Modesty

I’ve been thinking about modesty lately.

Modesty is, of course, a human concept.

The sparrows nesting in our eaves have not been modestly tweeting that they’re nice bird-next-door types, while worrying in case they’re showing too much down.  No they haven’t. 

Instead, they’ve spent a warm, dry spring reproducing at least three times – usually right in front of us. They flaunt their feathers and yell how fantastic they are from dawn till dusk only stopping to mate, argue or fly into our house. 

Modesty is also cultural. What a person should do with clothing, hair, arms, legs or even faces, has rules (many contradictory) in every human group and era you can think of. 

Take a photograph of my great-grandmother aged 19, taken in the 1890’s. She shows an inch of skin below her collarbone and had to plead to show so much flesh. Roll on the 1920s, and my grandmother (her daughter) as a teenager, causes horror by cutting her hair and wearing knee-length skirts. Quite what either of them would make of my daughter’s fashions is anyone’s guess. I expect my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather would be apoplectic, so it’s just as well they’re already well and truly dead. 

Modesty also means not demonstrating pride. 

This is also human.

A bower-bird doesn’t worry that the nest he’s created is over-the-top. He doesn’t quietly tweet that he’s rather pleased. No – he makes the nest as over-the-top as possible so a female can see that it’s the best and only one she could want and therefore he is the only possible mate worth having.

Human attitudes to blowing one’s own trumpet do vary from place to place and era to era. In Britain, verbal self-deprecation is the norm. Part of the pleasure of watching ‘The Apprentice’ is hearing the candidates’ outrageous claims about themselves because it’s just so culturally abnormal to say such things out loud here. (Just to be clear, there’s a lot of double-thinking behind this, so if one British person gloomily says ‘this could be worse’, another British person knows it means ‘I’m really really really proud of this’. I appreciate that this is very, very, very illogical.) 

Things are changing. At school, my children were encouraged to publicly talk about things they were proud of. In my day, anyone doing that would have been called uppity and told to shut up.

So why has modesty been on my mind recently?

Firstly, I’m of a culture, generation, upbringing, gender and figure that means I worry about how much flesh I show, despite believing that if someone wants to walk around naked that’s none of anyone else’s business. (Although it’s maybe not wise in the British climate.) 

But since the breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve got so used to stripping to the waist for complete strangers, that I’m now a little afraid of bumping into a friend in the supermarket in case she asks how well my scars are healing and I show her there and then without thinking. (Given that I wouldn’t have shown as much as a freckle a few months ago this shows how trauma impacts hard-wired behaviour.)

Secondly, I’m of a culture, generation, upbringing and possibly gender that finds it hard to talk about my achievements in case people think I’m full of myself. 

This makes promoting books difficult.

I planned to set up talks in 2020 for Murder Durnovaria and The Wrong Sort to Die. Covid-19 put paid to that. I’d also intended to write some press releases but what with one thing and another, so far I haven’t. I have started an online course about advertising, yet I was daunted on the first day when tasked to praise my own books. I’d feel so much more British saying ‘this is really quite nice’ and hoping people understood.

Is this cultural, human or just me? Most writer friends say the same thing.

Imagine introducing a lovely but unconventional boyfriend/girlfriend to your lovely but eccentric parents. You’re not sure what they’ll make of each other. You want them all to get along so much, but you’re afraid they won’t and that even worse, they’ll all think you’re mad. That’s how I feel about advertising my own lovely writing to lovely potential readers. 

Worrying about promoting makes it hard to actually write anything that might need promoting sometimes and I was having one of those days yesterday.

Then my daughter told me about a creative project of her own. It’s modest (in the third sense of the word) but it’s doable. ‘I’m scared,’ she said. ‘But if I don’t try, I’ll never know if I could succeed.’ 

It reminded me of when I thought exactly the same thing, which ultimately led to me publishing Kindling and The Advent Calendar. 

