Why Choose A Woman?

In March I was involved in a literary festival, both as an organiser and as a contributor. One of the things I did was to talk about suspense fiction with Helen Matthews and Katharine Johnson. At the end, we opened the floor to the audience. Here are some of the questions, and some of the answers I gave. Feel free to ask me more!

Why choose a woman as a main character in eras when women couldn’t do much? Wouldn’t a man’s life be more exciting?

Who says? Just because until fairly recently, history portrays women (if mentioned at all ) as weak, ineffectual, sentimental, irrational, puppets or playthings, the epitome of purity or full of evil intent, does that mean they really were? History may record queens who changed the destinies of whole countries for good or ill, but there were other women, whose names tend to be forgotten, who made strides in science and arts (see list below), many of these came from very humble beginnings. They climbed mountains and traversed deserts, unhindered by long skirts and corsets. They were private detectives, social reformers, physicians. Why don’t we hear about them from contemporary writers? Perhaps because the writers were mostly men. Maybe those men feared or reviled powerful women or perhaps just simply weren’t interested in writing adventures involving them. Weak? Ineffectual? Not a bit of it. I want to celebrate the sort of women who really existed – not especially important in the greater scheme of things but full of life, intelligence, spirit and determination – and give them something more exciting to do than wait for their menfolk to come home from an adventure.

Why did you decide to write about particular eras?

Partly there’s so much potential. By the late second century in Britain of the Murder Britannica series, the Britons in my books have a degree of political control, and are undoubtedly enjoying everything the Empire has to offer: new foods, easier trade routes, the chance for their sons to join the army and travel and come back with citizenship and wealth. The Empire isn’t as rotten as it will be, even if the Emperor is bonkers. And in Western Britain there’s a reasonable chance you can get away with a little more (and have some fun) if you keep your head down a little.

The late Victorian era of Caster and Fleet is one where women are starting to flex muscles of independence. Careers are starting to open up Nursing has become respectable. A university education (if not a degree) is possible. The bicycle has revolutionised the lives of anyone who can afford one and train travel is affordable for many, opening up the country to people whose ancestors had barely moved five miles for generations. So what does that mean for two young women who can maybe get away from chaperones long enough to investigate crime? Will they rise to the challenge or be held back by convention?

By the late Edwardian era of the Margaret Demeray series, things have moved on again, the old age pension, national insurance and paid holidays are being introduced. But the popular images of the times (often called the Golden Era), full of glamorous elegant clothes and bright parties and rapidly developing innovations like aeroplanes and cinema, contrast violently with a dark underbelly of misery and discord among the poor, the increasing militancy of the suffrage movement, discontent about immigration and working conditions, so there’s a lot to throw at a woman who’s neither rich nor poor, who knows rich people and works among poor people, who wants the vote and social reform but has to decide what price she’ll pay to get it.

Do you ever feel conflicted about what’s going on in an era you’re writing about?

Yes it’s difficult not to be anachronistic about things which sit uncomfortably.

Slavery. Slavery in Roman times was an economic normality – no one would have questioned it at all. It was not a matter of race, but of conquest and also occurred among many of the local peoples of the Empire whether the Romans were there or not. It was unfair and mostly cruel, and a slave was without any form of basic human rights. It was a different sort of slavery to the kind which we tend to think of now. If a slave was freed, there was no social barrier to getting on in life. It was quite possible (and happened) for the grandson of a freed slave to become Emperor regardless of ancestry. However it was still slavery.

The British Empire in the later books. The Caster & Fleet series is set at perhaps the Empire’s heyday, in the Margaret Demeray series, twenty years later, cracks are starting to show, but an average subject in Great Britain might not have noticed. British actions in the Boer War were internationally condemned though how much of this filtered down to the general public is uncertain. The Indian independence movement was gaining ground, and of course the Irish Question was still waiting for an answer. As a modern person, it’s impossible not to feel an abhorrence for the jingoism of the late 19th/early 20th century, lauding the glories of an Empire the wealth of which was built on the suffering of people from across its many nations and which treated native peoples as second or even third class citizens in their own countries. It’s also hard to stomach the way the British government played cat and mouse with the Irish people less than a hundred years after the potato famine had been so woefully handled and probably in living memory of some of the survivors. Margaret and her sister Katherine can see a lot of this for themselves, but it’s unlikely that they’d have viewed it with exactly the same disdain that I do nowadays.

Are your characters’ conflicts ones you recognise for yourself?

Lucretia’s aren’t. She’s stinking rich and I’m not sure she’d recognise an internal conflict unless it hit her on the head and robbed her of her money. She had one once, but she’s long buried it. Or maybe she had two… Tryssa perhaps – having to decide whether to tackle Lucretia and rake up old memories for the sake of the truth, and then having to decide whether or not to move away from the only home she’s known – I can relate to that.

