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.

Pruning

In my head, I could design a garden to make Capability Brown swoon. 

In reality, my gardening skills are worse than my housework skills. Nature fights back more than dust does, seeding things in the wrong places to thrive while I plant them in the right places to die. 

I reckon ivy, brambles and briar rose feature so much in song and story because they get everywhere. And as far as my garden is concerned, buddleia sprouts all over the place, regenerating like a Hydra the moment you cut a bit down.

Tidying up what we like to think of it as a wildlife haven isn’t my favourite activity. But my husband and I, having been busy for several weeks, realised we had to tackle some of it before the house disappeared behind greenery like Sleeping Beauty’s castle behind thorns. Brambles have assaulted my husband and briar rose has attacked me. Shame our tetanus jabs aren’t up to date.

In the wrong place, I found a purple flower which had somehow managed to grow on a plank of wood, a carpet of forget-me-nots and a mass of wild strawberries. Prettiness notwithstanding, I’ve pulled out and cut down everything bar the latter. If we don’t eat them, the birds will.

If I weren’t gardening I’d be editing, even though I feel like I’ve been doing nothing else for months. With three creative projects to complete this year (one now with beta readers so at least that one will get there), I feel rather weary. I miss writing anything original that isn’t work related. 

During editing, nothing has been salvaged like the strawberries. I’ve been pulling out the ‘forget-me-nots’ and pruning the ‘buddleia’. Do I need this character? No. Is this scene working? No. Slash. Chop.

I was fond of the things I’ve cut out and feel an odd sense of guilt telling them they don’t fit. Some will perhaps turn up in something else another time, some may never reappear anywhere. It’s rather depressing. 

At least it’s possible to prune fiction. Real life, no matter how much I’d like it to be, can’t be pruned. Things happen that no-one would believe in a novel and you can’t alter events to make a coherent narrative. That’s probably why paintings, music and stories are important – in them worlds have a pattern on a small, manageable scale, when any pattern in real life is on too large a scale for anyone to see. 

Anyway, pruning, tidying, editing – I’m always pleased at the end but the process itself is hard work and often painful. 

But the hope is that I may find unexpected strawberries in the garden, a lost ‘treasure’ doing housework and in my books create something people will enjoy. 

At least I needn’t put my edited characters through a shredder or on a compost heap. So at least none of them can attack me to get their own back. Because they’re not real. Are they? 

Are they? 

Gulp.

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

Book Bereavement

I’m suffering book bereavement.

There’s probably an equivalent for artists and musicians and it hurts.

Book bereavement is when a piece of writing is complete, leaving a gap in your life you don’t know how to fill. (Readers can feel much the same when a good book ends.)

In my case, I’ve just finished writing a novel and I’m missing my main characters so much I don’t know how to stop thinking about them. It’s a really odd sensation to have about people who, let’s be honest *whispers* don’t really exist at all. The thing is, they feel real to me. 

This sensation may be intensified by the fact that I took last week off work purely to write and wrote nearly 36,000 words. Fundamentally, except for a few hours spent eating and having to live in the real world, I was imagining, dreaming, writing and living in my novel for nine days and nights.

For those of you who’ve stuck with me so far: who are these people who are still hovering about and what’s their story?

The main character is Margaret Demeray, the younger sister of Katherine from the Caster & Fleet series.

Liz Hedgecock and I decided we’d do spin-offs which we would write singly, rather than as a collaboration and I chose to see what happened to Margaret when she grew up. (You’ll have to wait and see what Liz comes up with.)

The book is set in 1910. 

I picked the year partly because the fashions – with the possible exception of hats – were lovely (which is perhaps not very rational) and partly because it was a kind of tipping point historically. King Edward VII has just died, the women’s suffrage movement is gaining momentum, the old monarchies and empires of Europe, including Britain’s, are quietly sabre-rattling as they struggle for dominance.

Margaret is thirty-six, the age when a woman is supposed to be in her prime. (I can’t really remember because at that age I had baby well under two and was expecting a second.)

