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.

 

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.