Margaret’s situation is much more relatable. She’s a career woman who in the third book has also recently become a mother. Combining a job she wants to excel at with a family she loves and never quite feeling like she’s giving her best to either, is something I remember very well.

Which character is most like you?

As other authors will say, most of my characters contain aspects of myself. But in terms of who’s most like me, in personality Katherine probably is – she’s a coper whom everyone thinks is confidant but who actually isn’t and who wishes people noticed when she’s struggling. In terms of size, shape and looks, I’m like Lucretia – short, plump, middle-aged. On the other hand, Lucretia wears three inches of make-up and is completely self-deluded. Sometimes, I think it would be quite nice to be self-deluded! But I couldn’t be doing with the make-up.

If you’d been there, what questions would you have asked about my books?

Lesser known women of note

Artists:

Artemisia Gentileschi

19th Century British Female Artists

Sarah Biffin

Female Mathematicians

19th Century Female Mountaineers

Victorian Female Private Detectives

Female Scientists

Women in Medicine

Women Explorers

Women in the Civil Service

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image credit https://pixabay.com/vectors/woman-thinking-sitting-desk-41201/

Bones, Stones and Long, Long Roots

Today, my husband and I dug up two old bones.

One was definitely some sort of leg joint, the other, which had snapped, was harder to distinguish. ‘I assume they’re not human,’ I said, dubiously.

For the record, we weren’t on an archaeological dig, but clearing a part of the garden which was once thought of as a bit of No Man’s land between us and the house behind, until the house behind wanted to do some building work and everyone looked at their deeds and realised the No Man’s land was actually ours. 

Equally for the record, I’m not talking massive country estates or old manor houses here. Our house is an average sort of house and the oldest bits of it are from the 1950s, prior to which acres and acres of land around us, now covered in houses, was farmland. But the boundaries for our house are so inexplicably and unnecessarily complicated, the solicitor spent two hours explaining them to us when we bought the house.

No one in their right mind would call me a natural, enthusiastic or good (or even adequate) gardener but there’s something about doing battle with hidden roots, identifying what to keep and what to dig up, and nurturing the new things I’ve planted, that helps my mind do much the same to any plot problem. What do I need to remove that’s killing the thing I need to live? What needs more care? What looks like a weed but is in fact something useful and precious? Or vice versa. So I’ve been enjoying putting my back into something different over the last couple of weeks, to help straighten things out creatively in my subconscious.

I’ve found working on the current ‘work in progress’ hard, because it’s part of a series set in the run up to World War I and naturally, right now, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels between the tensions in the 1910s and what’s happening in 2022. I consequently decided a while ago, to change to a slightly different tack – removing most of the international sabre-rattling and worse that were the background to a plot set in 1913 because it felt far too much like what is going on just now. 

But of course this put me back and meant removing perhaps thirty thousand hard-written words. It also meant I needed to review the backdrop to my story, which is now what on the surface appears to be a slightly calmer 1912. 

Maybe this was unnecessary (and the excised work won’t be wasted) but it feels right to me.

But it’s not all bad. Whatever the era, for most people, most of the time, while the things to worry about range widely from impending international crises to what to have for dinner, for most people, most of the time, the latter is higher up the list of importance, largely because it’s easier to control. Otherwise, at the point when the crisis directly impacts on us, we would not have the mental or physical resources to handle it.

I’m reminded of the letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during WWII which I ‘inherited’. He was in his forties and working in a reserved occupation in central London during the day and a Home Guard at night. My grandfather stayed in the family home in London, while my grandmother took my father (then about two) to live with relations in the countryside. (My mother’s family did something similar, but that’s another story.) My grandfather wrote to my grandmother about all sorts of things. He rarely mentioned the war at all. This stops me from trying and cram every significant historical event into a book, because at any given time, people don’t always realise which events are significant and often give many of them more than a passing thought or moment of interest.

In the period covered by the book I’m working on, the enquiry into the sinking of the Titanic has just begun and over five hundred households in Southampton are mourning a family member due to the disaster. The latest in a series of major strikes across the country is one by East End garment workers. Meanwhile, the Royal Flying Corps has started up as a branch of the armed forces and warplanes are being constructed. Suffragettes are stepping up the militancy of their campaign for the vote. So far, so gloomy.

On the plus side the National Insurance Act is about to be passed, which will ultimately put an end to the need for workhouses. And on the ‘moving forward if nothing else’ side, the Home Rule Bill has been passed in the Commons as a stepping stone towards Ireland’s long-awaited independence.

On the plus plus side, the Stockholm Olympics are on, and Britain wins ten golds, fifteen silver and sixteen bronze. British female athletes win medals in tennis, diving and swimming. 