Margaret’s life is much more interesting. She is medically qualified and working in a teaching hospital. She has been asked to speak at a scientific symposium, the only woman to do so. She has great women-friends, equally determined not to be overshadowed by men, and has maintained her independence. But somehow she has also become engaged to a man so hung-up, he appears to find kissing her a chore. Perhaps if he were a little more passionate, she wouldn’t keep putting off the wedding. But as it is…

Then a stranger asks about the nameless subject of Margaret’s most recent post-mortem and her world turns upside down.

Obviously, the first draft being hot off the fingertips so to speak, it’s too close to read through and see what works, what doesn’t and which loose ends are still flapping. And it doesn’t have a name either. 

Oh well, I’m sure my subconscious will tell me at 4 a.m. or during a business meeting sometime soon. 

Today I’m back at my day job (the one that pays the bills) where there is regrettably very little scope for creativity, unless you count obtaining statistics and then turning them into a pretty graph. So perhaps to distract myself from having left my main characters wondering what they’re supposed to do next, I did a bit of number-crunching of my own.

My husband and I have recently started counting steps and we have been making ourselves do a circuit of our town pretty much every day to reach our 10k. 

So I’ve created a graph to show how many words I wrote each day last week against how many steps I walked. On the basis that statistics are supposed to prove something, these seem to prove nothing except it is possible to write words and do exercise, even if your husband has to drag you out of the house and put up with your mind being somewhere else entirely as you walk. (For the record, it rained all day on Friday 8th, he wasn’t home till late and it was more appealing to stick at writing rather than waste time walking round town getting drenched. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.)

For anyone who actually cares about the words side of it, an average under 4,000 words a day may not seem a lot given that I was writing for around 8 hours a day and I’ve been known to write 1,500 on an hour and half train journey. Every writer has their own way of doing things. Some people write to a strict plan, some to no plan at all; some pour everything out and worry about it afterwards, some do a bit of editing as they go along. 

I start with an outline, some idea of who’s who, what they’re up to and where they’ll end up, but let the rest fall in place as it comes to me – which as I said above sometimes occurs at 4 a.m or in the middle of a business meeting. My process last week was: get up, review the previous day’s writing, tweak it, often move it about or hold it back, and then crack on with the next part. I think there was one day I did more tweaking than writing.

For now as I write this, I must put Margaret, her friends and her enemies firmly to one side, because it’s lunchtime and I’m going to do some steps. 

Only 7,353 more to do. Sigh. I’d rather be writing.

 

 

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

Charming Gowns:www.designrush.com

Graph: my own with dodgy stats

Cat: www.pixabay.com

Hold the Line, Caller

Writing novels set in the past can bring up all sorts of problems.

There are laws that haven’t been invented; there are transport issues; there are food restrictions; there are, more than anything, communication issues.

Before you know it, you’re disappearing down a research rabbit-hole and finding yourself in a warren of confusing, fascinating and baffling facts and thoughts.

Take the telephone. 

Currently I’m writing a novel set largely between 1946 and 1950. The main character, Sarah, in common with many people in 1950’s Britain, doesn’t have a telephone. Her love interest, Jim, however does. 

At the end of a long trying day Sarah goes to a telephone box to tell Jim about the long trying day and apologise for not ringing earlier. Jim, having been worried sick because she had disappeared without explanation starts off on the wrong foot by asking her where on earth she thinks she’s been, whereupon she loses her temper etc etc. Then her money runs out.
I don’t know how many of you use pay-phones now or remember using them in days of yore. It’s rare thing nowadays because most of us have a mobile. 

When I was in college, I recall queuing for some time listening to someone else’s inane conversation in the bicycle shed where the pay-phone was kept until it was my turn to use it. I’d then stuff 2p pieces into the machine and call my boyfriend (or occasionally my parents). Standing in the cold I’d be hoping the pips which sounded when more money was needed wouldn’t go off half-way through a sentence as I generally hadn’t any more money. Was it 2p pieces or 10p pieces? I can’t really remember. Actual traditional red telephone boxes were only used in times of extreme desperation due to their er… fragrance: eau d’urine. 

