A Novel Idea

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

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

It’s hard to answer either.

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

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

This was where my confession comes in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I was consumed by guilt. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes they can!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ID 201797590 © Chrissiecreative | Dreamstime.com

Perspective

‘So many knobs,’ I say, sighing into my mug.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Aelfnod splutters on his tea.

‘Door knobs, cupboard knobs, handles, things for opening lids with, taps, letter-boxes. You know. Things that need extra bleaching just now.’

‘Ah.’ Aelfnod settles back and a dreamy look crosses his face as he contemplates the joys of housework, clearly feeling that I have all the fun. ‘I was worried there for a minute.’

Aelfnod, despite the fact that we have differing views on dust, is a kindred spirit.

He knows when to talk and when to be quiet. He knows when a shared pot of tea in silence is the only thing that makes sense. He understands what it’s like to need space and time to re-boot your mind with something completely disconnected from everything else that’s going on.

In my case, it’s by being alone – driving with the radio on loud, tapping into whatever the music triggers, or being on a train with my brain rocking down new tracks or on a station platform, anonymous among all the commuters rushing pointlessly about – observing, listening and invigorated (if sometimes also cross, cold and late).

For Aelfnod, his reset process appears to be rummaging through the cookery books. (If it’s not him – then who else is reordering them so I can never find the one I want?)

Life has all been a bit trying over the last week. We’re on lockdown, working from home and all of a sudden the only people I’m allowed to be with seem noisier and messier than usual and I can only get out of the house once a day.

Nerves are being trodden on like cowpats round a water trough.

Mingled with personal anxiety caused by coronavirus, the day-job is absorbed in mitigating its impact. So it’s impossible to tune out from the crisis. The most creative decisions of the day are what to cook with what’s in store and when to go for my one walk. All in all, my reset time and my creative time seems to have seeped away and I’ve been feeling grumpy.

It really does come to something when I’m missing a five a.m. start and squeezing past strangers at Clapham Junction.

In case you didn’t know, Aelfnod is one of my invisible household elves. And the thing about invisible household elves is that they’re not exactly real (shh don’t tell them that), so they don’t turn up for a chat unless I want them to.  But they often come to mind when I’m being domestic and self-reflective.

So this afternoon, after some vigorous bleaching of the aforesaid knobs, handles etc, and despite the fact that I ought to be getting to grips with a novel plot, I decided to get a grip on my own plot and turned to Aelfnod for his views on being in lock-down which already feels like it’s been going on for a year when it’s only been a few days.

‘Does it bother you?’ I say.

Aelfnod shrugs and holds out his doll’s tea-cup for more tea. ‘It’s a bit dusty and the airing cupboard is full of out-of-control laundry fairies but this is a nice home.’

‘I know, but I’m used to being pretty much able to go out when I want to do what I want and see what I want.’

‘Then you’re luckier than many. And the things you really like best are indoorsy things anyway – writing, reading, cooking, sewing, painting – and you haven’t done the last two for years. Perhaps now’s the time to start again.’

‘I thought you didn’t like mess.’

‘I don’t like you slamming doors because you’ve got to the point where you’re getting on your own nerves.’

‘I only slammed one door,’ I say huffily.

‘Only because the other one gets caught on the carpet.’ Aelfnod takes another sip of tea and frowns. I feel that in another decade, he’d be puffing a pipe in an admonishing manner. ‘Look on the positive,’ he says. ‘All the news does is focus on the negative. You know that.’

‘It’s true,’ I admit. ‘It’s just that people…’

‘Ah people. None of us know why humans think they’re the most intelligent creatures on earth. You buy stuff you don’t need, rush to go to places which are no nicer than where you’re from, complain when there’s too much to do, complain when there’s nothing to do, never really know what you want. You always look at stuff the wrong way. Instead of looking at the fear, look for the bit of hope. You being stuck indoors right now might save a life. Maybe a life you’ll never know about.’

‘You’re right. And I keep thinking of Anne Frank and knowing I’ve nothing to complain about. And I don’t live alone and I do love the people I’m with.’

‘Exactly. Plus you might discover something. Think about it – what have you noticed?’

I sit back and consider. After a pause I say, ‘There’s less traffic so it’s quieter, I can hear the birds better and the air seems clearer.’

‘Go on.’

‘It’s good to be mindful of food, supplies, travel, little freedoms and not take them for granted. You appreciate nature more when you treasure time outside. Everyone is sharing pictures of buds, and sparrows and even mini-beasts which we might not have noticed before.’

‘And…’

‘Community groups are springing up all over the place. People are falling over themselves to shop or get prescriptions for isolated neighbours, even ones they don’t know. Someone posted a desperate message in our local group and within two hours, the group – without anyone leaving home – had tracked down his family and got him help.’

‘There you go. What else?’

