the Roman murder mystery paragraph I’d written in my lunch hour came out as Murder Britannica.

And it wasn’t only having the courage to write which made the difference, it was also making writer friends through the writing group and online. Friends who encouraged me, and in many cases became more than ‘virtual’ and in the case of two of them, became co-writers and very close friends indeed. Liz Hedgecock asked me to co-write The Caster & Fleet Series and Val Portelli suggested we pull some of our short stories together into an Weird & Peculiar Tales.

What does the future hold? In the immediate sense, the publication of the third Margaret Demeray book later this year I hope and maybe a longer sequel to The Good Wife. And after that on maybe not too distant a date, I’m hoping the writing shed will come into its own and I won’t be distracted by a demanding day job, but who knows… 

After all – since it’s National Story Telling Week, if you click on the link below, you’ll hear me on YouTube, somewhat hesitantly reading ‘The Familiar’, one of the first stories I wrote for ‘Kindling’. It may be a little sad as a story, but it too is ultimately about a new start. Would I have believed I’d do anything like this in 2005? Not in a million years.

So I’d like to encourage you at this new time of new beginnings, whether you’re a writer or not. If you’re stuck, or don’t think ‘it’ will ever happen (whatever ‘it’ is) please don’t give up. The time might not be ‘now’ but when it comes, it’ll be the right time somehow and ‘it’ will be the richer for it. And also, whether you think of yourself as a writer or not and things are bogging you down – consider finding a creative outlet. You don’t need to share the outcome, but writing, drawing, sewing, crafting, photography cooking… all of them are massive boosts to mental health – a way of expressing things it’s hard to say out loud.

Go for it – it’s never too late for a new beginning.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Credit for image of cats.

Once More With Feeling

Somehow it’s New Year again. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Interview with Anna M Holmes

Hi Anna – Welcome to my website. Please tell us a little more about yourself and your books?

I’m a visual writer, working on big canvases in different genres. My stories are driven by plot and character.

Originally from New Zealand I live in the U.K. with my Dutch partner. Dance, yoga, and writing are the threads that shape my life. I hold a Humanities B.A, a post-graduate diploma in Journalism and an M.A. in Dance Studies. Initially I worked as a radio journalist before a career in dance management working with U.K. Arts Councils and as an independent producer.

A documentary about pioneers of flamenco in the UK I produced and directed was screened in Marbella International Film Festival and in London. This passion project ensured a slice of cultural history has been captured. It is on YouTube, with a portal via my website. My screenplay Blind Eye, an eco-thriller, was joint winner of the 2020 Green Stories screenplay competition. This was first developed with support from Film Agency Wales before being revised and updated.  

In 2021 I had two titles published by The Book Guild:  Wayward Voyage, an historical novel inspired by pirate Anne Bonny, and Blind Eye, an environmental thriller: both adapted from my earlier screenplays. I am working on my third novel about a bog body find.

  • Do you like to reflect a sense of place in your stories? If so, how/where?

Research is the backbone of my stories. For Wayward Voyage, an historical novel set in the early 18th century, I spent two weeks on a tall ship learning to handle ropes and experience going aloft; travelled to Charleston, where my early story is set; read many history books; visited the public records archives in south London to access documents relating to governance of the Bahamas. With Blind Eye, my environmental thriller, specialists (environmental and political) advised me.

  • What prompted your latest novel/story?

We are all aware of environmental damage to our planet. Blind Eye, set in the Indonesian rainforest is about illegal logging. While a page-turner, with lots of action, it is about a serious subject. My partner is a founder member of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) promoting responsible forestry, via him I know quite a lot about this. I first wrote Blind Eye as a screenplay in 2008, then more recently realized the story deserved to be updated as both screenplay and novel. At least my novel is out in the world! 

  • What’s your earliest writing memory?

Filling exercise book after exercise book with a story about kids putting on a theatre show. I must have been around ten, and dance and performance where things I loved doing. I enjoyed reading Noel Steatfeild’s books (Ballet Shoes, Theatre Shoes) and watching black and white musical movies: Fred Astaire etc. 

  • How do you keep yourself motivated when your writing doesn’t flow?

I create an outline of my stories before I start writing. This gets more and more detailed with scene-by-scene analysis. It really helps to take an objective look at what is there and what might help, or I might remind myself of key character traits I have constructed and think about how my characters might respond in a given situation.

  • Can you visualise your characters? If so – which actors would play your two favourites?

What a fun question! I love film, and after all both of my published novels were first screenplays.  I’ll pick Susan Sarandon to play Linda in Blind Eye and I reckon Anya Taylor-Joy could cut it as pirate Anne Bonny in Wayward Voyage

Any Special Offers just now?