In contrast of course, my children can communicate (and frequently do) at all times of the day or night via mobile, app, video call, email. Admittedly not much of this is aimed at us unless they want something but then as you can see from the above, I wasn’t really interested in contacting my parents either when I was in my late teens.

Back to my character though. It’s 1950. What happens when Sarah’s money runs out? Does an operator intervene to tell her to put more money in or were there pips? 

I wasn’t around in 1950 so I don’t know. A quick internet search didn’t help. There was a button A which you pressed when you were connected which took your money and a button B which you pressed if the call didn’t connect so you had your money back. I sort of knew that much from books. 

I asked my mother but she couldn’t remember. To be fair, she was only thirteen in 1950 and it turns out her family did have a phone. She told me that she and her brother were socially embarrassed by it – an old bakelite trumpet from the 1930s: SOOOOO old-fashioned. They begged their father to buy a modern one but as good canny Scots my grandparents weren’t wasting money to replace something which functioned perfectly well. In desperation my uncle put the dart board above the phone in the hope he and Mum might ‘accidentally’ destroy it with a stray dart. It didn’t work. I think my mother and uncle grew up, married and left home before my grandmother decided to replace the telephone. It’s a shame really. I expect it would still work nowadays if you could work out how to plug it in.

Interesting as this side-light into my mother’s teenager-hood was, it didn’t help me with what happens when Sarah’s money runs out. In the end I just decided to let her slam the phone down on Jim and let him stew. 

All the same, it got me thinking about how modern phones just don’t cut the mustard sometimes: 

  1. you can’t slam them down – they will break 
  2. you can’t chuck darts at them – they will break 
  3. you can’t get them wet – they will break 
  4. they will refuse to work at precisely the moment you need them due to something petty like lack of signal or battery or simply because you’ve insulted them (I’m worried mine is reading this right now and will turn itself off for two days in a huff).
  5. They are more restrictive than freeing. 

Re (5) while on the one hand in theory a mobile means you’re contactable all the time, on the other hand…. you’re contactable all the time. There is no peace whatsoever unless you make the conscious effort to turn the thing off. There is no getting deliciously ‘lost’, people (parents, partners, work) worry because they can’t get hold of you, you worry because you can’t get hold of someone else (parents, children, partners). You feel you have to tell people where you are by text or message or social media. You photograph and film things instead of just experiencing them. I sort of miss the days when I could just disappear for a few hours.

Obviously it’s not all bad with modern phones. I remember moving from Berkshire to South Wales at the age of eight, away from the grandparents we had always seen every weekend. It was actually cheaper for us to record long chats on a cassette tape and post it to them than make a trunk call. Our village, when we moved to it, still had party lines for a year or so, which meant every conversation could potentially be listened in to. 

By the time I was sixteen and had a boyfriend, the party line thing was no longer an issue but having a phone tethered to the wall was and so was my father. He took great pleasure in passing by while I was phoned my boyfriend, making little kissing noises and on one occasion sneaking up to take a photo of me. I had been hoping my boyfriend imagined me sitting elegant and beautiful and well-coiffed in my best dress, fully made-up etc etc. In fact, I was sitting on the floor in an old jumper and scraggy skirt and fluffy slippers, bare-faced and straggly-haired. Not only did my father take that picture but… he showed it to my boyfriend next time he came round. It’s surprising he stuck around after that. So far I haven’t done anything similar to my children. Well, apart from shouting hello to their friends when they’re on video call, or once, having a conversation with my daughter’s friend’s mother during the video call the girls were having even though they’d spent all day together in school. 