I remembered why I write. I’m still doing the day job, so it’s not for money. But I’ve got richer in friends, richer in satisfaction and when Val Portelli and Liz Hedgecock liked my work enough to want to collaborate, I was truly honoured. 

I’ll never be very good at boasting about my books and am not sure if this is modesty or laziness.

But I’ll keep on writing, because there are stories inside that still want to get out, even though the current one is coming out in a chaotic muddle that I’ve yet to unravel.

I’ll keep on writing because from time to time someone says how much they enjoyed a book which is, after all, what I want. I don’t expect my books to change the world, but if people find pleasure reading them and are consequently happier, then maybe the world (which is a bit of a mess at the moment) might seem – if only for a while – like a better place. 

Being part of that makes me very happy. 

And immodest or not, and even if it makes me feel a little exposed, I also feel just a little proud.

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

In Two Minds

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.

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

Nice-breakers

How do you feel about ice-breakers?

Only asking because right now, I’m organising a meeting. It’s been in the offing for a while so I should be prepared but I’m not. 

I know that ice-breakers can make some people feel exposed and I don’t want to do that to anyone. But I’ve found one which might be useful. It’s based on mindfulness. The idea is that everyone notes down – for themselves alone – their mood, the things that are on their mind right at that moment and then, having recognised them, put them to one side ready to take part in the meeting.

We are a scattered remote-working team of people who don’t meet face to face very often. We have a challenging year ahead, but who knows what mountains people are facing in their personal lives which make work issues seem mere mole-hills.

The reason I’m behind with this is that for me, normal priorities have recently been struggling for precedence. The last two months have felt like two years. All jokes about January aside, the one that’s passed really does seem to have been twice the length of normal and February hasn’t been much better. Good friends have been going through terrible times and for my family, things started to unravel in December when my mother was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. My mother is over eighty but very lively and energetic. She doesn’t however, like to make a fuss, part of which is probably a wartime generation thing and part of which is the way her family was. Perhaps this is why when something didn’t look right, she didn’t mention it to anyone for nearly a year and then only in passing when talking about something else. (If you think something looks (or feels) odd – don’t hesitate to have it checked. Please see links below.)

Thanks to our wonderful National Health Service, Mum had a successful mastectomy in mid January. Then for no reason anyone has yet established and with a speed which shocked everyone, Mum contracted sepsis. My sister and I were told she wouldn’t survive the night. But Mum wasn’t ready to give in just yet and to everyone’s honest surprise, she survived and is back home regaining her strength day by day. 

I’m not saying any of this to gain sympathy since, as I say, some of my friends are going through even worse things and I’ve no doubt some readers may be too (other links below too). This is about me trying to rebalance and saying thank you to all those who’ve been there for my family recently.

I’m sure you can appreciate that over the last few weeks, everything but my mother, whether work, home-life or writing took a back seat. As for my vague new year’s resolutions… 

I never returned to choir practice after the first meeting because my evening routine has now changed. 

I did start learning to crochet which came in handy when sitting in intensive care (but I’ve got to be honest, no-one is getting a blanket any time soon unless they’re the size and robustness of a beetle who doesn’t mind draughts). 

And in terms of writing – which in my case this January was supposed to be generally editing something which was already behind – it stalled completely. Whereas when my father was very ill I found an outlet in writing, when Mum was, I simply froze. Perhaps that’s because Mum’s illness was so unexpected, while Dad had been ill for many years. Somehow, this time it was different. All I wrote for three weeks were texts, messages and emails.

During a lot of sitting around in the hospital, I struggled to read a novel, but did manage to read a book on the history of forensics (don’t ask me why this was easier, I’ve no idea), and trawled social media a little. On writers’ groups, I often saw people post that they just couldn’t think of what to write or get on with what they were writing. More often than not, the response was pretty much ‘just do it’. I might have replied in a similar vein: ‘you can do it – just ten words even if they’re nonsense’ but this time I replied ‘you can do it – but maybe not just now. Sometimes ten words is too much. Sometimes you just have to give yourself a break. The right time will come.’