Yes! Heads-up!!  A free copy of either Wayward Voyage or Blind Eye is up for grabs. At the end of November, I’ll be reaching into my pirate hat to pick a name of EVERYONE subscribed to my newsletter and will announce the winner at the beginning of December. If to be delivered within the UK I’ll post a signed paperback, otherwise the winner will receive a digital version.  You can subscribe to my monthly newsletter here:

https://www.annamholmes.com/newsletter

https://www.annamholmes.com/books

Your links (Website/blog, Facebook or other Social media) 

web   https://www.annamholmes.com 

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T       @AnnaMHolmes_

Bonfire Night

(An extract from The Cluttering Discombobulator)

1974 November – I remember

And then there was the time Dad threw a firework party. 

In those days and where we lived, Hallowe’en wasn’t much of a thing. If you wanted sweets pretty much for nothing, you waited till Christmas when you could go carol singing or, on 5th November, you made an effigy out of newspaper and old clothes and trailed round the houses demanding ‘a penny for the guy’. At the end of the day, the guy would be put on top of a bonfire and set alight. Any vague sensitivities I might have had about the facts behind the tradition (I was that kind of child) were put aside for the sake of hard cash. Such was quite possibly the reality about the real Guy Fawkes’s fate too. We preferred actual sweets but even a penny wasn’t to be sniffed at since you could still get a quarter of sherbet from the post-office shop for about 10p. Or maybe you couldn’t. It’s a long time ago. 

This was the year when Mum handed over with suspicious dexterity, Dad’s most disreputable jumper and trousers to dress the guy. We made the guy a head out of a paper bag and were disappointed that Mum wouldn’t hand over one of Dad’s hats. But Mum was wise. Dad would have spotted the hat whereas he couldn’t be sure about the clothes. 

The good thing about bonfire night is that it’s in November. By the time we were hoisting the guy onto the bonfire, it was dark. Dad, squinting at its attire with a slight frown, dismissed the thought that his own wife could be so duplicitous as to sacrifice his favourite tramp dressing-up outfit. Shaking the idea out of his head, he turned to plan the firework display.

The guests were, as far as I recall, Dad’s colleagues from the office. What they made of the ascent to our road, with its double hair-pin bend I’ve no idea. So, it was November and it was dark and spitting with rain. The bonfire blazed, consuming the guy in Dad’s oldest clothes. Jane and I wrote our names in the air with sparklers. 

We all stood around in the damp cold watching Dad and a friend light fireworks. 

Every time Dad lit the blue touch-paper, we tensed in case nothing happened. Then there was a soft fzz, a brief silence followed by a gentle sizzle and a few sparks which turned into a roar and cascade of colour: Roman candles, flares and fountains spat golds and reds and greens in every direction. 

Then the rockets, fired into the starless night, higher than the roofs, higher than the mountain, exploding above our heads and cascading in shreds of silver and gold, spiralling down and down and melting into nothing. 

‘Last but not least, the Catherine wheel!’ said Dad. He nailed it to a fence post and lit the paper.  But by now the spitting rain had passed through a bad tempered drizzle and was starting to drench into everyone’s clothes.  

‘Inside the garage!’ said Dad.

The garage was huge. There was room for two cars but it had never housed any or at least none of ours because there was no room. It was full of clutter – half of it was a heavy duty version of indoors without the books.

Dad nailed the Catherine Wheel to a random piece of wood and positioned it upright using the vice on his workbench. 

He relit the fuse.

Again, there was the fzz and the pause and then with the fury of a small dragon who’s trapped his tail in a revolving door, the Catherine Wheel started to spin and spit sparks. For a couple of minutes, it lit up the open mouthed faces of the watchers. It lit up the lawnmower and the garden tools and the plant pots and the empty jars. It lit up bicycles, roller skates, the discarded doll’s pram and Mum’s 1950s ice-skates and snow shoes. It lit up the lathe, a straw archery butt, some old packing cases with newspaper in, the half finished wooden-dolls-house, the half-finished doll’s cradle, the cat basket and the abandoned ant farm.

Then the garage filled with thick, black smoke.

Coughing and scrambling, the blinded guests helped each other outside into the early stages of a downpour.

‘It’s fine,’ called Dad, ‘it’s gone out now!’

‘The thing about Robert,’ choked out one of his colleagues, ‘he’s either mad or a genius.’

‘He might be both,’ coughed the other, ‘but either way, he’s unforgettable.’

This is an extract from my book ‘The Cluttering Discombobulator‘ an amalgam of things that really happened (including this) and things that might have in my father’s imagination.

https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photo-fireworks-november-th-guy-fawkes-night-celebration-party-display-festival-image39505685

What I Did On My Holidays

Ah – the writing topic for the start of the Autumn term. Did it fill you with dread?

There were the children who’d gone something amazing (like go to Disneyland), children like us who’d gone to stay with relations or had a camping holiday and the children who’d been unable to go away at all.