I don’t miss phone boxes. The last time I used one was a couple of years ago when I drove my son to a piano lesson four miles away in midwinter. The road was shut due to an accident and the only way round was a horrible, pitch dark, rutted country road. Naturally I managed to hit an invisible pot-hole and burst a tyre. I got the car to a pub and at that point realised I didn’t have my mobile with me. My son hadn’t got his either. And I didn’t have a purse, just £15 in notes to pay the piano teacher. The landlady in the pub clearly distrusted someone who didn’t have either a phone or a purse. She said there was a phone-box somewhere along the road. Just to annoy her since she wasn’t going to help, I bought two packets of crisps to get some change and after some stumbling about in the dark, found the phone-box. Although not red it was fragrant with yes, eau d’urine… However, it didn’t take coins and having no purse with me, I didn’t have any kind of bank or credit card. Oh that was a fun evening.

And the phone in this picture? Yes it’s a good old plug-in one, useful in thunderstorms and power cuts. The black hand means nothing sinister. It hails from the days when the children had stickers and knew how to use them. It won’t come off. The phone itself was from the office where my husband and I met. When the office was upgraded, they got rid of the out-of-date telephones and we took one home out of nostalgia. It lives in the hall and only gets used in emergencies (e.g. when a teenager has ‘lost’ one of the radio-phones). If I do use it to make calls, I’m so institutionalised that because I associate it with the office I have to restrain myself from dialling 9 for an outside line.

Back to the novel, two weeks later, and I’m still none the wiser about the pips. But Sarah and Jim are just about talking to each other. Really, they have bigger things to worry about. 

Things I have to research. Sigh. Back down the rabbit hole…

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Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Finding the Plot – Venturing Out part two

What an experience my first writing collaboration has been.

We started on 19th January thinking we’d be finished by the end of March but we got carried away and the last words of just under 54k were written yesterday (10th February) at 5pm.

The Case of the Black Tulips’  is now closed. The protagonists are having a day off in the sun. Liz Hedgecock and I are putting our feet up having toasted each other in a virtual sense from opposite ends of the country.

We started with a series of messages and a woolly idea. I sent Liz a photograph of some notes I’d scribbled on the back of something else (see scrawl below) and she still wanted to continue. We both work on the ‘write first, research as you go along’ principle which meant that periodically one of us would disappear down a research rabbit hole and pop back up not necessarily with a rabbit but something else entirely to drop into the stew.

Our book starts in 1890 or thereabouts, so there was a lot of background detail to investigate and I’ve put some links below which may or may not be included in the book but certainly kept us entertained, amazed and sometimes shocked.

Still, our protagonists are not women who let conventions get in the way of adventure, and perhaps in a different sort of way neither did we.

I presume that script-writers etc who work together on projects usually actually tell each other what they’re planning to do next. We took another approach. We weren’t going to spoil the fun with common sense when we could have shenanigans instead.

I wrote chapter one and Liz wrote chapter two and so on. Given the pace we were writing at (at least one chapter a day each) and the fact that boring things like work and family kept getting in the way, there wasn’t a lot of time to tell the other what we were planning to do next. Consequently in chapter nine I introduced an object, planning to utilise it in chapter eleven but then Liz ‘lost’ it in chapter ten. Liz introduced a character in chapter twenty but in chapter twenty-three I… nope, not telling you any more, you’ll have to read it to find out.

If you’re wondering why there’s a photograph of people rushing about, it’s because on Tuesday 6th February, I had been writing that day’s chapter on the morning train and hadn’t quite finished it. Liz was waiting. Before I disappeared into the underground on the way to work, I sat in the concourse of Waterloo, sat on a bench outside WH Smiths, frantically wrote the last words and emailed them off. It’s been that kind of experience.

Doing it again? I really hope so. It’s been great fun and I hope readers will enjoy the end result.

The painful part (editing) is yet to come, but the characters are itching to get their sleeves rolled up and sort out another mystery. Who knows what they’ll be up against next.

I can see some more research rabbit holes opening up as I type.

Better get my notebook out.

Why were women employed in the Victorian civil service? Small fingers, brains and lower pay…

Interactive map of gas lamps still in London

What did the creation of sewing machines mean to women?