And on the plain ridiculous front, one of the Olympiad events is Tug-of-War, in which only two teams competed. A team of Stockholm police from the host nation Sweden are up against a British team comprising London police (five from the City of London Police and six from ‘K’ (Stepney) division of the Metropolitan Police). The game ends when the British team succumb to exhaustion and sit down, thereby conceding defeat.

In the book, my characters are ordinary people whose lives are trundling along peacefully (with the possible exception of Fox’s life) until something happens to derail them. 

Some of them – Margaret Demeray and Fox in particular of course – are more informed than others. Some characters are more reliable and honest than others. Many read about current things in the paper and then largely forget them. Others don’t read about them at all. People get up, go about their daily duties, go to bed. Some lose someone or something. Some grieve. Some fight. Some heal. Some commit crime. Others solve crime. They fall in love, they bring up families, they laugh and play. They all wonder what’s for dinner. 

(Not all the same people are doing all those things at once of course. That would be very exhausting.)

While most of the ‘events of 1912’ above will have a mention in the book, only a few will have a personal significance to any of the characters. The key thing will be that someone, somewhere is dead before their time and Margaret and Fox need to find out why and do something about it.

I’m sometimes asked why I enjoy writing and reading murder-mysteries when I’m naturally a peaceful sort of person. The answer is that I think there is something in the psyche of most of us that enjoys reading something where we can face our fears in a fictional format and see justice to some extent being done. To me, that perhaps explains murder-mysteries’ popularity and certainly explains why I like reading and writing them. Why historical murder mysteries? That’s a whole other subject.

So it was helpful to root through these thoughts as I dug up weeds and brambles and endured the stings of nettles on my hands and arms. (No, I didn’t save any nettles to make soup and yes my arms are still tingling.)

But none of the thinking got No Man’s land cleared. 

I threw another long, unidentified and unwanted root into the composting bag, while my husband contemplated the bones.  

‘I don’t think these are human,’ he said, scanning me from head to foot and clearly doing a mental comparison of what might have be a femur in his hand and my (rather short) leg. ‘But I gather there was a piggery here once, and pigs will eat anything. Who knows? Mwhahahaha!’

‘It’s no good offering that to me as a plot suggestion,’ I said. ‘It’s been done.’

‘Meh,’ said my husband, chucking what was hopefully nothing more sinister than someone’s dog’s long lost treasure on the pile of non compostable stuff.

‘Why can’t we find something useful that might earn us some money?’ I complained. ‘Like an Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold coins? Or a Roman mosaic?’

‘I don’t fancy digging that deep,’ he muttered. ‘And you never will, you slacker. Come on – get back to nettle-pulling or there’s no wine for you later.’

So I did.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image from Pixabay. (No, it’s not my garden!)

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

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

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

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

Series or Standalones?

As a reader, I like a variety. 

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

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

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

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

Below Thirty or Over Forty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private Eye or Regular Citizen?

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

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

Small Town or Big City?

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

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

Contemporary or Historical?

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

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

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

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

Saves The Day or Gets Saved?

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

Birds or Snakes?

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

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

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

What about you? How would you answer?

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

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.

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?

TO PRE-ORDER THE EBOOK – CLICK ON THIS LINK

What’s Going On?

‘Where now?’ said the taxi driver.

‘I’m not sure,’ said Margaret.

‘What’s happening?’ whispered Nellie. ‘What’s going on?’

It’s a good question.

After fourteen months in some form of lockdown, things are changing. Within a couple of days, I’ve gone from not having any face-to-face ‘dates’ in my calendar to adding five meet-ups during July and August. 

After all this time being a hermit, it’s a little daunting. 

At work, I started a new role in January and have had to learn it remotely, longing for the ability to whisper in a colleague’s ear ‘what’s going on?’ when things got confusing (which is a lot of the time). 

But recently, despite having to book a socially-distanced desk through a matrix (rather than pitch up and squeeze between other people wherever there’s a laptop-sized gap as we used to do) some of my colleagues returned to the office. 

On that day, our daily team-meeting took place with most of us (provincial members like me) on Teams and four (ones living in or near London) in the office. I felt a pang of nostalgia for the commute, and even Croydon. I thought how nice it will be when I can finally catch up with my work friend in person and go for a cup of tea and debrief, rather than do it over Teams, which really isn’t the same.

I imagine it’s not too many months before I’ll go back too. And while one of the downsides will be that I’ll have to dress properly (rather than wear a smart top and a scruffy pair of leggings because people can only see me from the waist up) I’m hoping by the time I do, I won’t want to whisper ‘what’s going on?’ anymore, because I’ll know.

