Father’s Day is tricky for many. Some have lost fathers, some never knew their fathers, some wish they’d never known their fathers.
I was fortunate to have a father whom I loved very much and who loved me.
That’s not to say we always got on or always understood each other. We were in some ways too similar and therefore clashed – we were, for example, both ‘always right’ which is fine when you agree but if you don’t…
Then there were the ways in which we were different. He thought I’d grown up too serious, I thought he wasn’t serious enough.
I couldn’t understand quite why he didn’t recognise when or why people got upset or embarrassed. It wasn’t until my son was diagnosed with ADHD with elements of Aspergers that I realised Dad, in a different era, might have been diagnosed with some greater degree of Aspergers. It helped understand him a little better. He was loving and kind and had a heart of gold. He couldn’t do enough for people. He just didn’t quite understand them.
He died just a few days before Father’s Day in 2012. My sister and I brought our mother back to their home a few hours later to find that the postman had delivered the Father’s Day gift we’d bought for him. I’d been writing a story for another gift but not had the heart to complete it because he was so ill. It wasn’t until five years later that I did finish, and put it, with memories of a childhood with an eccentric father, the processing of grief and all the adventures that Dad might have had if only the world were slightly less real and a lot more fantastic into The Cluttering Discombulator.
Nine years have passed, and hearts can heal.
I think of Dad most days and wish I could have shared my author journey with him and helped him to find his own at last. I’m still hopeful that one day, I’ll find a way of deciphering his boxes of writing and publish some of it. I wish I could tell him I’m not as serious any more.
Mostly, I wish I could tell him I’ve drawn on him for the character of Roderick Demeray (the father of Katherine, from The Case of the Black Tulips and Margaret from The Wrong Sort to Die). But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind and my mother and sister are delighted.
In the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die (which will hopefully be out later this year), Roderick (who’s now eighty-one) has discovered that Margaret is working near a moving picture studio. How could she keep such a thing quiet?
Unbeknownst to her, he makes his way to the studio and uses his connection with her to ask if they might like to turn some of his books into moving pictures. Margaret, when she is asked to come and collect him, is mortified.
As she finally drags him away, Roderick spots a second-hand bookshop.
‘We aren’t in any hurry are we dear?’ said Father. ‘I thought we could go there.’
‘Even at this distance through the rain can’t you see how filthy and dark it is?’ argued Margaret. ‘And the owners are idiots.’
‘Those sorts of places always turn out something unexpected.’
‘You can’t imagine how true that is,’ said Margaret. ‘But not today. I need to get you home before you catch a chill.’
‘Oh Meg,’ Father’s shoulders drooped. ‘It’s a new bookshop! Or new to me. And we haven’t gone book shopping together for ages.’
Margaret checked her wristwatch. ‘Why don’t you come back to the flat instead. We can have a nice lunch and I’ll show you my copy of “The Spell of Egypt”. You haven’t read it have you?’
Father narrowed his eyes. ‘What’s for lunch?’
Margaret tried to recall that the contents of her pantry. ‘I’ll make a sort of pilaff. That’s almost Egyptian.’
‘Marvellous!’ Father stopped sulking and straightening, started walking towards the main thoroughfare. ‘What are we waiting for?’
This, for the record, is precisely what my father (who would now be eighty-three) would have done to me. Writing about Roderick feels like spending time with Dad.
I like to think that if they could meet, the two of them would talk for hours as they pored over piles of old books and maybe compared notes on hats, pipes, tea, travelling and of course, daughters.
I’m not sure which daughter would come off worst. Maybe, just maybe, it would’t be me.
Dr Margaret Demeray is returning to her Bayswater flat after a long day in a central London hospital. Meanwhile, Fox is leaving the north London hotel where he lives to join her for dinner.
Fox feels nicely anonymous in this hotel. It was modernised a few years ago and the Victorian clutter has been replaced by clean, simple elegance with clear views in public rooms and down corridors.