How much could you earn as a servant in a big country house in 1890?

Women’s cycling – a revolution

A Victorian list of do’s & don’t’s for women cyclists!

Lighting in the Victorian home

Venturing Out

Put Down The Embroidery, We’re Going In

 

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

The Nameless Manuscript

Someone was shaking me awake.

‘Train terminates here, miss,’ said the guard.

Finding myself slumped against the grimy train window, I blinked, stood up and made my way off the train. Still half asleep, I wobbled on the step and the guard helped me down as if I were an old lady or worse: tipsy.

Alone on the platform, I ran my hand across my eyes and grimaced at the soot left on my gloves.

At the barrier, the ticket collector looked askance and outside the station, the taxi man hesitated when I gave Harriet’s address, taking me in from top to toe as if ascertaining whether I could afford the fare.

‘My word,’ said Harriet, when I finally arrived at her flat, ‘did they make you travel in the coal tender?’

‘Do I look that bad?’ I looked into the mirror over her fireplace. My clothes were crumpled from the sleep and my hat askew, hitching my curls up on one side and flattening them on the other. Soot striped my eyes as if I had applied war paint.

‘I hope whatever you were doing was good copy,’ said Harriet, after I’d tidied myself up. ‘Could you put it in “Blueprint for Thingummy”?’

She nodded at my satchel, where my just-finished manuscript hid, its pages huddled within the string, tied up as a sacrifice for the publisher who’d agreed to look at it. I imagined it whimpering with the fear of being read and laughed at. I only had until tomorrow to think of a proper title.

‘Apart from the fact that it’s finished – I think – I’m not sure how I could get time-travel into it. “Blueprint” is supposed to be a murder mystery.’

‘Time-travel?’

‘It’s what happened to me on the train.’

‘I knew it,’ said Harriet, ‘trying to be an author is sending you mad. You need to stop writing and get a proper job before you get overwhelmed by delusion. And you need a stiff drink. Whatever really happened is obviously too traumatic to be solved with a cup of tea.’

‘Anything can be solved by a cup of tea.’

‘Really – you’d rather tea to a whisky and soda?’ She poured out a generous measure and waggled it at me.

‘Well maybe not tea the way you make it.’ I took the proffered glass and sat back. ‘Seriously, I really did travel in time.’

‘You were dreaming, but tell me anyway. Which era did you go visit? I always wanted to go back to Medieval times.’

‘It wasn’t back. It was forward.’

‘Robots I guess. Rocket ships.’

‘No, it wasn’t like that at all. I was on a train.’

‘Well yes. You were on a train, fast asleep.’

‘I fell asleep almost as soon as I got on and then I woke up a few minutes later. I found myself sitting at a table and all the seats were orange.’

‘Orange?’

‘And the windows were quite clean. Apart from a few rain streaks, I could see out clearly. There was no soot.’

‘That’s because it was all over your face instead.’

‘No listen, I saw the power station at Battersea.’

‘Who can see that from the train in November? The radio said there was a real pea-souper in London today.’

‘There was. Or rather there was before I fell asleep. But when I woke, the skies were completely clear. No fog, no smoke.’

‘The power station…’

‘Just a shell. With scaffolding. Everything looked both familiar and unfamiliar. I thought I saw a fisherman on the river.’

‘What could you fish out of the Thames?’

‘I dread to think. There were skyscrapers on the horizon.’

‘Like the Empire State? In London?’

‘They weren’t anything like the Empire State. I can’t even describe them.’

‘I thought you were a writer. Isn’t it your job to describe things?’

I closed my eyes and tried to remember those edifices glinting in the autumn sun. ‘They were strange shapes. One looked like a pencil with a jagged top.’

‘It was a dream.’

‘And the people in the carriage. They were different.’

‘Silver suits, ray-guns?’

‘No. They wore pretty much what we wear only not so smart. Some had suits but not many. No hats apart from two men with peaked ones a bit like schoolboys wear.’

‘Baseball caps?’

