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

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.

 

Broadening the Mind

I love research. It provides the best excuse to get side-tracked I can think of.

At the moment, because I’ve been writing or plotting two historical mysteries set over 1,700 years apart, I’m surrounded by books about Roman-Britain, Roman cookery and Celtic traditions as well as ones on Victorian/Edwardian slang and dialect, maps of late 19th Century London, pre-WWI politics and (much as it would amaze any of my poor suffering science teachers) forensics and biology. I confess that I find dabbling in the dialect, slang and cook-books the most fascinating. 

Waiting their turn in terms of having the accompanying novels written, I also have books about the home-front in WWII and everyday Tudor life. One of the latter is called ‘Delightes for Ladies – to adorn their Perſons, Tables, Cloſets, and Diſtillories: with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters’ by Sir Hugh Plat. It includes fascinating recipes for everything from marchpane (marzipan) to hair dye. 

If you’re in the same boat as me after several weeks of lockdown and missing the hairdresser, you might be interested in the hair dye recipes but I’m not going to quote them for fear someone will try them. In brief, the one for blonde dye includes honey, turmeric, rhubarb and alum among other things. The one for brunette dye includes sulphur as one of its less toxic ingredients. Apparently it wouldn’t stain the skin but I’m not convinced. Maybe it doesn’t stain it, but I’d have thought at least one of the other components might dissolve it.

Of all the research books I have, there’s one which would have been really useful for my new release if I’d remembered I had it.

“The Queen” Newspaper Book of Travel – A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts 1912’ is one of the books I’d snaffled from Dad at some point but forgotten I owned until I was featured on the Jaffareadstoo Sunday Brunch Blogspot.

It originally cost 2/6 (e.g. two shillings and sixpence). In post decimalisation terms that’s 12.5p which doesn’t sound like a lot, but putting it into context, inside the book itself are how much it cost to sail anywhere in the world (£55 first class to Bombay) and advertisements for a nice watch or a nice vanity case (£25 each). 

The book tells you what to pack in terms of clothes for a round the world trip, what to anticipate in terms of local hotels, the speed limit for your motor car, how much it cost to send a letter etc.

In India for example, regardless of climate, ‘one should wear flannel or wool next the skin’ and preferably have a flannel waistband otherwise known as a cholera belt. (Apparently it was called this as well after the cause for cholera was discovered, it was thought that stopping your waist from becoming cold would prevent cholera. I wouldn’t have thought the average Briton of Celtic/Anglo-Saxon descent in 1912 would have found their midriff cold in India but there you go.)

Other advice includes: ‘don’t take alcohol merely as a beverage’ and ‘don’t treat constipation lightly, it is as dangerous as relaxation in a tropical climate’. 

I’m sort of assuming ‘relaxation’ isn’t a reference to slobbing about in your cholera belt drinking nothing but alcohol as a beverage.

The most startling piece of advice is what to do about undies when on a long voyage (in context, I presume the underwear referred to was knickers/panties). 

It boils down to ‘I found four or five of everything quite enough for use on shore, and for the voyage I always take old things, and give them to the stewardess or throw them overboard, so that I had no need for my soiled linen bag on board ship, never having anything to put in it. I am sure this is the best way. It is often exceedingly troublesome to get washing done at the port of debarkation, and it is always expensive, and on every account it is better to keep one’s cabin fresh and empty. Even if the things are rather good to throw away, it makes little difference in the cost of a long trip, and they aren’t wasted, for the stewardess gets them.’

I’m not entirely sure which is the odder image – a stream of substantial early 20th century knickers floating down the Suez Canal behind a steamer or the stewardess’s face as she’s handed armfuls of grubby undies at the end of the trip.

As I say, I didn’t realise I had A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts 1912 till well after I’d finished writing ‘The Wrong Sort To Die’.

In case you’re wondering what this new novel is about, it’s a spin-off from the Caster and Fleet series which I wrote with Liz Hedgecock. 

Written by me alone, it’s set in 1910. The main character is Margaret Demeray (the younger sister of Katherine of the Caster and Fleet books). Margaret is thirty-six and a pathologist at a London hospital for the poor. She has a thirst for justice and equality. She’s very independent, has a short fuse, is irritated by having to fight her corner in a man’s world, but perhaps just a little vulnerable too.

Here’s a brief blurb:

Dr Margaret Demeray is approached by a stranger called Fox to help find out what’s killed two impoverished men. How can a memory she’d buried possibly be linked to the deaths? And how come the closer she gets to Fox the more danger she faces herself? 

I’m looking forward to swotting up on ‘A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts’ for the sequel, when Margaret will definitely leave the British Isles, although not on a long enough voyage to be tempted to throw her underwear overboard. 

Or maybe she will. I’ll have to see.

The Wrong Sort To Die’ is available for pre-order with a publication date of 30th June 2020.

Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photographs from “The Queen” Newspaper Book of Travel 1912

 

The Case of the Fateful Legacy

One of my favourite books, Have His Carcase, is one in which the heroine finds a very fresh corpse on a beach and takes so long to get help, the tide has come in and swept it off by the time anyone can get to it. 

Whenever I read the efforts she has to make, I can’t help thinking ‘why doesn’t she just…’ until I remember it’s 1932 and she’s a long way from civilisation let alone any kind of phone or telegraph office. 

At least Dorothy L Sayers was writing about her own era so she knew what her characters’ challengers were. We have to research.

When writing fiction set in the past, it’s easy to forget what wasn’t around at the time. It’s hard to explain to my teenage children for example, let alone remember, that when I went to university, I had to communicate with all my friends and family by letter. It wasn’t even particularly easy to telephone unless you fancied queuing in the rain while someone told her boyfriend for the 300th time how much she loved him.

With Liz Hedgecock, I’ve been writing the Caster & Fleet series which is set in late 19th Century London. Our characters, Katherine and Connie, met in a cafe on a rainy day in November 1890 and soon found themselves unexpectedly solving a mystery. Despite disapproving relations and romantic distractions, they haven’t looked back since. 

I’m often asked how realistic we think our characters’ freedom is. Liz and I like to think their adventures are as likely as adventures in books generally are. It would be rather dull if they simply followed the norms for their generation and class. And we also know that a great many women didn’t do that anyway – they travelled the world, applied for jobs they weren’t expected to, refused to ride side-saddle, rejected corsetry. Connie and Katherine haven’t done any of those things but they push the envelope nonetheless (and frankly, if you told Katherine to ride a horse, I daresay she’d refuse to do it side-saddle too.) 

However, they’re still stuck with 19th Century communication techniques. There were more postal deliveries per day than there now. They can afford telegrams, they have a telephone each but a great many other people don’t, including Katherine’s in-laws in rural Berkshire which may only just about have some sort of telephone in the telegraph exchange by now but nothing out to any of the houses, no matter how grand. So contacting people quickly is challenging.

(This didn’t stop me from writing ‘Katherine had a series of emails to look through’ the other day, perhaps because I’m about to go back to work after a short break and am dreading doing the same thing.)

If you’ve been following the series, I hope you’ll be thrilled to know that book five in the series is ready to purchase. ‘The Case of Fateful Legacy’ starts in November 1894 with a party to celebrate James’s birthday and the success of Connie and Katherine’s business. Even the news of the death of a rather cantankerous old lady in the village can’t spoil the mood. And then – it turns out that the death might not be so simple at all and James’s sister is implicated. Connie has gone home – should Katherine bring her back to investigate? Of course she should.

If you like a country-house murder mystery, this could be for you. With action in rural Berkshire and rainy London, it will take more than toddler tantrums and troublesome relations to stop Katherine and Connie seeing that justice is done.

Out now in paperback and e-book. ‘The Case of the Fateful Legacy’ opens a box of secrets no-one knew existed.

 

Masked Mayhem

As a child I loved dressing up. Romantic ideas of being elegant and majestic were forever thwarted as anyone who has read the first story in The Advent Calendar will know but that didn’t stop me hoping. As a young adult, still intent on looking sophisticated or at least cute, I usually attended fancy dress parties dressed as a cat or Cleopatra (plenty of excess black eye make-up) and once as Little Miss Muffet (hence picture below). Since then, apart from a period in my career which required wearing a combination of eighteenth century and medieval clothes, the last time I dressed up was as Madonna in her Like Prayer era to go to a fund raising disco and no, I’m not sharing that picture.

So naturally, when Liz Hedgecock said ‘what about having some masquerade balls in book 4 of The Caster and Fleet Mysteries?’ I rubbed my hands in glee.

Speaking for myself, the closest to dressing up I’ve done since making that decision is wearing a new outfit to meet Liz and discuss editing but it was great fun deciding the themes for the balls and imagining the characters’ costumes.

But of course the book is not just about Connie and Katherine’s clothes and dancing skills. 

In the year that has passed since The Case of the Deceased Clerk, their lives have changed immensely and there’s a possibility that their days of solving mysteries together may be over. Connie is bucking the trend for women of her class and has become a hands-on mother – complicated as that is in 1893. Katherine, meanwhile is looking forward to finally having a home of her own and has been managing assignments alone for some months. A night out at a ball will simply be a break from routine, won’t it? 

Well of course not. 

Before they know it, Connie and Katherine are tangled up in secrets and scandal which threaten not only their reputations but their friendship. Only some determined investigations, baby notwithstanding, will uncover the truth. 

The Case of The Masquerade Mob is available now for pre-order on Amazon as an ebook. Paperback to follow.

 

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.

Books by Paula Harmon & Liz Hedgecock

Katherine and Connie are back on the case!