In my non-work world, despite being a bank holiday weekend, the rain has stopped and the sun has come out. Perhaps since I no longer feel like I’m in an aquarium, my mood has shifted to the positivity that can only happen when a British writer of a certain age can dry three loads of laundry on the line and feel like the work-in-progress is back under some sort of control. 

I paused work on it yesterday afternoon just before the above snippet. 

Things had taken an unexpected turn because Margaret has fifteen year old Nellie with her when this wasn’t in the original plan. Consequently, I later fell asleep wondering where she ought to tell the taxi driver to take them next, for which I needed to consult a map.

Perhaps in consequence of this uncertainty and/or because of clams in my dinner, I dreamed that I met one of the people I’ve made plans to meet (she knows who she is) and she was running amok: leaping over railway ticket barriers, being rude to officials, demanding food and excursions and generally not being the law-abiding, refined individual she usually is. 

(Of course, since I haven’t met her in person in the last fourteen months, this may be her new normal.)

Shaking that dream out of my head when I woke, I got up and worked on the next bit of the work-in-progress until about eleven a.m my time. 

It’s 4 p.m. for Margaret and she needs to be somewhere else at 5 p.m. I’d got her to the first stop to offload Nellie and she’s been asked again: ‘What’s going on?’ to which she has to answer ‘I wish I knew.’

I needed to stop there for a bit of thinking time. So in the spirit of the era, and because we needed something for lunch, I went off to cook some nibbles from ‘The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book’. I don’t know why Margaret’s recipe didn’t get in there, as the ones that did are every bit as vague as hers might be. I had to do a fair amount of guessing of measurements, temperatures and timings with the ‘Egg Patties’ although a little less with ‘Chocolate Macaroons’ but they turned out all right and with a bit of tweaking, I’ll make them again.

Of course, life being what it is, I never got back to the work-in-progress today. 

Margaret is still stuck in… (clues below) and she’ll have to wait until tomorrow (my time) to (hopefully) get to her appointment at 5 p.m (her time) and deal with… you’ll have to wait and see.

Whether I can do this before or after work is yet to be seen. 

Thankfully for Margaret (and unlike me in my new role) I do know what’s going on in the story. I just need to get Margaret to the point when she does.

***

WHERE IS MARGARET DROPPING NELLIE? The following paragraph will not be in the final book. But may give you a clue if you know where Connie from the Caster & Fleet series ended up living and where a certain Mr Holmes may have met the woman of his dreams. In 1911 that woman might now be a little older, but after all, what’s age to crime-busting?

‘Who are you waving to?’

‘That’s my friend Connie’s house. She’s a REAL Lady Detective.’

‘Coo! Like that Caster & Fleet who get in the papers?’

‘Funny you should say that. Oh and…’

‘Who you waving at now?’

‘Mrs Holmes – she’s a Lady Detective too.’

‘She looks a bit .. what’s that word … menopausal.’

‘They’re the best sort of detectives. Don’t take any nonsense and if you mess them when they’re having a hot flush, they’re likely to grabble you to the ground and tie your limbs in a reef knot before you can say knife.’

‘I can’t imagine being that old. To be honest, I can’t imagine being as old as you – begging your pardon, doctor – but one day, I want to be that scary.’

‘Good for you, Nellie. You’re a girl after my own heart.’

Words and all photographs bar that of the fox copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Fox photograph: Photo 31122236 / Fox © J Vd | Dreamstime.com

Sisters, Sisters (chatting with the Demerays)

My own sister was born when I was three and a half. My delight wore off when I realised she was getting more attention than I was.

She had dark brown hair and big brown soulful eyes. I was mousy and sulky looking. She seemed good at making friends, I was rubbish at it. She, despite being a tomboy, was given pretty frilly clothes. I, despite being a romantic daydream, was given practical ones. Was I jealous of her? Yes. Were we close as children? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Whenever we shared a bedroom, I’d tell her or read her stories. When there was a thunderstorm, she’d climb into bed with me. When bullies picked on me, she’d offer to beat them up. Otherwise, except in the holidays, the gap was too large to cross for us to be close.

It wasn’t until we were twenty-two and nineteen, when she moved from the family home to start her first job, that we ended up sharing a house and became closer. We could argue without anyone going off in a sulk or feeling misunderstood – they were honest, open arguments which we worked through until we had a win-win resolution.

I think she’s dippy. She thinks I’m bossy. But it doesn’t matter.