His suite comprises a small sitting room, bare but for a small table and chairs, a small sofa and a desk in which he keeps the bare minimum of items, an adjoining bathroom and a bedroom complete with large bed with a dark blue cover, gleaming wardrobe, dressing table and bedside tables.
Before leaving for Bayswater, he straightens the clothes in his wardrobe so that none of them will crease, and then straightens his only photograph of Margaret which is on the left hand bedside table. It’s snapshot of her drawing in a sketch book, one of her ridiculous hats discarded to the side. Because of the way she’s sitting, her face is obscured by a long curl which has come loose and has the sun shining through. His memory colours it glowing auburn and he chuckles at her insistence that it’s brown.
The drawer contains a bible supplied by the hotel, two magazines: Motor Cycling and The Penny Magazine and one book: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.
He and Margaret would like to visit the Cévannes and perhaps find the place where her Huguenot ancestors came from. He’s teased her by suggesting they do so by donkey and stay in a tent. He’s hoping when he tells her that he’d really like them to travel by motor cycle and stay in remote auberges, she might be might think it enough of an improvement to say yes.
Also in the drawer, Fox keeps a photograph of himself aged four sitting on his mother’s lap. They are both smiling, cuddled up in a large leather chair with a spaniel puppy at their feet and his father behind, looking down on them. No one who went through his things could know who any of them were. Nor could they identify where they were. It’s impossible to see the numerous tables and portraits and whatnots and plants and ornaments which filled that room – indeed the whole house, but Fox can see them in his mind’s eye and smell his father’s pipe-smoke and his mother’s perfume. Visiting Margaret’s father’s home brings it all back, only with more talk of dragons and with a suburban instead of country view from the windows.
The puppy was called Bouncer and died during Fox’s first year at university.
One day he’ll have a dog again.
Fox checks his appearance in the long mirror. After some consideration, he changes his cufflinks to ones that suit his tie and the handkerchief in his breast-pocket better. Checking that the room is neat, he dons his overcoat, collects his hat and picks up the wine he bought earlier. He couldn’t borrow the car this evening and he doesn’t want to use the motor-cycle and get grubby and creased again, having spent half an hour scrubbing himself clean after a day spent undercover. His journey to Bayswater will be a little tortuous but he smiles. He can’t wait to be somewhere where he isn’t anonymous.
Margaret is glad to be home. The tube was stiflingly hot, but outside the February air is close to freezing point.
The shared outer door of the house where she has her flat is cherry-red with gleaming brass fittings. The little covered porch with its boot scrape and sisal mat has been swept out and today at least, Margaret doesn’t need to balance on the doorstep removing muddy shoes to leave there.
Inside the front door, the hall – which runs right down to the garden is tiled in red and black and rather dark. What light comes through the quarter light on the door catches the metal fittings on the elephant foot umbrella holder and various hefty pieces of Benares brass which the Winsons brought back from India when Mr Winson retired in 1900, four years before he died.
Afterwards, Mrs Winson sold the upper floor and attic to Margaret (although she only uses the latter for putting things into that she doesn’t really need or want anymore but can’t bear to get rid of).
Margaret tends to find herself creeping up the carpeted stairs and is never sure why. Mrs Winson, who is rather reserved, will occasionally pop out into the hall to see what’s what but when she does she’s always smiling and friendly if a little baffled. After seven years, Margaret is still unsure if this is shyness, disapproval of Margaret’s profession/odd hours/friends or simply deafness. However Mrs Winson willingly takes care of Juniper, Margaret’s cat, unless she’s away when Margaret’s sister Katherine flat- and cat-sits instead, so she can’t disapprove that much.
Margaret’s inner front door, which is cream, could do with another coat of paint but it’s nice to close it behind her. She puts her keys on the hall stand – a narrow table with a marquetry scene and some rather intricate curlicues and carvings. It was her maternal grandmother’s and somehow reminds her of that dainty old lady with her lace and brooches and the colourful, incomprehensible embroidery she never seemed to finish.