I’m starting to cheer up. ‘And if it weren’t for modern technology I couldn’t meet with the rest of my family by video every day so I don’t have to worry so much.’

‘Oh yes,’ says Aelfnod, with a disapproving frown. ‘I’ve listened into your conversations. They’re not very intelligent. Far too much giggling.’

‘Well sorry,’ I say. ‘There’s only so much news to share when you’re all stuck indoors and there’s one thing on everyone’s mind. You can only discuss what everyone is having for dinner for so long. It’s more fun to do something silly. But now I think of it, it’s not just connecting with family. It’s everyone. Colleagues, friends, Facebook contacts, all sorts of people who can’t meet in person have found ways to do it via the internet.’

‘Like what?’

‘Online book clubs, book readings, virtual gigs and poetry slams, interactive quizzes. In fact if I joined in everything I could, I’d never do anything else.’

‘Sounds better than anything on TV.’

I’m feeling a lot brighter. ‘And museums and art galleries and theatres are providing links to all sorts of exhibitions and plays you couldn’t easily see otherwise.’

Aelfnod sits up straight. ‘Is Midsummer Night’s Dream one of them? I’d love to see that. My ancestor’s one of the main characters.’

‘Yes but how will you get online?’

‘Tsk. What a silly question,’ Aelfnod dunks a cookie-crumb in his tea and gives me a grin. ‘I do it all the time. Why else do you think your phone is always fully charged at night and flat as a goblin’s flip-flop in the morning?

***

If you want to read about how I first met Aelfnod check out Weird and Peculiar Tales  a collection of short stories by Paula Harmon and Val Portelli. It’s on special offer until 2nd April 2020.

If you want to know about the household elves’ view of me (well one of them anyway) you might want to read An Interview with the Laundry Fairy

If you want to know about any of the links mentioned above check these out:

From Clapping to Kindness: Five Reasons to be Hopeful

Community Support Links in the UK

Watch Royal Shakespeare Company Shows from home

The Guardian: 10 of the world’s best museum and art gallery tours

Good Housekeeping: best virtual tours

How to visit Paris catacombs and Disney theme park rides online

https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus-extremely-vulnerable

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

Image of tea-pot by Trang Le from Pixabay

To Hamster or Not To Hamster…

Meeting a good friend the other day and having to elbow bump when normally she’d drag me into an engulfing embrace felt rather surreal and very sad. I never knew until social distancing became advisable how much I’d miss hugging. Being unable to hug my mother and having to keep a two metre distance at closest, is just awful, especially as it was Mothering Sunday yesterday.

Who could imagine I’d also be missing the twice weekly commute to London? I always knew it was unhealthy. I never thought it could kill me. But I do miss the routine and I do miss meeting my colleagues face to face rather than just by video conferencing.

At the point of writing, the UK is not yet in lockdown. In my town, awareness of the seriousness of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) situation seems only just to have sunk in. I went for a walk at lunch-time and not only were more than 95% of the shops/businesses shut but I only saw about ten people. One of them, forced to pass me on a narrow pavement, nearly fell into the gutter trying to put as much space as possible between us. I felt like saying ‘I am holding my breath you know’ but of course that wasn’t physically possible since I’m not a ventriloquist.

Until today, the clearest sign that some people did know there was an issue was the panic-buying. Last Friday, a plague of ‘locusts’ apparently stripped almost every shop of fresh fruit and vegetables. I’m still completely baffled as to what they planned to do with them. You can only store that sort of stuff for so long. I’m not convinced that so many people know how to make edible soup any more than they know how to make edible bread with the yeast that’s long disappeared from the shelves. I dread to imagine the size of the hoarders’ next credit card bills.

I’m also angry. This behaviour impacts on shift-workers, the vulnerable and anyone who can only buy what they have money for on any given day. And the likelihood that a lot of that hoarded food will ultimately go to waste is shameful when people go hungry even in rich countries. 

When my mother took me to the shops as a little girl, she did it on foot with a fixed sum of cash, This meant that she only bought what she could carry. Perhaps that’s a simple solution to panic-shopping: no-one can buy more than can be put in a basket. 

I doubt I’m alone in feeling like Coronavirus has thrown me into a whirlpool of emotions:

  • Anger – see above. Why can’t people look out for each other instead of themselves for once?
  • Anxiety – have I got coronavirus unwittingly and am passing it on to others despite being very largely social distancing for the last two weeks? 
  • Disbelief – How can this be happening when the sun is finally shining and everything appears so normal till I go into a shop or turn on the news? Is this really happening on a global scale?
  • Confliction – What can I trust in the news and social media? Do I really want the country to go into lock-down when this will mean being stuck indoors for weeks?