I never went to Disneyland, but looking back, I know I was very fortunate. My summer holidays generally included me and my sister taking the bus into town alone (sometimes with my sister’s imaginary dog) to visit the library, and with our parents visiting relations in Berkshire or Scotland (this involved several car breakdowns as my father had poor car purchasing skills but could mend most things with duct tape) and one short (and usually disastrous) camping holiday. Mostly however, as for many children of my generation, it consisted of being thrown out of the house after breakfast to entertain ourselves all day until it went dark or it was tea-time, whichever came earlier. We lived in the countryside with woods and rivers at our disposal. We had bicycles and roller skates and there weren’t many cars in our village and there were a lot of stay at home mums, including mine, fewer than 20 children aged 5-12 and a few grumpy, sneering teenagers. I suspect it might have been a different for me and my sister if we’d lived in a city, but we didn’t.

I still have a slightly confused nasal memory which comes back every summer – the combination of woodland, burning bracken, hot earth and Dettol. I often messed about alone along the river or climbed about the old quarry or in the old ‘caves’, acted out dramas with my equally creative and out-of-the-loop friend or joined in with the other kids playing Cowboys and Indians, I was generally scratched to smithereens by brambles, rocks and tree bark by the end of the day, so my mother always had a hot bath, generously topped up with Dettol waiting to ward off any infection ready for my return. The burning bracken smell is because the naughtier boys used to set fire to it every year when it got dry, regardless of the proximity of houses. I guess it must have rained (this was South Wales after all), but I genuinely don’t recall a wet summer till I was a teenager and miserable by default.

I have no idea what the teacher expected us to describe in that first creative writing exercise of the school year but nothing I’d done felt worth writing about under the heading ‘What I did In The Holidays’. The library, relations, making sandcastles, bicycling and games seemed too boring to write about. I once tried just making something up but the teacher saw through it, possibly because she thought a combination of dragons and me rescuing anyone from mortal danger seemed unlikely (rude). It’s only looking back that it seems like there was anything magical about any of it.

However this summer (or rather early autumn) my husband and I hired a camper van in Scotland and did a tour, similar to one we’d done in 1996. Not quite the NC500, we did part of that and then went off piste. And he asked me to keep a diary – so here it is. No dragons I’m afraid, and no real excitement. No burning bracken or scabby knees, but here’s ‘What we did in our holidays’ for anyone who’s interested.

DAY ONE (1st September 2021)

(Bristol to) Edinburgh to Invergordon 180 miles (ignoring flight and going in a circle from Broxburn to Queensferry for a bit)

With three alarms going off at five am we made it to the airport in good time and arrived in unexpectedly sunny Edinburgh a bit after 8. Couldn’t pick up the van till 1, but with a large case and some tiredness, we couldn’t do much sightseeing so settled for a looong breakfast instead and then a longer hike to a bus stop than we expected, since the bus didn’t stop at the stop it was supposed to stop at and we had to walk to one by the Scottish Parliament.

Anticipating cold and trying to keep weight of the hold bag down, I was wearing a lot of layers which made me look like a bag lady.  Mark naturally looked his usual suave self. Collected van and discovered that it was last hired by Alan Cummings. (I doubt he would be interested to know we got it next.)

Got into a complete fankel after we’d started out, trying to get to the motorway with a small scale map and two sat navs that couldn’t agree. But finally! We reached the open road – or rather the bit of open road we wanted – and headed north. Just arrived at our first stop, a certified location near Invergorden and looking forward to catching up with friends who live nearby.

DAY TWO (2nd September)

Invergordon to Dunnet’s Head (88 miles)

Not sure how we managed to leave Invergordon at 11am not get to Dunnets Head till 6pm. Either maps is lying or we entered a time warp or we spent too long having a cuppa at Dunbeath and much too long in Tesco at Wick (which we visited while hungry so there’s a risk it’s empty now). Lunch included a lovely home made focaccia made by my friend. We’re looking forward to revisiting our youth with some camping style cooking tonight with a chicken curry. Husband is in charge. Perhaps I should hide the chillies…

DAY THREE (3rd September) 

Dunnet Head to Loch Eriboll (71 miles)

First stop across the North Coast was at the first town where Mark filled up with diesel and while I waited in the camper van, he went to the post office to get some cash as the next campsite was cash only. Then he came back to tell me he’d forgotten his PIN. Naturally this meant that I had to get the money out of my account instead. 

‘I’ll pay you back’ he said. 

I’m still waiting. Those of you who know him will wonder how we’ve been nearly 28 years married and I still haven’t learned. 

Next issue was when one of us (possibly me) hadn’t closed fridge properly so a plastic pot of arrabiata pasta sauce flung itself out when we went round a sharp bend and cracked. 

Crossed the north on a road which was only modernised in the late 20th century which winds itself through the dark heathery peaty landscape filled with treacherous peat bogs. It’s eerie enough now. What it must have been like 100+ years ago … I wonder how many people disappeared into the bogs? There’s an abandoned house midway which was once a welcoming place for travellers. Now it’s full of very good but rather creepy paintings. 