To Margaret’s left is the W.C. which is plain, hygienic and functional. Next to it is the bathroom which is also plain, hygienic and functional. Margaret would like it to be prettier but is not prepared to compromise on cleanliness, partly because her woman-who-does, Dinah, only comes four days a week and on the others, cleaning is Margaret’s responsibility. The bathroom has bottles of coloured bath-salts to brighten it and smells of a heady combination of rose-scented and Pears soap. Margaret has painted a wreath of roses in enamel around the edge of the basin to make it pretty. The bath is enormous – easily big enough for two.
Opposite is Margaret’s bedroom. She bought the Arts and Crafts furniture seven years ago. Since today’s not one of Dinah’s days, it’s just as Margaret left it that morning. The deep purple eiderdown on the double bed is slightly askew. All the cupboard doors and clothes drawers are ajar. She’d think she’d been burgled if she didn’t know that she’d simply woken late that morning. Margaret regrets changing her mind about what to wear at the last moment and dumping her now creased blouse and skirt on the chair rather than hang them properly. She tidies up before replacing her day dress with something prettier, then brushes out her hair, leaving it loose.
She opens the window to call her cat. Despite the cold, Juniper is sunning herself on the low roof of the ground floor extension directly outside. On summer days, Margaret sometimes joins her. Once out she went out there in the pouring rain at night, however she doesn’t recommend it.
On her bedside table is a photograph of Fox looking quizzical and a variety of reading material. Today the options are: an article about new dissection techniques, A Room With A View by E.M. Forster, The Road by Jack London and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Margaret is capable of reading all of them or only one of them depending on how her day has been. Alternatively she might open the drawer in the left-hand bedside table. Inside that are her prayer book and New Testament which she consults occasionally, and also the copy of Heidi and The Blue Fairy Book which were given to her for the Christmas when she was six. She remembers Katherine reading them to her and the comfort they found as two recently motherless girls whose father was lost in grief. When she’s had a bad day she’ll read Heidi, when she’s had a really bad day, she’ll read the fairy stories.
Leaving her bedroom, Margaret goes to check that she at least left the kitchen tidy. She’s a keen cook and wishes the kitchen were bigger and better-equipped. She has a medium sized stove, a large sink, a small piece of counter, some wall cupboards and a pantry against the coldest wall. She’d like a fridge but apart from the expense and the weight, there’s no room unless she loses the pantry. Although she has a shelf of cookery books, Margaret tends to cook by instinct. She likes curry and fish but rarely cooks them as the smell pervades the whole flat, which is one reason why she doesn’t let Fox loose in the kitchen, as he tends to burn things in his impatience. The other reason is that he leaves an unholy mess. Margaret has sent her two favourite recipes to Mrs Aubrey Dowson, who is collating recipes for a cookery book to raise funds for the suffrage cause. She – Margaret that is – is rather worried that she got the measurements wrong since she usually does everything by eye and had to guess.
Margaret collects two glasses and cutlery and goes to the sitting room.
This is her favourite place. A sofa and armchair covered in a modern, warm-red floral design face the fire. On the mantlepiece are photographs, various ornaments from fancy modern candlesticks to an object whittled out of a twig by her nephew when he was eight which he swore was a cat, a clock, invitations and postcards. It’s awful to dust.
To one side of the fireplace on a low table is the new telephone. Margaret has mixed feelings about the telephone. There has been not one single crisis since it was installed, but it always rings at the wrong time.
The art is eclectic, some of it Margaret’s own work. There are seascapes, portraits, scenery, sketches of London. One wall is dominated by a bookcase which needs reorganising again. Poetry, Nietzsche, a book on obstetrics and The Spell of Egypt have somehow got jumbled together.
A small desk covered in papers is set to one side but she hasn’t time to tidy it.
A table is set against a wall. It can be brought out into the middle of the room if necessary, but for two, it’s fine where it is and Margaret lays it for dinner, exchanging the small vase of flowers for one of the fancy candle sticks.