I know we’re both extremely lucky in this regard. I know plenty of siblings who can’t say the same. But as for us, my sister is one of my very best friends. One day, we’ll go on a mad-old-lady road trip together. Although I’m not entirely sure which I trust least: her driving or her navigating…

All this got me thinking about two of my characters who are sisters. I’m working on the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die at the moment which will be called Death in the Last Reel. The main character, Margaret Demeray ‘started out’ (in a book sense), as the annoying younger sister of Katherine Demeray in The Case of the Black Tulips which I co-wrote with Liz Hedgecock. The gap between these two sisters is nearly nine years. By the time it’s 1911, they are very close but maybe it wasn’t always so. The following is a bit that didn’t make it past the editing for book 2 though it may get into book 3, where something Fox says reminds Margaret of a moment from her childhood:

***

When Margaret had been aged seven, the family went on holiday in the New Forest. Running off on her own, she’d found a perfect, climbable young oak, just waiting for her. She removed her shoes and stockings, knowing any damage to them might give her away afterwards, then climbed.

Thirty years later, she recalled the bark scraping her bare legs, the ache in her arms and the freedom of feeling hidden in the leaves with no one to tell her what to do. She saw Aunt Alice and Katherine hunt for her, their voices anxious and strained. ‘Meg! Meg! Where are you?’

It was Katherine who spotted the shoes and stockings at the bottom of the tree and peered up into the branches. ‘Come down this instant!’

‘No!’

‘Come down!’

‘Oh Kitty, you come up. It’s marvellous!’

But Katherine refused. She’d stood there hands on hips, with the all the dignity a sixteen year old can manage, looking snippy.

At the time, Margaret had been convinced that her big sister had wanted to climb the tree but was too boringly absorbed in being nearly grown-up to let herself try.

But now that Margaret thought back with an adult mind, Katherine’s remembered face was not so much angry as hurt and terrified.

***

So, thinking about this and because I’ve got a small request at the end, I thought I’d interview both Katherine and Margaret to see how they’re similar or different, and what they both remember of the incident in the New Forest.

It’s January 1911

What is your full name? Do you have a nickname (if so, who calls you this)?

Katherine: Katherine Mathilda King née Demeray. My immediate family call me Kitty sometimes. Not my husband though.

Margaret: Margaret – I’m not telling anyone till I have to – Demeray. Only my father, sister and aunt call me Meg. 

Where and when were you born?

Katherine: Fulham, 4th May 1865

Margaret: Fulham, 16th January 1874

Where do you live now, and with whom?

Katherine: In a house in Bayswater with my husband James, 16 year old son Ed and four domestic staff.

Margaret: In a flat in Bayswater with my cat Juniper.

What is your occupation?

Katherine: I’m a private investigator working with Connie Lamont.

Margaret: I’m a pathologist in St Julia’s Chest Hospital for the Poor.

How would you describe your childhood? How much schooling have you had?

Katherine: Our mother died when I was fifteen. Until then everything was very happy. But then our father took me out of school on the grounds that a middle-class girl didn’t need a formal education as she’d never need to work, she just needed to find a husband. He continued teaching me at home but it was very eclectic and patchy as he tended to go off for months on his travels. Aunt Alice took over as much of our nurture as she could. She was only in her early thirties and I now realise she set aside any matrimonial hopes to help raise us. I fear I gave her a hard time but I was heartbroken about losing Mother and bitter about leaving school. 

Margaret: I was six when Mother died and I barely remember her. Father, while good fun sometimes, always seemed very distant. As Katherine says, he was forever going off to do research for his books and when I was thirteen, he disappeared for years and we thought he was dead. I gave Aunt Alice a hard time too. She seemed so very determined we be ladylike and it was so very dull. I can’t thank Katherine enough for arguing the case for my staying on at a good school till I was eighteen, and when Father disappeared and the money started to run out, asking our uncle to pay the fees.

Did you ever climb trees as a little girl?

Katherine: no. But I remember Margaret doing it. It was less than a year after Mother had died and Father took us to the New Forest, then retreated into his room to write his books. We were all so miserable. And then one day, Margaret disappeared. She was only little. I thought someone had abducted her or she might be lying injured somewhere and we’d never find her again and that would be another person lost to me. It was one of the worst few hours of my life.

Margaret: I’d forgotten that completely until recently. I can only say that at the time I just too young to realise how anyone else might feel. I suppose I was partly running from all the grief that was dragging us down which I couldn’t understand or manage. All I can remember of that day is feeling free for a while – light – as if a weight had dropped. To be honest, it was one of the best few hours of my life. I’m really sorry.

Did you have any role models?

Katherine: I had people I didn’t want to be like. I didn’t want to be as diffident as Aunt Alice or as judgmental as Aunt Leah but… actually my role model was our lodger Mina Robson. Her life had gone a bit wrong, but she just picked herself up and did something rather than wait for someone to rescue her. She quietly gave me the courage to do the same when I decided to find a job against Aunt Alice’s wishes.

Margaret: I could name any number of famous female doctors, but the honest truth is that Katherine is my role model. If she hadn’t had the courage to get a job and then start working with Connie, I daresay I’d have settled for trying to find a rich husband rather than think a woman could do anything more interesting and then doing it.