Oddly on a writing/creative front, while I couldn’t concentrate when Mum was ill, I could easily concentrate on it now as even the most unlikely of my plots seems more believable than the current state of the world. Having said that, although my ‘book-in-edits’ is set in 1910 and not about any sort of virus, I do find that I keep worrying every time a character shakes hands, hugs or kisses – which would rather spoil some of the plot. I really need to get a grip.

It’s hard to think of positives sometimes, particularly when the media tends to focus on nothing but the bad, but there are a few things in links below which I hope you find helpful whether you’re self-isolating on lock-down or just generally looking for something positive to read. And while every single person who’s unexpectedly at home (whether also trying to work or not) with a child/teenager (or partner who’s like a caged animal when stuck indoors) has my sympathy – I hope this will turn out to be a time of bonding rather than discord. Time to break out the board games perhaps? 

One thing that did make me chuckle this week was finding out that the German expression for panic-buying was Hamsterkauf – I can’t think of a better word.

I hope that’s cheered you up too if you didn’t know it already and if you’re going to hamster anything – I hope it’s good memories, shared experiences, appreciation of the important things, creativity and of course – books! 

So as promised, here are more offers:

The Case of the Black Tulips the first book in the Caster & Fleet Victorian mystery series written by Liz Hedgecock and me is currently (23rd March) 99p/99c instead of the usual £2.99/$2.99. A frustrated typist, a bored socialite, an anonymous letter…

Murder Britannica is currently £2.99/$1.99 before returning to normal price of £3.50/$2.99 on 25/3. A self-centred rich woman, a plot to get rich only ruined by a series of unexpected deaths…

Weird and Peculiar Tales a collection of short stories by me and Val Portelli will be on a countdown deal from 26th March starting at 99p/99c. An anthology that contains exactly what the title implies.

In case you’re wondering about the photos, they’re pictures of my daughter’s erstwhile hamsters Frodo and Pip, to remind everyone that you’re lot cuter when you aren’t hoarding more than you need – apart from books of course – you can hoard those as much as you like!

Apologies for the blurriness but hey – they’re still nicer to look at than a virus.

As ever: keep well.

 

 

10 Nature Activities for children while self-isolating

Activity Ideas for children of all ages while self-isolating

Coronavirus: Hope Amid Outbreak

The Volunteer Army Helping Self-Isolating Neighbours

Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

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.

 

How Are You?

Never has an innocuous phrase had so much meaning than it does at the moment.

It’s usually a throw-away expression that usually means little more than ‘hello’ and doesn’t expect much of a response other than ‘not bad’, ‘a bit under the weather but soldiering on’, ‘could be better’ or more usually ‘fine thanks’ (whether or not the speaker actually is).

Now people are asking the question and really saying: ‘are you safe? Are your loved ones safe? I care about you.’

So here I am saying ‘how are you?’ and hoping that you and your loved ones are and stay healthy. I know that some of you are under more or less restriction and that it seems everyone, everywhere is living in anxiety. For myself, my mother is of course very vulnerable and I’m visiting her for as long as I’m well and healthy and otherwise trying to socially distance myself as much as possible. But my children are due home from university prematurely so quite how it’s going to work out I don’t know. At the moment, we’re all otherwise all right, but it’s hard not to be able to hug my mum in case I pass anything on.

Knowing that some people are already self-isolating whether by choice or mandate, I just wanted to let you know that I will be changing the pricing on some of my books over the next few weeks to help anyone who could do with something to read. These will change from time to time but here are the current and upcoming ebook offers:

Kindling is free until midnight on Saturday 21st March. This is a collection of short stories ranging across mood and genre. They’re mostly set in South Wales or South West England and one or two may be true. A few patently aren’t set in a real place and are definitely not true!

Murder Britannica is on a countdown deal until 25/3. 99p/99c today, £1.99/$1.99 from 20/3, £2.99/$1.99 from 22/3 and normal price of £3.50/$2.99 on 25/3. It’s AD190 in an obscure part of Roman Britain. All Lucretia wants to get even richer than she already is by ‘rediscovering’ a local goddess and building a bath-house to rival the one at Aquae Sulis. It’s a bit annoying when her husband drops dead unexpectedly, but even more annoying when his death is followed by others and an old adversary Tryssa starts to ask awkward questions.

As for my Caster & Fleet co-author, Liz Hedgecock, she has a deal running this week on on of her books A House of Mirrors . It’s now available for 99p/99c instead of the usual £3.99/$3.99. When Nell Villiers’ policeman husband vanishes on a routine case, her life is wrecked. Placed under protection by Inspector Lestrade, Nell is ripped from her old life and her own secret police work. Instead she must live as a widow, Mrs Hudson, in a safe house: 221B Baker Street.

There will be more offers coming up and I’ll post again on Saturday.

In the meantime, I hope you keep safe and well in these anxious times. If a book helps you or someone else – please do browse.

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.