She puts a recording of Debussy’s Clair de Lune on the second-hand gramophone before looking out of the window into the little park and then along the pavement.
She never knows when or how Fox will arrive.
If, one day, he landed a bi-plane in the park, it somehow would not surprise her. She hopes he’s had a safe day. She’s now known him eight months – he’s elusive, annoying, unpredictable and she knows infinitely less about him than he knows about her.
Then she spots him.
He’s walking along whistling, his hands in his pockets and a bottle of wine under his arm.
Her heart pounds as soon as she sees him and as ever, she’s not entirely sure if it’s just love or knowing that whatever else is true, without him, her heart may as well not beat at all.
Fox tucks the wine more safely under his arm and starts to whistle as he increases his pace. The air is crisp and dry. He’s nearly at Margaret’s flat and sensing her watching for him makes him feel warm. He’s now known her for eight months – she’s short-tempered, often spontaneous about the wrong things and frequently secretive about the silliest issues. He hopes she’s had a good day and not too tired to finally tell him what’s on her mind.
My own sister was born when I was three and a half. My delight wore off when I realised she was getting more attention than I was.
She had dark brown hair and big brown soulful eyes. I was mousy and sulky looking. She seemed good at making friends, I was rubbish at it. She, despite being a tomboy, was given pretty frilly clothes. I, despite being a romantic daydream, was given practical ones. Was I jealous of her? Yes. Were we close as children? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Whenever we shared a bedroom, I’d tell her or read her stories. When there was a thunderstorm, she’d climb into bed with me. When bullies picked on me, she’d offer to beat them up. Otherwise, except in the holidays, the gap was too large to cross for us to be close.
It wasn’t until we were twenty-two and nineteen, when she moved from the family home to start her first job, that we ended up sharing a house and became closer. We could argue without anyone going off in a sulk or feeling misunderstood – they were honest, open arguments which we worked through until we had a win-win resolution.
I think she’s dippy. She thinks I’m bossy. But it doesn’t matter.
I know we’re both extremely lucky in this regard. I know plenty of siblings who can’t say the same. But as for us, my sister is one of my very best friends. One day, we’ll go on a mad-old-lady road trip together. Although I’m not entirely sure which I trust least: her driving or her navigating…
All this got me thinking about two of my characters who are sisters. I’m working on the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die at the moment. The main character, Margaret Demeray ‘started out’ (in a book sense), as the annoying younger sister of Katherine Demeray in The Case of the Black Tulips which I co-wrote with Liz Hedgecock. The gap between these two sisters is nearly nine years. By the time it’s 1911, they are very close but maybe it wasn’t always so. Here’s an extract from the sequel, where something Fox says reminds Margaret of a moment from her childhood:
When Margaret had been aged seven, the family went on holiday in the New Forest. Running off on her own, she’d found a perfect, climbable young oak, just waiting for her. She removed her shoes and stockings, knowing any damage to them might give her away afterwards, then climbed.
Thirty years later, she recalled the bark scraping her bare legs, the ache in her arms and the freedom of feeling hidden in the leaves with no one to tell her what to do. She saw Aunt Alice and Katherine hunt for her, their voices anxious and strained. ‘Meg! Meg! Where are you?’
It was Katherine who spotted the shoes and stockings at the bottom of the tree and peered up into the branches. ‘Come down this instant!’
‘Oh Kitty, you come up. It’s marvellous!’
But Katherine refused. She’d stood there hands on hips, with the all the dignity a sixteen year old can manage, looking snippy.
At the time, Margaret had been convinced that her big sister had wanted to climb the tree but was too boringly absorbed in being nearly grown-up to let herself try.
But now that Margaret thought back with an adult mind, Katherine’s remembered face was not so much angry as hurt and terrified.
So, thinking about this and because I’ve got a small request at the end, I thought I’d interview both Katherine and Margaret to see how they’re similar or different, and what they both remember of the incident in the New Forest.
It’s January 1911
What is your full name? Do you have a nickname (if so, who calls you this)?