I paused, remembering staring at them, wondering whether to be affronted at the sight of men indoors who had not removed their hats. I tried to recall what a baseball player wore.

‘Maybe.’

‘So they were all scruffy, dirty?’

‘No. That’s the strange thing. They were all dressed so casually and yet they were all so clean. Apart from their shoes. Hardly anyone had polished their shoes.’

I recalled the shiny hair, the smell of laundry soap, scent; the clear skin and eyes. There had been no odour of tobacco or coal or sweat. There was a strange smell which I couldn’t place and I wondered if it came from the orange seats which were made from something like rayon or from the structure of the carriage interior itself which appeared to be made of pale Bakelite. It was not unpleasant, just odd.

‘Some of the women wore a lot of cosmetic and others none. And no-one smoked.’

‘No-one?’

‘I know. I felt a bit rattled. I was afraid I might smell and must look peculiar with my hat and red suit and shiny shoes and brown satchel. But no-one paid me any attention till I got my cigarettes out.’

‘What did they do?’

‘They frowned and tutted and one of them nodded at the window. I thought he meant I should open it or something. Then I saw a sign. It was a sort of black sketch of a smoking cigarette with a red line through it. So I put my cigarettes away and said sorry.’

‘And then…’

‘I was ignored again. They were all staring at things – oblong bits of Bakelite – all sizes. There were flat folding typewriters. People were typing away, though I couldn’t see where the paper went. Others were looking at silent movies on tiny screens – I don’t know where the projectors were and they had wires stuck in their ears. And some were reading or writing by tapping on the glass with their fingers. Oh I can’t explain.’

‘I’m telling you. You’ve been working on that novel too hard. It’s worn out your brain. Typing without paper, writing with fingers…’

‘And then the train stopped at Vauxhall (which looked very strange) and one of the girls at my table left her oblong thing behind. I stood up to try and call her, but she’d had to walk down a long aisle and I couldn’t see her. I heard a whistle and some beeping and then the train started up. I fell back in my seat and bumped my head. Next thing I knew, I was being woken up by the guard down here.’

‘My dear,’ said Harriet, pouring me another whisky, ‘you’ve been watching too many scary movies.’

‘It wasn’t a dream. It was all real.’

Harriet stubbed out her cigarette and nodded towards my satchel. ‘OK. If you say so. Are you going to show me your masterpiece or not? I want to be able to say I handled it just before the publisher snapped it up.’

Unbuckling the straps. I pulled out the manuscript, and with it came the girl’s oblong Bakelite thing. It was about eight inches by five, flat, glass on one side and dull black on the other, like a picture frame without a picture. When I touched it, a sunset appeared and when I pressed a button, the image was replaced with a grid of numbers and the words ‘enter passcode’. Just to see what happened, I touched out the first number which came to mind: the year, 1932.

The numbers disappeared and words replaced them…including my name.

I read aloud, ‘“In the early thirties, my great-grandmother had a strange experience on the train out of London. She was on the way to her publisher with the manuscript we now know as the best-selling masterpiece of classic detective fiction called…”’

The glass went black but for a whirring circle and some incomprehensible words. Then they too disappeared and nothing happened when I pressed the button.

I shook the object to see if it would do anything else. It didn’t.

Harriet lit a new cigarette.

I sighed and contemplated the depleted whisky bottle.

It had been a very strange day and no matter what the oblong thing said, I still had to decide a name for my novel.

As if reading my mind, Harriet said ‘Maybe your book will turn out to be a best-selling masterpiece, but I think you should stick to the title “Blueprint for Thingummy”. I can’t imagine any kind of world in which “Battery drained, shutting down” has any kind of meaning at all. Can you?”

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

(This story started as a prompt on a Facebook page to write 750 words including “Blue-print”, “delusion” and “fisherman”. I started writing it on a train journey and was having so much fun I doubled the word limit! – I did post an edited version though…)

The Tale of a Tale

By 2009, I had sort of given up on any ideas of writing. What with work and young children and the aftermath of a stressful house/job/school move from Gloucestershire to Dorset, there just wasn’t time.