It felt quite good to get away from that house.

We made infinitely better time to the campsite at Loch Eribol which is so far in the middle of nowhere there was no WiFi or phone signal and we considered sending messages by pigeon, only there weren’t any. Possibly they’d been eaten by midges. We tried Durness for lunch but choices were expensive hotel (I refer you to Mark and money), a burger van and a cheese toastie van. We could have driven on a mile to Cocoa Mountain but we were too tired and hungry. We had the makings of a Greekish salad so had that overlooking the beach then returned to campsite to batten down. We watched one of the other campers wandering about in beehive kit and …. lo and behold midges arrived about 5:30 pm and bombarded the van all night. They could even get through mosquito netting so we had to shut ourselves in and eat – surprise – pasta arrabiata while they were trying to drill their way in. It’s amazing I didn’t dream of being besieged by miniature extras from the Walking Dead as that’s what it was like.

DAY FOUR (4th September)

Loch Eriboll to Altandhu via the Mad Wee Road and Ullapool 

100 miles

Got up early and prepared to leave, assuming the midges had gone off shift. Man were we wrong. Mark covered everything but his face which ended up looking like a currant bun. I was only outside briefly but had shorts on. My legs were a mass of midges in no time and looked afterwards if a toddler had decided to dot me with a felt tip. 

Breakfasted overlooking Kyle of Durness. The carpark was visited by a post office van while we were there. The van waited for some time with its doors open and parcels waiting inside. There was neither house nor post box for miles so I can only assume this was the mermaid/selkie/Loch or Brae monster delivery and the postie had to wait for them to appear and collect it.

After a drive down through lovely countryside, pausing to buy fresh local bread and cheese at Scourie, we had to make the decision whether to go ‘straight’ on down to Ullapool or attempt a loop of road which on the tourist map was described as the ‘Mad Wee Road’. It’s not especially mad and its only ‘wee’ aspect is width.

It’s steep, narrow and twisty with passing places and ‘not suitable for caravans’ so we hesitated for a bit then went for it. At passing place two of two thousand we met another camper van and wound down the windows to ask how it was. Female passenger shuddered a little then smiled. ‘Lovely scenery! You’ll be fine!’ And we were.

Stopped at Drumbeg (where the Magical Tea Gardens were closed so I never found out what was magical about them) and bought some Ullapool smoked salmon from the village shop which seemed illogical since we were going to Ullapool but hey it looked good. I said hello and made the usual British chit chat about weather and asked how things had been and the woman at the counter said it was positively quiet and she’d been rushed off her feet all summer and was quite glad of the peace and quiet. I imagine that if you live along there you probably do so because you’re not fond of hordes of people so I could understand this. 

Having survived the remainder of the road, we headed south properly, pausing to clamber about Ardreck Castle where there were signs with the demand: ‘do not poop in the dungeons like they did in 2020’. The sheep were ignoring this prohibition but I feel it wasn’t aimed at them and am as ever disgusted by some humans. After that we were on the last leg to Ullapool and since campsites are not always easy to find, put in the postcode to the car sat nav and trundled on down into the town, overtaking a convoy of crofters on small tractors who were raising money for charity. 

The car satnav is mute therefore doesn’t tell us anything audibly and we ignored its display till we arrived in Ullapool when we knew we’d need it.

I looked with delight at all the craft shops etc as we’d arrived early enough to go and mooch before settling down for the evening. Then we realised the sat nav was trying to send us back the way we’d come.

Calling it various names (none polite) we pulled over and deliberated. We finally had enough signal to look at a map on the phone. This was when Mark realised the campsite he’d booked wasn’t actually in Ullapool but in Altandhu which is on a headland north of Ullapool. Short of magic or a non existent ferry, the only way to get there was indeed to turn around, go back the way we came and drive down another twisty narrow road with passing places till we arrived. So after all, buying Ullapool smoked salmon in Drumbeg turned out to be wise as we may not get a chance to do it in Ullapool itself.  

After a drink in the bar/restaurant near the campsite – a trip to which made Mark develop a new anti midge face protection out of a clean pair of pants just in case (for himself I add & I’d rather be midged than wander about with knickers over my face), we had the old student favourite of corn beef hash à la Harmon (which is a comforting bowl of curried, savoury sludge completely unrelated to any other form of the normal recipe).  Eating a student dinner cooked by Captain Underpants – what a life of glamour I lead! Lovely view though (Loch an Alltain Dubh that is.)– 

DAY FIVE (5th September) 

Altandhu to Applecross 121 miles

Last night, Mark re-enacted our honeymoon and I’ll tell you how.  DON’T PANIC – the following is suitable to read for anyone! We honeymooned on a boat in Greece and every night we were attacked by mosquitoes. Every night I was woken in the early hours by Mark swearing, spraying insecticide and trying in vain to squash mosquitoes. This wasn’t what I’d envisaged bring woken up in the early hours for on my honeymoon for but hey, life is full of surprises. Roll forward nearly 28 years and last night Mark inadvisedly opened the van roof panel for some air as it was warm. The mosquito net was over it but the average Scottish midge can squeeze through that flimsy nonsense so husband was comprehensively midged again. They didn’t seem to like me as much. 