Katherine: Katherine Mathilda King née Demeray. My immediate family call me Kitty sometimes. Not my husband though.
Margaret: Margaret – I’m not telling anyone till I have to – Demeray. Only my father, sister and aunt call me Meg.
Where and when were you born?
Katherine: Fulham, 4th May 1865
Margaret: Fulham, 16th January 1874
Where do you live now, and with whom?
Katherine: In a house in Bayswater with my husband James, 16 year old son Ed and four domestic staff.
Margaret: In a flat in Bayswater with my cat Juniper.
What is your occupation?
Katherine: I’m a private investigator working with Connie Lamont.
Margaret: I’m a pathologist in St Julia’s Chest Hospital for the Poor.
How would you describe your childhood? How much schooling have you had?
Katherine: Our mother died when I was fifteen. Until then everything was very happy. But then our father took me out of school on the grounds that a middle-class girl didn’t need a formal education as she’d never need to work, she just needed to find a husband. He continued teaching me at home but it was very eclectic and patchy as he tended to go off for months on his travels. Aunt Alice took over as much of our nurture as she could. She was only in her early thirties and I now realise she set aside any matrimonial hopes to help raise us. I fear I gave her a hard time but I was heartbroken about losing Mother and bitter about leaving school.
Margaret: I was six when Mother died and I barely remember her. Father, while good fun sometimes, always seemed very distant. As Katherine says, he was forever going off to do research for his books and when I was thirteen, he disappeared for years and we thought he was dead. I gave Aunt Alice a hard time too. She seemed so very determined we be ladylike and it was so very dull. I can’t thank Katherine enough for arguing the case for my staying on at a good school till I was eighteen, and when Father disappeared and the money started to run out, asking our uncle to pay the fees.
Did you ever climb trees as a little girl?
Katherine: no. But I remember Margaret doing it. It was less than a year after Mother had died and Father took us to the New Forest, then retreated into his room to write his books. We were all so miserable. And then one day, Margaret disappeared. She was only little. I thought someone had abducted her or she might be lying injured somewhere and we’d never find her again and that would be another person lost to me. It was one of the worst few hours of my life.
Margaret: I’d forgotten that completely until recently. I can only say that at the time I just too young to realise how anyone else might feel. I suppose I was partly running from all the grief that was dragging us down which I couldn’t understand or manage. All I can remember of that day is feeling free for a while – light – as if a weight had dropped. To be honest, it was one of the best few hours of my life. I’m really sorry.
Did you have any role models?
Katherine: I had people I didn’t want to be like. I didn’t want to be as diffident as Aunt Alice or as judgmental as Aunt Leah but… actually my role model was our lodger Mina Robson. Her life had gone a bit wrong, but she just picked herself up and did something rather than wait for someone to rescue her. She quietly gave me the courage to do the same when I decided to find a job against Aunt Alice’s wishes.
Margaret: I could name any number of famous female doctors, but the honest truth is that Katherine is my role model. If she hadn’t had the courage to get a job and then start working with Connie, I daresay I’d have settled for trying to find a rich husband rather than think a woman could do anything more interesting and then doing it.
When did you have your first kiss, and who with?
Katherine: proper kiss? It was with my husband James when I was 25.
Margaret: I’m not telling but I certainly didn’t wait till I was 25.
What is your greatest fear?
Katherine: failing the people I love.
Margaret: losing the people I love.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Katherine: nice clothes. We went through a long time of having to alter old dresses and trying to change a skirt designed for a 1880s bustle to a simpler 1890s style was no mean feat. I don’t know what we’d have done without Aunt Alice.
Margaret: Yes. Nice clothes all the way. And hats. And handbags. And shoes.
Would you be able to kill?
Margaret: to protect someone or stop an evil? Yes. I wouldn’t want to, but I think I could.
What three words would others probably use to describe you?
Katherine: determined, short and (unfortunately) carroty-haired
Margaret: principled, fiery and (if you ask Fox) impetuous
What smells do you associate with your childhood?
Both: Ada’s baking!