My father however, couldn’t stop making up stories. Every few months, he’d ask me to read a new novel, in which unlikely people had unlikely adventures in futuristic worlds. They were always good fun, although Dad’s feelings towards editing was much the same as his feelings towards decluttering (unnatural and diabolical).

One day, I said ‘why don’t you write about yourself or someone like yourself?’ and he said ‘because it’s boring. If you think you could make up a story about an old fogey in a wheelchair, be my guest.’

Dad was not your archetypal old fogey really. By this time, he had chronic arthritis but it didn’t stop him. If he thought a building wasn’t sufficiently adapted for wheelchair users, he would very politely explain this at length to the owner or anyone handy. On one occasion he visited in a café in my local (Georgian) town and finding the step awkward and the doorway narrow, popped out to get an Argos catalogue to show a café proprietor what ramps were available at a reasonable sum. The café closed down a few months later. I don’t think there’s a connection. He rushed around in either a scooter or electric wheelchair, regardless of anyone else’s feet or the suitability of the pavement. If he couldn’t be doing with the pavement, he’d drive down the middle of the road instead. One day Dad drove his wheelchair round a blind corner in the middle of Weymouth at four miles an hour with me and my sister running behind, shrieking at him to slow down. On another occasion, he lowered himself out of the wheelchair onto the pavement in order to take a ‘really good photograph’ of passing cars. My mother had to explain to concerned passers-by that he hadn’t collapsed and was technically quite well. I realised then that my father would embarrass all of us for as long as he could and I might as well accept it.

So there was the challenge: write about an old fogey in a wheelchair.

I still don’t know where the idea came from, but the whole story, just as unlikely as any of his, popped into my head as I was in the supermarket and I came straight home and wrote it on the computer in the freezing cold front room. It was called ‘Coffee at Tiffany’s’.

Shortly afterwards I wrote a second story: ‘Katie is a Cat’. This was inspired from the rainy day when I crossed Westminster Bridge and saw on the other side of the road two people, one of whom was in a wheelchair. So far so normal. However, they also had a cat in a basket on the wall behind them. Trust me, that’s not usual for central London at rush-hour.

A few years passed and Dad became very ill. I decided to write another ‘old fogey’ story for his birthday, but it just wouldn’t quite come. By June 2012, Dad was in hospital undergoing tests, totally exhausted but still writing. I dug out the ‘old fogey’ story and tried again. It would be a Father’s Day present. But I couldn’t find the happiness I needed to write something silly and put it back to one side. My sister and I arranged a photograph of all four grandchildren instead but he never saw that either. Dad died two days before Father’s Day.

Well, more years passed and Mum kept saying how much she’d liked those two silly stories and I remembered the others which I’d started and not finished. And I recalled the little bits of writing I’d done as a sort of outlet for grief. And I remembered all the fun we’d had with Dad when we were children. Then I realised Mum’s 80th birthday was coming up.

It took me months and a lot of secrecy. It took a lot of asking Mum odd questions about things which happened a long time ago (without telling her why), digging out old photographs, writing on trains, getting exasperated, feeling emotional.

When I decided to illustrate the book, I asked Mum, as if from idle curiosity, whether she had any of Dad’s drawings. She dug out a story Dad had written for my sister which I’d thought was long lost. There was his sketch from all those years ago, of a startled squirrel pegging out her washing, being confronted by an eagle. As you do. Fortunately it was the typed version, as no-one could read Dad’s handwriting. Even Dad.

Somehow, pulling all these elements together, I wrote a book. The parts based on real events proved to be harder to write than any of the fantasy sequences. Life is not narrative, with a beginning, middle and logical conclusion. In the end, I stopped bothering trying to make it accurate and just started having fun instead.

And finally, with a few days to spare, I had a proof copy to give to Mum for her 80th birthday as a total surprise.

And now the book is published for sale.

‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’ is a celebration of my father: hero, eccentric, adventurer and story-teller to the end.

Part memory, part fantasy, it’s the story of an eccentric father with hero-worshipping little daughters and the adventures he has in his imagination when those girls turn into boring middle-aged women who need to lighten up.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Dad, ‘everything will be fine.’

And do you know what Dad? Somehow it is.

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Words and illustration copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Click here to buy ‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’

Memories

 

 

 

Getting to know me

I have been talking to myself for years, so I may as well do a Q & A while I’m doing it!

So, Paula – is writing all you do?

I sometimes wish it was. I sometimes feel as if my primary role is laundress, chief cook and bottle washer and completer of forms for school. I work full time for the civil service (I vowed I would never do this, when I listened to my civil servant mother quoting form numbers over dinner. But here I am veteran of 28 years working for the same organisation after applying for an interim job till the dream one came up. And I can still remember form numbers, though the ones I can remember are irrelevant in my current role.) Apart from this I am married (to someone I met in the office who was also waiting in vain for the dream job) with a son at university and a daughter in her penultimate year at school.

What was your dream job then?

Writer. But I had no idea how to make it work and at the end of the day, had bills to pay. I felt very dissatisfied for a long time, till I just decided to write anyway. The good thing about this was that by that time I had a bit of life experience to put into what I wrote. Husband’s dream job involves not having one but sailing all day instead. I prefer dry land, or at least being moored within swimming distance of it.

When do you write?

Whenever I can find the time. This doesn’t always coincide with inspiration though. If I have the time but not the inclination,  I try to make myself write something, anything, just to keep the creative muscles working. Sometimes this has led to new insights into something I was stuck on. I often write on trains and hope no one is reading over my shoulder. They often are though. Once someone made me scream out loud by commenting from the seat behind and the other day someone started a conversation about notebooks. Just to add though, I was sketching at that point, not writing.

What do you write?

Someone asked me this the other day and I never know how to answer. I write mainly fiction. There may be more or less realism, more or less fantasy, more or less humour. I am finalising two things and working on another. They are all completely different.

How?

Well (1)  I’m formatting a book which I’m hoping to publish in October. It’s a celebration of an eccentric father and is based on real people and some real events but there is also a fantastical element which sneaks in from time to time.  Watch this space…. (2) I’m finalising a short story for a charity anthology. It’s set in an alternative universe, where in a sort of Victorian London, dragons are a source of potential power and potential threat…. (3) I’m on 2nd/3rd draft of a thriller which has no mystical element whatsoever.

How real are your characters to you?

Let’s put it this way, I cried actual tears when someone died, even though I’d made her up and could have written an alternative scene. It’s very hard to explain. I feel the frustration of the main character in the thriller as her opportunities are taken one by one. I wish I had one of the dragons in the short story because he makes me laugh. On the other hand, when writing the one based on real life, I found it hard to describe myself and my sister as children without turning us into a fictional characters. In the end, it’s pretty much what I did and had great fun making my sister naughtier even than she was.

What surprises you about writing?

The way the characters take over and the way themes change. You realise a story which you planned as a love story between persons A and B is actually a story of friendship between persons B and C. It’s wonderful how supportive authors are of each other, rather than competitors. I’m a member of several groups and all anyone wants is for others to do well. Also, it’s quite satisfying killing people off in a story (unless it makes you cry). My husband is disappointed that I’ve even murdered a boat but you know. Had to be done.

Why Downes?

Downes is my maiden name. Always thought I’d write under it but am keeping it for books I’ve planned to write for children.

What are you doing right now?

Right now I’m sitting in a cafe on my lunch break writing this. Am in Croydon, which I visit for work once a week. I can’t wait to get back to Dorset later. I also can’t wait to get home to take my new shoes off. My feet are killing me.

What do you wish people knew about you?

I’m very shy but have learned to cover it up in a veneer of confidence which doesn’t exist. One day I decided to take control of the shyness instead of the other way around. The downside is that people don’t realise when you’re struggling with life.

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