Cue reenactment of Kephalonia 1993 only without the insecticide and with even less chance of catching any of the little blighters, letalone squashing them. Eventually we slept again and got up after eight to start travelling. Today’s actual travel was beautiful and uneventful if a little tiring due to more single traffic roads in addition to some rain. 

Eventually we arrived safely at Applecross, where the campsite had a fish n chip van available till 8:30. We relaxed after our long wiggly drive with a quiet drink, outside the lovely Applecross Inn, looking across to Skye.

Day Six (6th September) 

Applecross to Skye 148 miles

Today was the day we deviated off the North Coast 500 and headed to Skye. 

If we’d thought the road TO Applecross the previous day was twisty and daunting, it was NOTHING to the road FROM Applecross. Views absolutely staggering even with cloudy skies as we descended via hairpin bends. Even the on board sat nav screen thought we were in Mordor. It didn’t stop a million cyclists though. The previous day they’d been slogging up or racing down in pouring rain, now (possibly the same ones after drying out) were slogging up or racing down the other side. It was, I have to say, nice to be back at sea level and less twisty roads afterwards. 

We were greeted on Skye by some fantastic rainbows. The photos just don’t do them justice. We were pretty much driving through them, but sadly no gold appeared in the van so we must have driven through the wrong bits. We stopped in Portree to find a local bakery for fresh bread, and a pharmacy to get some antihistamine cream for Mark’s midge bites (which are chiefly on his face but have yet not marred his beauty) and a camping shop to see if he could buy one of those midge proof hats with the veil. No hope on the latter as what hasn’t sold out is stuck on a lorry somewhere along with everything else this summer. This is a shame as I was looking forward to sharing a photo. After that, the weather closed in and we drove to the campsite in pouring rain and largely through a cloud. 

Last time we visited Skye (1996) it was blazing sunshine so this was disappointing but there you go. You can’t go to Scotland and expect guaranteed good weather. 

We were staying in Talisker but it was too late to visit the distillery. We did however pop down to the local inn and have a drink in the rain outside, looking into Loch Harport and watching the little lives in the water: crabs, some sort of blenny trying to make the crab go away so perhaps protecting eggs and something dark and mysterious and scuttling creature which was either a very large prawn, a baby lobster or a miniature monster. 

Giving up on all hope of sunshine or WiFi, we settled down to the smoked salmon from Ullapool with green veg, parsley sauce and mashed potatoes with spring onions/scallions for dinner. (It was my turn to cook again but Cinderfella did the washing up.)

Day Seven (7th September)

Talisker, Skye to Connel nr Oban (148 miles)

After a night of rain, we left Skye soon after 9 and headed for the mainland and hopefully some sunshine. Naturally Skye taunted us with what might have been just as we were leaving. Next time we’ll stay longer and force the sun to come out. Just over the wee bonny bridge (ok it’s bonny but not especially wee) in the Kyle of  Lochalsh was walking a very tall, slim elderly gentleman wearing a pair of plaid breeches, sturdy boots, sweater and deerstalker. I’d have thought I was hallucinating only he was also wearing a face mask. You’ll have to take my word for it as it seemed rude to photograph him. He may end up in a story so any names will be considered! 

Uneventful drive to the campsite other than watching a bridge swing which was hard to photograph and arrived early afternoon. We had considered staying a second night (as we hadn’t booked anywhere for 8th) but they didn’t have any pitches free. 

We’d intended to claim our pitch then drive into Oban but Mark was shattered from driving and we decided to stay out and unwind a bit, although first job was finding a site for the night of 8th. After that the sun came out in earnest and we were able to sit out and enjoy it. 

Midges (in smaller numbers than by Loch Eriboll) turned up at dusk and I ‘cheered’ Mark by reading out what I’d found out about midges online: ‘The female midge’s mouth parts – fine toothed mandibles and maxillae, work like two saws, cutting through the skin. The midge then excretes a saliva into the wound, which keeps the blood from coagulating, creating a pool of blood upon which to feed.’ 

Mark’s response: ‘bloody women’. 

I read the next bit: ‘some people are more “attractive” to midges than others’ and added ‘these are usually misogynists’. 

Having yet failed to find any netted hats, Mark transformed into Captain Underpants to combat them while I used a nice scarf. 

After a while, Mark also added a scarf to complete his look and ended up looking like a sartorially confused assassin. 

He unveiled himself enough to cook venison burgers (bought from a nice farm shop) for dinner accompanied by a home made un-Scottish but very nice salsa made by me. 