Katherine: no-one made cakes like she did.
Margaret: Even thinking of it now makes my mouth water. Come on Kitty, let’s find a tea-shop.
Now it’s your turn:
Liz Hedgecock and I would love to do a Q&A about the Caster & Fleet series. For this – we need some Qs of course.
We’d love to know from anyone who’s read the books whether you have any burning questions about the process, the plots, the spin-offs – serious, curious or plain silly. Please either comment below or email me at email@example.com. (In case you don’t know: we have six books in the original series which is set in 1890s London, featuring Katherine Demeray and Connie Swift, plus a Christmas novella. We got so involved in our books that we individually took two side-characters and decided to find out what happened to them in spin-off series. I just have one in the Margaret Demeray series (so far – hoping the second will be out later this year) set in the 1910s and Liz now has four in the Maisie Frobisher series set in the 1890s. All are available on Amazon.)
Names hold power. People gain identity when they’re named. It may not be the identity they want, or in the case of foundlings or slaves bear any connection with their ancestry but it’s the one they’re given. In older times, the right birth-name might protect a baby from another realm and a ‘real’ name might be given at puberty to indicate something crucial – perhaps even a secret, spiritual name known only to a select few.
The parents’ religious beliefs might lead them to name a child after a saint or prominent preacher or an idea, although nowadays, it’s quite possible to be called Joseph, Spurgeon or Makepeace without any religious implication at all.
Whatever you’re called and why, do you shape your name or does it shape you? Will you turn out differently depending on whether you’re called Andrew or Aloysius or Artichoke?
My own name isn’t even a noun. It’s an adjective, the feminine of Paulus, Latin for small. I am small, but my mother says she just wanted a name that couldn’t be shortened. Naturally it has been shortened most of my adult life, although never by my mother.
I was asked for suggestions when my sister was born and am responsible for her being called Julia which I chose from a book about a little girl who had a fluffy chicken. Given that I was three at the time, I suspect my sister is named after the chicken. Mum thought that no-one could shorten Julia either, but naturally they do.
As far as my own children were concerned, my husband and I argued and argued until we finally agreed. This involved, believe it or not, trailing through the cast lists in a TV listings guide to find something we both liked.
In contrast, you’d think it would be comparatively easy for a writer to name characters. I invented them, so I should have free rein. But actually, even though I do substantial research, it’s the character who tells me what they’re actually called.
In Murder Britannica and Murder Durnovaria, the characters are almost entirely Romano-British. Some are citizens and have adopted Roman or Romanised names. Others aren’t and/or haven’t. Lucretia is really called Rhee, but her father, wanting to get the most of the Romans re-named her Lucretia which means ‘profit’.
The average Briton in the 2nd Century AD would have spoken what is now broadly covered by the word Brythonic which over time became Welsh, Cornish, Cumbric and Breton with close links to Gaelic. The richer and more influential Briton would also have spoken Latin. And then they’d probably have mixed things up, had nicknames and dialects. My Romano-British characters therefore might be called something Latin, Brythonic, Welsh or entirely made-up.
Some have names which fit their personalities: Eira (Welsh for snow) is rather cold and Deryn (Welsh for bird) is more comfortable with nature than people. Then there are Dun and Gris whose names suit two muddy grave-robbers. However, while I was writing the third book, Dun reminded me in Brythonic and Gaelic, Dùn means fort and there’s more to him than I’d given him credit for. (If you love words, here’s a fascinating site to explore Brythonic Word of the Day).
Once in the right country, I’ll find the approximate decade when a character would have been born and see what resonates.
In The Wrong Sort to Die (set 1910), the main character Margaret (born 1874) had originally come into being as the younger sister of Katherine (born 1865) in The Case of the Black Tulips (set 1890). Katherine is one of my favourite names but I can’t actually recall how I came to ‘discover’ Margaret. She probably just told me when I wasn’t paying attention. Fox however, just popped into my head fully formed and fully named (if of course, that’s really his name).