When did you have your first kiss, and who with?

Katherine: proper kiss? It was with my husband James when I was 25.

Margaret: I’m not telling but I certainly didn’t wait till I was 25.

What is your greatest fear? 

Katherine: failing the people I love.

Margaret: losing the people I love.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Katherine: nice clothes. We went through a long time of having to alter old dresses and trying to change a skirt designed for a 1880s bustle to a simpler 1890s style was no mean feat. I don’t know what we’d have done without Aunt Alice.

Margaret: Yes. Nice clothes all the way. And hats. And handbags. And shoes.

Would you be able to kill? 

Katherine: No.

Margaret: to protect someone or stop an evil? Yes. I wouldn’t want to, but I think I could.

What three words would others probably use to describe you?

Katherine: determined, short and (unfortunately) carroty-haired

Margaret: principled, fiery and (if you ask Fox) impetuous

What smells do you associate with your childhood?

Both: Ada’s baking!

Katherine: no-one made cakes like she did.

Margaret: Even thinking of it now makes my mouth water. Come on Kitty, let’s find a tea-shop.

***

Now it’s your turn:

Questions sought! 

Liz Hedgecock and I would love to do a Q&A about the Caster & Fleet series. For this – we need some Qs of course.

We’d love to know from anyone who’s read the books whether you have any burning questions about the process, the plots, the spin-offs – serious, curious or plain silly. Please either comment below or email me at paula@paulaharmon.com. (In case you don’t know: we have six books in the original series which is set in 1890s London, featuring Katherine Demeray and Connie Swift, plus a Christmas novella. We got so involved in our books that we individually took two side-characters and decided to find out what happened to them in spin-off series. I just have one in the Margaret Demeray series (so far – hoping the second will be out later this year) set in the 1910s and Liz now has four in the Maisie Frobisher series set in the 1890s. All are available on Amazon.)

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon.

Photograph – https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-two-women-car-image52012634

All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Of Rags and Richness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welsh costume

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

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

 

Make Do and Bend

Thanks to my father’s eccentric views on store cupboard necessities and general tidiness, I can make a meal out of pretty much anything using a workspace barely big enough for a dinner plate.

He taught me to experiment with recipes and cuisines, while my mother taught me to cook from scratch. So all in all, I’m well set for making edible, if sometimes odd, meals out of whatever I’ve got to hand.

But – that’s not to say I always want to. 

Last Thursday was one of those days. In fact last Thursday was one of those days when I didn’t want to do anything at all. 

Feeling positive and upbeat in the coronavirus world seemed as impossible a task as putting ten people in a lift and telling them to socially distance themselves.

Things that pushed me over the edge:

  • Waiting for ages in the pharmacy
  • An irritating working day when the work laptop kept crashing
  • Knowing it would be the weekend before I could get on with editing my novel which had been in the process thereof forever
  • Missing my son who’s fifty miles away
  • Worrying about my sister and niece who are both in the nursing profession.

On Thursday, I just had enough of feeling positive. What I wanted to do was throw the work laptop out of the window and delete my novel. What I most didn’t want to do was make another wretched meal. What I really wanted to do was stomp to the hotel and order one instead. 

Only of course, the hotel and every other eating establishment in the country is shut for the duration. 

Perhaps I’d burnt out my cooking mojo over the previous seven days. I’d made some very inauthentic but tasty ‘pakoras’. I’d made some even less authentic but tasty ‘samosas’ (they were more sort of curried vegetable pasties really). I’d made some successful flatbreads despite having only half the right ingredients. I could argue that I’d had no imagination left to put into anything, but actually I’d just had enough.

I suggested we ordered an Indian take-away. My husband pulled a face. ‘What were we going to have if we don’t get a take-away?’ he said. 

‘Stir-fried pork and stir-fried whatever veg is in the bottom of the fridge and egg-fried rice,’ I said.

‘Yum,’ he said. ‘That sounds much nicer than take-away. We’ll have that.’

‘But it takes longer to prepare than it takes to cook and eat,’ I argued. ‘And there are always so many cooking utensils involved in stir-fries.’

I’ll cook it then,’ he said. 

The thought of that was even worse. Where I can use three utensils, he can use ten. Plus he puts enough extra chilli and soy-sauce in his stir-fries to fill the kitchen with high-blood-pressure-inducing toxic fumes.

In the end, I said I’d cook it after all and sent him off on his daily walk while I sliced the living daylights out of some rather limp vegetables until I felt marginally better.

These are peculiar times when the whole structure of the normal lives of most of the world’s population utterly changed more or less simultaneously (give or take some governments’ prompt responses to the situation or lack thereof). 