(For the record I’ve been midge bitten too but not reacting as much – yet.)

Day 8 (8th September)

Connel to Kilberry

A lovely sunny morning for a short dap south. 

We stopped in Oban first thing and had a wander, picking up goodies like local trout pate and cheese and mint choc crunch things from a local deli and some meat from the butcher but more importantly a midge proof hat net for Mark! (Actually we got one for me too but I’ve yet to model it. Its day will come.)

Stopped for lunch at Loch Gilphead which I mispronounced as Gill-fee-ad all the way along the journey till we arrived and saw the ‘welcome to/fáilte gu’ sign and I realised, looking at both English and Gaelic that it was Gilp-head, since it’s at the head of Loch Gilp. I might have realised sooner if I’d realised it was Loch Gilp and not Loch Glip which is what I’d read it as on the map. I really do miss my eyesight. 

Absolute highlight on the final stretch was seeing a seal perhaps 200 yards away which was totally unfazed by us taking photos. 

I tried to get it to turn to face us by making friendly seal noises. Having no idea what they might sound like, I gently called ‘eep eep’ which worked. 

So either ‘eep eep’ is seal talk meaning ‘hello’ (or possibly ‘look at me – I’m an idiot’) or more likely the seal was giving us a hard ‘is it too much for a creature to be left in peace to sunbathe without people squeaking at it insanely?’ hard stare. 

The campsite turned out to be lovely, being just off a series of beaches. 

The water was – for sea water – comparatively not freezing. People were swimming. Darn – too bad we’d forgotten our swimsuits or we could have joined them. (There were kids about or naturally we’d have skinny dipped – not.) 

We sat out  in blazing sun till it started to cool off and later in the absolute pitch dark, Mark went out with his new hat on to see if it worked. He still had a face when he returned so apparently it does.

Day 9 (9th September)

Kilberry to Livingston

More or less a transit day today so that we’d have two nights near Edinburgh ready to fly back (boo) on Saturday. We stopped in Tarbert to have breakfast and had a quick look round. What a lovely looking place. It was also where in 1098, a Norwegian king called Magnus Barefoot, who’d been told by the Scots King Edgar that he could have any bit of Scotland he could navigate a boat round with its rudder set, got his men to lug a ship from seaboard to seaboard and then sail around the rest of the Kintyre peninsula, so the southern half of the peninsula became Norwegian for a while. (The Gaelic ‘An Tairbeart‘ literally means ‘across-carrying’ or ‘portage’.)

History lesson over and now it’s music. All together now: ‘I’ll take the high road and ye’ll take the low road …’ We drove down the west side of Loch Lomond, trying to make out Ben Lomond which was being coy behind low cloud and eventually managed to find a nice spot to have lunch. This was harder than you’d think as the area was positively hoaching, something we weren’t used to! 

Then we headed towards Edinburgh avoiding Glasgow as by then it was school kicking out time and time meant we were sadly unable to stop at Stirling. 

It was a long distance from campsite  to campsite but not a particularly long journey. Most of it A roads and some of it motorway so it felt like stepping into another world entirely. We miss the twisty, narrow roads with passing places and being able to stop pretty much where we liked within reason. 

Although we did slow down (along with everyone else) when to my delight the Kelpies appeared, looming over the motorway. (I’m not sure this is terribly sensible planning as almost every car slowed down but I was glad to see them as I didn’t realise i would and had wanted to.)

‘What are those?’ said Mark.

‘Kelpies,’ I said. ‘Shapeshifting Celtic water spirits who may lure you to your doooom – devouring you and spitting your entrails out on the loch edge.’ I sighed. ‘Although I was a Kelpie when I was in Brownies and my badge had a cute little sprite on it and there was none of this luring and devouring and leaving entrails malarkey – not in MY brownie pack anyway.’

Mark laughed. ‘I’m trying to imagine you as a Brownie! Two foot nothing but knowing everything.’

‘Tsk,’ I retorted. ‘I was at least four foot when I went up to Guides.’

All along the motorway there were yellow weather warnings for heavy rain but I’m pleased to say that we were safely pitched on campsite before it started. For our thoroughly ‘healthy’ evening meal, we had a fry up of haggis, black pudding, bacon, egg with vegetables (one has to try) and mashed potatoes with spring onions, chilli and butter.

This may explain why I had odd dreams afterwards involving superheroes solving a laundry emergency and one of my characters herding penguins while heavily pregnant or maybe that’s just me.

Day 10 (10th September)

Edinburgh

Took a taxi into Edinburgh today.

It had rained all night and though dry by morning, it was overcast (though warm) and the weather forecast was for rain, so rather reluctantly we ditched the idea of shorts and sandals for jeans/leggings and boots/trainers. This proved to be a mistake. (Curse you – BBC weather forecast.) As you can see from the photos below, Mark spent the time waiting for the taxi chatting up the local birds.