The book also features a Goan Catholic who’s moved to London, married an Englishwoman and had children. Goan Catholic names have Portuguese roots and I found ones online that he and his English wife were most likely to give their children which might subsequently be Anglicised. They felt just right in the end.
Like many writers, I have novels in a cyber drawer. Some have characters whose names feel perfect. But not all.
In 2015 I wrote a 50,000 word novel for Nanowrimo. This formed the basis of a longer book which I edited and sent to Beta readers for input. To my disappointment, they mostly concluded that the main character is very boring. After I’d licked my wounds, I had to agree. For more than half the book she is extremely passive and remains in a horrible situation for no logical reason.
At the moment, she is called Sarah. I have no idea why I picked that name but now thinks she’s somehow a grown-up human version of my old doll Sarah-Jane who equally didn’t have much personality. Maybe that’s what’s part of her problem.
So I’ve since concluded that Sarah can’t be her real name and put the book very much back in the cyber drawer. While the sub-subconscious works out how to make her more engaging (and more importantly, pro-active) I’m living in hope that she’ll wake up and tell me what she’s actually called because that might really help.
Research though can lead to unexpected ideas. Recently, I bought a second hand book called ‘The Romance of Parish Registers’. It’s a lot more fascinating than it sounds. For example: how about the surname Clinkadagger recorded in Cranford parish registers in 1630 or Drybutter recorded in Barking between 1558-1650? And a register in Denham Bucks records that Henry Criple married Easter Christmas on 7th September 1704.
I have been pretty conventional with my naming so far, but who knows? It may not just be Sarah who needs to less boring…
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.
I was one of those weirdos at school who was good at both English and maths.
I craved both pretty things and books. I liked to be girly and have adventures. I loathed wearing trousers but despite always wearing a skirt, I could climb trees, could go exploring and when necessary, could slap a trouser-wearing bully in the face.
I’m still that girl really. My mind has two distinct paths of travel.
My day-job is project-based and I plan, process-map, analyse and present data etc etc in meticulous detail. But when it comes to writing….
I really do try. The plans for my first two novels (neither of which have seen the light of day) were intricate. But one is convoluted and illogical and the other is miles too long. The thought of all the editing required to make either of them readable is enough to make a statue weep.
I’ve since learnt a lot. I’ve accepted that creatively, I’m more of a panster than a detailed plotter. (That’s a writer flying by the seat of their pants. Perhaps I should I say I’m a skirtster.) I’ve stopped shoe-horning characters into a plot and instead let the characters decide what to do with the situation chucked at them.
So if they do something stupid, it’s not my fault, it’s because of the contradictions in their personality. Margaret while analytical and scientific, relaxes by sketching. She’s independent, capable and brave, but underneath afraid of letting people close enough to let her down. How rationally she behaves depends on which aspect of her personality is predominant at any given moment.
In the ‘novel in progress’ (set around 14 months after Murder Durnovaria), the main character Fabio (last seen in Murder Britannica) wants to be left alone to create music. To do that, he needs to tune out of what’s going on around him. But he’s also an excellent hunter for which of course, he needs to tune into what’s going on around him. At the point I’ve got to in writing, he’s got things the wrong way round and hasn’t noticed the pack of wolves watching his every move…
So depending on how they respond, Margaret might end up in even deeper trouble or equally she might gain something important. And Fabio might end up as a tasty meal unless the wolves want something else and he needs to react emotionally rather than logically.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to balance opposing things like: writing about a bitter winter when for me, it’s midsummer, and describing busy taverns when pubs have been shut for over three months.
The bird in the picture below clearly thought being in two minds gave her options. In a pub garden last year, she risked getting close enough to snaffle a piece of ready-salted crisp to add to her nutritious beakful.
My analytical mind wonders whether crisps are a good accompaniment to earthworms.
My creative mind says ‘yuk’.
I know which I’m listening to this time.
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.
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.
(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.
Eighteen years ago at this precise moment, I was cradling my new-born daughter while perusing the hospital’s options for dinner. Since halal chicken curry was the best it could offer, I went home for my husband’s home-made chilli con carne instead.