The skies are now clearer than they’ve been for decades, maybe in some parts of the world, for over a century. And yet none of us knows if at any time, we might catch somehow the virus, whether or not we’ll be badly affected and either way, whether we’ll unwittingly pass it on to someone else who might subsequently die. 

Not being able to eat out, not being able to buy a specific ingredient aren’t really very important in themselves, many people can’t usually – but they’re reminders that life is not normal, that hospital staff like my sister and niece have to dress up like spacemen to work, that there’s nowhere anyone can go to ‘get away from it all’, that no-one has the least idea when we’ll be back to normal or even what normal will look like when it’s all over.

Sometimes, all that is overwhelming. 

On Thursday, I felt overwhelmed and in the end I told myself that that was ok. I decided to give myself space to feel overwhelmed and then start afresh the next day. Which I did. Then, I spent the weekend getting to grips with my novel. 

I’m glad I didn’t delete it. I’m not quite so sure whether I’m glad I didn’t throw the work laptop out of the window.

Somewhat less overwhelmed today, I’m feeling more cheerful about making tonight’s dinner out of what’s available. It’s not as if we can’t get nice food, and enough of it. We just can’t get it as often or as easily as we could a month or so ago. 

I thought of those memes that refer to WWII rationing and remind us that things could be worse. Out of curiosity, I extracted my research copy of ‘The Victory Cookbook’ . Flicking through to see what sort of things were suggested to British housewives during the war, I found a recipe for Pilchard Layer Loaf which was apparently ‘new and very exciting’. It involves, basically, layers of bread and tinned pilchards with a sort of mustardy béchamel poured over and then baked in the oven. Well, I have bread, I have tinned mackerel, I have the makings of a mustardy béchamel…. Could I? Should I?

I also have some poultry, some rather wizened tomatoes, some garlic, some grapes and some olives. A sort of cacciatore I think, only perhaps with a little chilli to keep my husband happy.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all this, that’s ok. None of us have to feel upbeat all the time, including you dear reader. But this will be over one day and we have to hold on to that even if we can’t hold on to each other.

In the meantime though, I’m sort of hoping things’ll never be so bad that I try making Pilchard Layer Loaf. 

It sounds utterly disgusting.

 

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

10 Tips to help if you’re worried about coronavirus

 

Writing Between the Fine Lines

Books for Older Readers?

How is an older reader any different from a younger one? We aren’t of course – except for the level of irritation we may feel when reading how we’re portrayed.

A great many industries have fallen foul of this (retailers – you know who you are) and the writing industry is one of them. 

Things some authors forget about people over fifty and indeed over seventy:

  • We don’t usually wear clothes from before WWII unless we’re going to a fancy dress party. 
  • In our teens we danced to anything from rock ’n’ roll to hip-hop – therefore it’s unlikely our favourite tunes are from the 1930s or before.
  • We grew up in a society which was described as ‘permissive’ and some of us were hippies. Whether we are/were permissive or not, whether we want to read about it or not, few of us find sex shocking or dirty. 
  • Apart from in a professional context, we prefer (or at least I prefer) not to be addressed formally. I find the words ‘Mrs Harmon…’ tend to precede bad news.
  • The menopause is not the morphopause. A woman on the far side of it is no different from the woman on the near side only except that she has one less thing on her shopping list every month.
  • Regardless of gender, we’re probably still working or have worked most of our adult lives.
  • We understand more of what teenagers and twenty-somethings say than we let on.

Under the spare bed I’ve stored various story segments written between the ages of sixteen and thirty. Whether I’ll ever do anything with them I don’t know. 

In my teenage jottings, all the main characters are under eighteen. Anyone over twenty is of doubtful interest since their sole function is to do what the adults around me seemed to be doing: boss people about and mess things up for the next generation. 

Back then, older people said if we worried about the future we were naïve and if we didn’t we were frivolous. ‘All you care about,’ they said, ‘is sex, awful so-called music, ridiculous fashions and avoiding settling down.’ (From what I recall we were interested in all those things – as are young people in every generation – but also the fairly major risk of being blown up in a nuclear war because of sabre-shaking adults.)

At twenty-one, I graduated and started working. The characters in my stories then were also in their twenties, torn between having to earn a living, wanting to do something interesting instead, wondering if they would ever find The One and fundamentally feeling that adult life was frankly not worth the bother.

After I hit thirty, there was a long gap when I didn’t write much at all, because earning a living turned into a career, The One finally turned up (albeit not to the timetable I had in mind as a teenager) and consequently I had two children. Adult life, whether worth the bother or not, got in the way.

By the time I got round to writing properly again I was, of course, older. 