The lovely (if loquacious) taxi driver told us there was a new Johnny Walker experience attraction covering 7 floors and dropped us nearby even though it wasn’t on our list. While not whisky drinkers, it might have been interesting but it looked like the cheapest ‘experience’ was £35 for 40 mins so we headed off to find the Surgeons Halls Museum which I wanted to visit. Admittedly Mark didn’t and he wasn’t too keen on looking at stuff about pathology and dissection before lunch, and as the closer we got, the further Google maps said it was, we gave up when we reached the National Museum and went in there instead. Lovely exhibition on the Galloway Hoard and I dragged Mark to one on typewriters too via exhibits on transport and communications, but by this time we were far too hot to stay indoors especially with masks on so we went for a wander round the city to try and cool down on the trail to try and find somewhere to agree on for lunch. 

After settling for somewhere we could eat outside, we wandered some more and trailed in and out of some lovely indie shops. I sat with some Earl Grey doing some writing in a lovely little tea shop for a bit and we ended up watching some street musicians play ‘Wish you were here’ with guitar, drums and bagpipes (v good), before finding our bus stop to get back to campsite. Our first bus went from ‘due’ to ‘disappeared’ in seconds but the next one arrived half an hour later and dropped us at a stop about 1.5 miles from the campsite. 

My feet were still complaining the following day about being hot and crammed into trainers all day while hiking a city but it was a lovely end to a truly lovely holiday. Our last meal was a Chinese takeaway delivered to us on the campsite. How civilised is that?!

We had a lovely time and every single person we’ve met, from random people on bus stops when we were confused, to people in shops and people pitching tents have been so absolutely lovely and friendly. 

Next time, a different area and a different route. But there will definitely be a next time.

PS – the midge bite itch have started to kick in…. aargh!

Where to Begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s the historical background.

Then there’s the story inspiration. 

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

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

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

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

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

DEATH IN THE LAST REEL

‘Stop standing in the way of bullets.’

‘I will if you will.’

Does the camera ever lie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Novel Idea

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

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

It’s hard to answer either.

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

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

This was where my confession comes in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I was consumed by guilt. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes they can!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ID 201797590 © Chrissiecreative | Dreamstime.com

Father’s Day with Roderick

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine years have passed, and hearts can heal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Underdog

Nancy sat back in her seat. As the music soared, she smiled. There had been nothing else she could have done. 

She had got her revenge.

***

The years might never have passed. The tall arrogant woman marched into the hall with her entourage, finding fault with everything from the decor to the spotlighting and Nancy recognised her immediately. 

Forty years had passed. But Tina was still thin, almost cadaverous, her hair, presumably greying, was coloured and in a different style but similar – close cropped emphasising her angled features and grey eyes. She still had virtually no figure, this woman who had laughed at Nancy’s early puberty and had rounded up the other girls to point and snigger and make snide remarks about bras and periods. Tina still didn’t look as if she needed a bra. Still looked as if whatever she wore would be elegant. But instead of softening over time, the arrogance had set in her face, so that it was impossible to look at her in the flesh and think she was beautiful, even though her publicity photographs make her look that way.

Tina didn’t recognise Nancy. Why would she? Doubtless Tina forgot her the moment she changed schools, while Nancy cried for months into her pillow, still suffering the fall-out of being ostracised for so long. 

Tina’s legacy meant that after she left, no-one would pick Nancy for teams, though she was swift and capable to start and then, deafened by jeering, eventually became clumsy, lost confidence and slowly gave up. 

Even after all this time, any sort of team game involving a sport filled her with dread, even when it was just for fun – colleagues teasing her, instructing her how to throw a bowling ball – she could feel the tension rising, the sick terror of letting her team down.

Doubtless if anyone had asked Tina about Nancy, she wouldn’t have remembered her at all. Or maybe she would think back to some little girl who cried all the time, the one she nicknamed Guinea Pig. She probably sought someone else to torment the moment she moved to the other school.

Now, forty years later, here she was looking round for someone to blame and her eyes fell on Nancy, ‘I suppose you’re the organiser. Is this the best you can do with this place?’

The hall was immaculate, tastefully decorated with flowers in the colours specified in the brief, the drapes changed to co-ordinate and held back with elegant double cord.

‘That spotlight: it’s far too harsh. How can you expect me to perform under that?’

‘It can be adjusted’ Nancy said, ‘so the brightness won’t stop you from concentrating.’

‘Hardly that, some of us are professional.’ She looked Nancy up and down and found her wanting, ‘But I require a diffused effect. You need to sort it out or I’m you will have to explain to the audience that your incompetence led to the concert being cancelled.’

Ah – the diffused effect. Forty years may not have changed her very much, but the little change did include a lot of fine lines, exacerbated perhaps by smoking and certainly by scowling.