My husband was aghast. He had been looking forward to one last night of peace before the baby and I came home and our 22 month old son came back from his grandparents. But then, my husband wasn’t the one looking at the menu. Nor did he have to try and sleep in a maternity ward.
The tiny bundle who completed our family was a mystery of course. She slept, fed a little, took a hazy look at her parents and decided it was better to go back to sleep.
She burst out crying at the first sight of her brother. He burst into giggles. They’ve been arguing, laughing, shouting, plotting, fighting, playing games together ever since.
My daughter, unlike my son, pretty much slept through her first two years. Then she emerged as a very individual, funny, fiery and no-nonsense little girl and hasn’t looked back.
By that time, I’d realised the character of one’s children is not really entirely under parental control. We loved our children the same, we did our best to give them the same opportunities and not gender stereotype with toys and colours. But of course, they’ve turned out to be – themselves.
It’s a lot simpler to make up a fictional character than to mould a real one. Isn’t it?
Actually it isn’t. When I started writing, I think the characters I created for the main point of view tended to be observers. I’m not entirely sure why but I suspect it was something to do with them being some aspect of myself watching things unfold.
With my second completed manuscript, I realised what I was doing early on and decided I didn’t want the character to simply observe but to take part. Before I knew it, the story was about her and not about the person I originally intended it to be about. That story is still waiting to be edited.
By the time I started writing other things, which have since been published, I’d started finding out how important it was to know who the characters were outside of the page. When is their birthday? What’s their favourite colour? Who were their parents? Their religious views? Their politics?
Is that important? Maybe.
What’s more important in my view, is not only who do I think they are, but who they think they are and who they want others to think they are. For some characters the last question is an irrelevance. They see the world as centring on themselves. Their view of who they are in not to be questioned. The idea that someone else may perceive them as arrogant, foolish or frightening wouldn’t cross their mind. Others are acutely aware that they are vulnerable. For all sorts of reasons they present a persona of confidence and capability when underneath they’re struggling and lonely. Others are the reverse: they appear shy and timid to others but in reality they feel quite at ease with the world.
I recently went to a workshop on characterisation run by Rosanna Ley. If you ever get the chance to go to one of her workshops, I can recommend them.
With me, I ‘took’ the main character from the first full-length book I wrote, currently code-named LHG. I am still not happy with it. Why? Mainly because the main character is still largely an enigma to me. She is supposed to be fiery, but isn’t. She is supposed to have strong views but doesn’t. She is the only main character I’ve ever written whom I can’t ‘find’. Like my sleeping baby from eighteen years ago, I have no real idea who she actually is yet.
The workshop made me think of some of the things that were missing about her. They may or may not be things that will ever factor in the book if I ever get it to the point when I’m happy with it, but they are part of who she is. One of the questions was ‘where is she at home?’ I had never considered that. She is a small-town woman who yearns to be elsewhere. But she’s never actually been elsewhere – so where does she feel mostly herself? It may sound like nothing, but I feel as if this may actually be a key to her. Eventually when I get there, I may even change her name.
Today has been a funny sort of day with endings and beginnings. My youngest child became an adult, another novel was finished and added to the ‘to be edited’ pile. The latter will almost certainly be ready before LHG. I feel both a little sad and a sense of completion.
Incidentally, my daughter’s never entirely forgiven me for that decision to go home the afternoon she was born rather than stay in hospital. It was census day and all the babies born in the hospital on 29th April 2001 were given a babygro with ‘I’m a census baby’ printed on the front and individually named in the local paper – except my daughter. They forgot to give us the babygro and she’s in the paper as ‘and also another little girl.’
My baby is now a woman, complete with a liking for espresso. I am proud of who she is and hopeful for what she will become. How much I have moulded her I have no idea. She certainly doesn’t get the taste for coffee or cynicism from me.
But she definitely gets her argumentative streak.
And long may it continue for both of us.
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.