Things that I’d discovered in the meantime included:

  • Some people have lots of energy and want to change the world for the better.
  • Some people have lots of energy and want to change it for the worse.
  • Some people are tired, busy, ill, disillusioned.
  • Some people just want to have some fun. 
  • Some people just don’t care.
  • People can be insecure, worried, want to love and be loved, want sex or not want sex, be angry, happy, spiritual, a-spiritual, confused, hopeful, dangerous. 
  • They can be all these things at the same time or at different times.
  • Crucially, they can be all these things whatever age they are.

The only difference between a younger person and an older one is that the younger one looks at the older and thinks it’ll never happen to me and the older looks at the younger and thinks when did I stop being you?

By the time I started writing again, I realised that whatever age my characters were they had to be as multi-faceted as real people. 

How have I tried to reflect that in my own stories? 

Murder Britannica is a humorous murder-mystery set in 2nd Century south-east Wales. Its main characters Lucretia and Tryssa are two British women in their fifties who have loathed and subsequently avoided each other since since their teens. While the self-absorbed Lucretia is the richest woman in the area, suddenly she has to rely on Tryssa, the wisest woman in the area, to stop a string of mysterious deaths from really getting out of hand. I had great fun writing about them. Lucretia doesn’t think she’s too old for anything, whether it’s getting even richer or flirting with eligible (e.g. rich) men and thinks Tryssa is dull and possibly sneaky. Tryssa feels maturity should equal wisdom and equanimity and thinks Lucretia is ridiculous. A second book about them will hopefully be out in Spring 2020. It’s set in Durnovaria (modern day Dorchester) and while Lucretia’s visit to an old flame uncovers more than a plot to defraud her of money, Tryssa finds not just answers to a buried secret but also unexpected love.

The Cluttering Discombobulator is a fictionalised memoir about my father. It flips between memories of being a child in the 1970s and being the forty-something daughter of an elderly man who runs amok with a mobility scooter. The book started when my father challenged me to write an interesting short story about a retired couple, one of whom is in a wheelchair. Over time and circumstance, it morphed into something else entirely. 

Kindling and The Advent Calendar (collections of short stories, many of which are based on real events and/or places) have plenty of young people on the edge of adulthood or adolescence but also several older people revisiting their youth to close a circle.

Weird and Peculiar Tales (co-written with Val Portelli) features several older people either on the wrong side of things that go bump in the night or being the thing that goes bump in the night.

Starting with The Case of the Black Tulips, the Caster & Fleet series (co-written with Liz Hedgecock) is set in 1890s London. Katherine (25) and Connie (22) team up to solve one mystery and end up solving several. There’s romance, humour, dark deeds and plenty of tea. Where are the older characters? Well in an era when a nice girl (even aged 25) was still largely under someone’s supervision a lot of the time, Katherine has Aunt Alice and Aunt Alice’s friend Mina to chaperone her (assuming she doesn’t climb out of a window or something). Aunt Alice has been trying to bring up Katherine and Katherine’s sister Margaret since their mother’s death. She’s loving, shy, unworldly and doesn’t really feel equal to her nieces’ fire. She’s quietly horrified that Katherine’s working – even in a job suitable for a nice middle-class girl – and would rather live in genteel poverty. Her quiet and somewhat secretive friend Mina is more inclined to turn a blind eye to Katherine’s activities. Alice and Mina are both in their late forties, perhaps considered old maids. Has life passed them by? Perhaps it hasn’t. There are also two much less retiring women. One is Connie’s mother who could turn a disappointing jelly to stone with one glare and whose efforts to marry her daughter off to any suitable young man are the main reason Connie escapes to a side-street restaurant one rainy lunch-time and meets Katherine. The other is Penelope, the aunt of the young man who may or may not be on Katherine’s side. If anyone would swing from Tower Bridge the minute it’s built, it would be Penelope. As the bridge isn’t quite finished when we meet her, she settles for a different adventure altogether. There are older men too – enigmatic Mr Maynard, the senior civil servant and entrepreneurial Mr Templeton, the manager of a music-hall.

As a reader, I’ll read anything. I like old classics, I like new finds. I like mainstream fiction, genre fiction, young adult fiction and children’s fiction. I don’t care if the main characters are six or a hundred. The key thing is they need to be interesting and roundly authentic. 

As a writer, I find my characters tell me how old they are and I go from there. I myself haven’t got to sixty yet, let alone eighty or a hundred. Will that stop me writing about someone who tells me that’s how old they are? No. But I’ll do my best to make them real.

Before you make assumptions, have a look at the Books for Older Readers website and see what’s there. You’ll find quite a range. 

There may even be a few that older readers are apparently too old to understand. 

Who’d have thought it? 

Shocking.

The Books for Older Readers Facebook group and website was established in October 2017 to promote books (mainly fiction) with older protagonists or themes such as ‘second chances’, which tend to appeal to readers in mid-life or beyond.

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Words copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.