In terms of my spiritual awareness resolution – I feel I might actually have achieved that one. Friends and family of many faiths and none were sending prayers, positive thoughts and lovely messages. My sister and I can’t thank you all enough. We felt completely surrounded by support and love in those dark, awful days when we thought we’d lose our mother. The kindness of friends, the gentle courtesy of strangers in that terrible time were like gold. 

Just little things made a difference. 

The little chap in the photograph –  about whom you may hear more in future – is Quirius The Curious Squirrel. He arrived in the post one day when things looked bleak – made with love by my wonderful friend Liz – just at a time when I was desperate for something to make me smile. Quirius sits by me when I work at home (that is when he’s not dressed up to go undercover… as I say, more in future perhaps) and keeps an eye on me to make sure I’m focussing on the right thing at the right time.

Whether or not I use that mindfulness ice-breaker at the meeting before we go on to something more business focussed, I’ll certainly try it for myself to try and keep myself on track.

This is what is on my mindThis is what’s happening that’s affecting my moodI acknowledge you but now I’m going to focus on something else for a while.

Perhaps it might help you too.

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

Breast Cancer & Sepsis

Know your Lemons – signs of breast cancer to look out for

Breast Cancer Now

Sepsis – what to look for

For anyone feeling overwhelmed just now – some helplines – someone will listen

The Samaritans

Mind UK

Accurate Records?

bring your blue shield to get a husband out of bed rather a lot of effort and he didn’t want it to have a cup of tea wrinkly…

No, I haven’t finally lost the plot (well ok maybe I’ve lost a plot but not The Plot). If you can stick with me long enough, I’ll explain that phrase later.

Is it really six weeks since I last posted anything? I just hope your autumn hasn’t been as exhausting as mine. 

As mentioned previously, my youngest child has gone to university, rendering the house empty of children (and depriving the washing machine of fodder). I remember leaving home and thinking ‘hooray – free at last’ because my parents – while being neither over-protective or over-restrictive were – let’s face it, parents. Knowing my daughter thinks the same is a little unnerving but I guess it’s my turn. 

I’ve also been privileged to be involved in organising the inaugural Blandford Literary Festival which takes place 18th-24th November 2019. If you live anywhere near North Dorset, check it out. There really is something for everyone.

Then there’s been work which has been rolling out/not rolling out/gearing up/gearing down/gearing up again/gantt charting/deadline meeting/deadline delaying/impacted by whether/when/how Brexit happens etc etc. Less said the better frankly.

Finally there’s been WORDS. I wanted the sequel to Murder Britannica to come out this July. But I ended up editing for what feels like a hundred years because of all the various distractions and pressures. Since Murder Durnovaria is set in a real place, I had a lot of background stuff to get right and it took me ages to realised a sub-plot needed to go. Meanwhile, a spin-off featuring Margaret Demeray from the Caster & Fleet series is still in edits. There’s only so much one can do when working, wrangling offspring and trying to keep on top of life in general. Sometimes it’s just the wrong time for stuff. 

But Murder Durnovaria is now on pre-order!  And children’s book The Seaside Dragon (formerly The Treasure Seekers) is finally out. 

So anyway, I promised to explain about the opening to this post. Well, my occasional co-authors have been busy too. Val Portelli is releasing the revised version of her Mediterranean romantic novel ‘Summer Changes, Winter Tears‘ on 22nd November and Liz Hedgecock has not only just released a children’s book called A Christmas Carrot (which is illustrated by my daughter) but has also been writing a spin-off from Caster and Fleet. To draft this she dictated into an app while walking – you can read all about her experiences here. She suggested I might like to do the same.