Nancy went off to see what could be done, gritting her teeth as she heard Tina say quite clearly ‘these minions have no idea. Can you imagine getting to her age and still having such a miserably unimportant job.’

In the corridor between the stage door and the stage was all Tina’s luggage and professional equipment. Nancy’s eye fell on her violin and her heart went cold.

It was not the same of course, it couldn’t be. The case was smart and new, the violin must be significantly more valuable – but it brought back that memory anyway.

Two nine year old girls by the coats and bags getting ready for their music lesson. 

Nancy’s violin, the cheapest available, bought with loving optimism by her parents who couldn’t really afford it: a wasted gift as she had no real talent for it. 

And Tina’s violin, easily twice the price or maybe more – that was what she told them anyway, in a shiny hard black case. It was probably the only thing that Tina had loved. Perhaps it still was. And she could play. She really could. Whatever else you said about her, you couldn’t deny that she could play.

As Nancy had reached for hers, she knocked against Tina and the expensive violin in its case fell to the floor. Tina whirled on her. She was usually controlled in her viciousness, but this time she had lost it completely – hammering into Nancy with fists and kicking her shins.

‘If you’ve damaged it, I’ll kill you!’ she growled. ‘You pathetic little bitch.’

And Nancy had finally had enough. She took stopped protecting her face and started hitting and kicking back, until Tina landed a blow in her stomach knocking her to the floor. 

Scrambling to her feet, Nancy picked up a shoe and threw it hard… just as the head teacher turned the corner.

Tina’s violin, padded in its case had been fine of course, but Nancy was given detention.

Now, Nancy staring at Tina’s latest violin, feeling the humiliation from all those years before well up in her and feeling ashamed. Hadn’t she changed since then? Hadn’t the bitterness receded? Hadn’t she learnt how to forgive and move on knowing that otherwise the bullies would have won and destroyed her whole life?

The music producer came up behind her as she was lost in thought.

‘That woman is a nightmare.’ he said in despair. ‘How such wonderful music could come out of such a hard hearted…’

‘Is it wonderful?’ Nancy answered without thinking. ‘It always sounds a bit soul-less to me. Technically fantastic but missing emotion.’

The music producer thought for a while. ‘You might just be right. But she’s the best I’ve got on the books at the moment. She’s just gone to brief her team. Half an hour of peace and quiet.’

Nancy glanced towards the open stage door and remembered something. Hesitating only slightly, she picked up Tina’s violin case and grabbed the producer’s arm. ‘Come with me’ she said.

Round the corner was the busker, a young man with a battered violin. When Nancy had passed him earlier that morning, he was manfully playing even though one of the strings had broken. 

She loved to hear him every day, and when she could, she stopped to drop coins and give him a smile of encouragement. He had got to recognise her and smiled when she passed and she would wave in response.

He was having a break when Nancy and the producer turned up, stretching his arms and sipping water.

‘Hello,’ said Nancy, opening Tina’s violin case. ‘Show this man what you can do.’

‘You can’t…’ said the producer and the busker together.

‘Yes I can. She owes me,’ Nancy said firmly, ‘and I know you won’t damage it. I just want you to show this man how you can play. We’ve got about ten minutes.’

Hesitantly, the busker took the violin. He handled it as if it was Venetian glass, but turned it over and inspected it, then checked its tuning, nodding his head in appreciation. 

‘Nice fiddle,’ he summed up, and raised it under his chin.

He played a lively dance and then a slow sad song and finally a thoughtful, hopeful piece with notes fading away until they disappeared under the noise of the city around them.

‘Yup,’ he concluded, ‘very nice fiddle.’ He handed it back. ‘But it’s not mine.’ He grinned and picked up his battered old violin and started to play, skilfully managing with his three remaining strings.

Nancy started back to the hall with Tina’s case, but the producer stayed behind. She glanced back and saw him listen enthralled, waiting for the moment he could start negotiations.

She just got the violin back in time. Tina was storming through and spotted her standing near to it, just straightening up. ‘If that’s been damaged, I’ll blame you.’ she snapped, snatching it up.

The concert went well. Everyone said it was a triumph. The set and lighting were perfect for the star. The press reports said ‘it was hard to imagine the star was in her forties, she looked so youthful, with her slim figure and the silvery light around her fine features.’ The music press however reported that ‘although wonderful, her performance sometimes feels as if it lacks emotion.’

But a new star was in the ascendant. A young man whose playing could make your mood change from tears to joy to laughter to contemplation until you were a whirl of emotions. A young man with a battered violin, crossing the divide between classical and modern, with a cheeky smile and a wink in the right places.

When he held his first concert at her venue, Nancy sat back in her seat. There had been nothing else she could have done. She had got her revenge – she had exposed the bully and helped the underdog. 

And as the music soared, she smiled.

Words copyright 2016 & 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.Photo 32176429 © Alisbalb | Dreamstime.com