One of my excuses for not doing so is that I usually walk with my husband and he might disown me. My real argument is that I don’t always draft in a flow. Sometimes I spend more time ‘crossing out’ and rephrasing than writing. But given that I always tell my children not to be afraid of new experiences, I decided to try. I downloaded the app and being away for a short-break in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, I looked out of the window and started dictating my thoughts. These were recorded as:

Later in the morning the train still haven’t arrived wondered why she got a self talking to these things and with and people but she was really feel too thick to be doing something would be just cooking school is awesome bring your blue shield to get a husband out of bed rather a lot of effort and he didn’t want it to have a cup of tea wrinkly.. “Get out of bed you lazy AF she said and quotations probably she thought I would have worked out well.

I’d like it on record that I actually referred to my husband as a lazy oaf and have no idea what words the app transliterated as ‘cooking school’, ‘blue shield’ and ‘wrinkly’.

A couple of days later, I tried the app again and did actually try to ‘write’ something. This produced something marginally more coherent:

Open quotes I’ve got happy doing that the poultices and dealing with the herbs but I’m not so sure about is the transfusions and infusions I’m always worried that the lady to come to me will you Sumrell and I’ll get blamed for it there forever after me women you know what they’re like monthlies and headaches and stomachaches there was fussing about medicine men they just leave it to last minute and I nearly dead anyway if you can help me with that I’ll be really grateful”

It’s not exactly Ulysses is it? (And I’ve no idea who Sumrell is but I might use the name sometime.) I hope all the comma haters are happy since clearly I don’t use commas (or indeed full-stops) in my head!

I’ve yet to be convinced I can dictate streamlined thoughts, partly because I’m not sure my thoughts are terribly streamlined. All the same, I might try again sometime, maybe lounging like Barbara Cartland on a chaise-longue rather than walking through town and down by the river-bank. 

After all – it might frighten the otters. They’re a protected species aren’t they?

 

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Words Copyright (c) Paula Harmon 2019 not to be reproduced without the author’s express permission. Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay

 

Venturing Out

Often wondered how scriptwriters and comedians work on scripts together? Me too. Who gets to decide whose joke or line goes where and has an equal voice?

I think I was six years old the last time I collaborated creatively outside work.

Two of us drew a mouse. We decided to do half each. This way we could be proud of our part yet share in the glory of the overall effect. I drew a lustrous tail and beautiful furry haunches. He got the eyes and whiskers. Or maybe it was the other way round. Either way, no one could see the join (although if that mouse had ever come to life there might have been trouble).

Well that was a long time ago and I never expected to collaborate creatively outside work again.

Then I met other writers on Facebook and a strange thing happened. I started to discuss writing with people I’ve never met and share ideas which up till then were hidden in my head.

One day, during a message exchange, one of them mentioned collaboration.

Liz Hedgecock is author of a number of mysteries, many set in Victorian London. I love her stories and was flattered to be approached.

Both of us work and have families. We live a fair distance apart. A hazy plan to do something in Autumn 2017 came apart when we both decided to do NaNoWriMo in November. With the best will in the world we realised it was impossible to start something new before Christmas.

Nevertheless, we sketched out via messenger and email two unlikely Victorian female detectives: young women determined not to let the restrictions of corsets and decorum stop them from solving a crime.

We set a date to discuss the logistics on 19th January. If this all sounds very formal, it’s because we’ve never actually met in person. I shuddered at the thought of a video call, but fortunately so did Liz.

So we talked via cyberspace and plotted.

I had been nervous. What if we didn’t get on?

But it was fine. We were chatting like old friends in no time.

With a working title of The Case of The Black Tulips, our story was born.

So how are we collaborating? We decided on an approach which gives us equal input and voice. We have a character each and tell the story through ‘our’ person alone. It is like a very complex game of consequences, especially when Liz changes tack and I have to alter direction myself. Are we mad? Probably, but it is tremendous fun.

We’ve got so caught up in it that we are nearly half way through the first draft already with ideas of sequels forming. Watch this space if you like mysteries and feisty female leads because we hope to publish later this year.

I often tell people that I started writing stories because I wanted to have adventures like children in books and it was the only way to do it. I’m still writing for the same reason. My new character has found a friend and is having a wonderful adventure.

And the same is true for me.

Finding the Plot – Venturing Out part two

Put Down The Embroidery, We’re Going In

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

It doesn’t have to be “Never”

This is a post about the writing process and about perseverance. Or at least, my experience of them.

About seven years ago or thereabouts, I started a short story and then stopped after about three thousand words. It was one of many put aside because I couldn’t find the time to finish it and because the muse seemed to have upped sticks somewhere around the time I had my first baby in 1999 and she wasn’t around to tell me how to finish it.

I can’t even remember what the original inspiration was but it started as a sort of star-crossed romance as seen by the hero’s widowed sister. They have recently moved to a house in the middle of nowhere, because he has become chronically ill and she is the only one who knows what’s wrong. His illness means that he is incommunicado for twenty-four hours every month. It is during one of these periods that the sister is visited by both a sinister local busy-body who asks too many questions and by a complete (and very odd) stranger who says she’s in love with the brother but can only visit while he’s sick, which means they are never going to meet face to face and communicate again. You have probably gathered that the brother is a werewolf. I called it ‘Reverse’ for reasons which made sense at the time.

So that’s as far as I got. Along with most of my other writing, ‘Reverse’ just gathered pixel dust on the hard drive of the laptop.

In 2015, I stopped waiting until I had my perfect room and/or could give up work. I just started writing again. My muse must have been hanging out on social media, because she returned via Facebook and hasn’t left me alone since. Perhaps she didn’t like small children. She certainly doesn’t like housework as it’s pretty much a choice between it and her and so far, she’s winning. I wrote the majority of the stories for ‘Kindling’ and ‘The Advent Calendar’ in the summer and autumn of 2015 and somehow managed to complete a fifty thousand word first draft novel in November for Nanowrimo. I still don’t know how I managed it.

After getting ‘Kindling’ and ‘Advent Calendar’ ready for publishing in early 2016, I dusted off ‘Reverse’, wrote another thousand words, then put it back to one side again. Come October 2016, someone asked if I was going to do Nanowrimo again and towards the end the month I thought, ‘well I did it once, I can do it again’. I’d left it rather late, but I thought that I might as well finish ‘Reverse’ (which I thought would total twenty thousand words) and then start another project to make up the other thirty thousand words of the target.

I didn’t even get close. I started all right, but perhaps having recently begun a new role within my organisation didn’t help. By mid November I realised that (a) ‘Reverse’ was going to go beyond twenty thousand words whether I wanted it to or not and (b) I wasn’t going to even write that many by the end of the month.

I carried on through winter and early spring, writing bits and bobs when I could and when I realised that booking a week off to spend with my teenage children during their Easter holiday was pointless because they preferred sloping off with friends instead, I decided to spend the week writing instead.

To cut a long story short, I finally wrote the last of nearly one hundred thousand words at 4.50pm last Thursday. I actually shed tears. (Don’t ask me why, I’m not usually an emotional person.) My husband got home from work early to find me dewy eyed and more illogical than normal.

‘It’s finished!’ I said, ‘I feel all tearful.’

‘Why?’

‘No idea.’

‘I’ll pour you some wine.’

Despite or perhaps because of the fact that it had taken so much longer to write than I’d expected, I felt a greater sense of connection with the characters and a huge sense of loss when I’d finished than I had with the previous novel. When I finished ‘Reverse’, I felt bereavement or longing, what the Welsh call ‘hiraeth’, for a completely imaginary place and set of people which is only now starting to ebb.

My son and daughter are creative and sort of understand. My husband isn’t and thinks I’m marginally insane, but I couldn’t have done it without their support and encouragement.

For me and ‘Reverse’, I think I wasn’t in the right place (mentally) to finish it in 2010. There was a lot going on: the security of my job and my husband’s job was very uncertain, my father was very ill and I had yet to realise that I was never going to stop feeling frustrated until I started writing again. ‘Reverse’ was never supposed to be a classic werewolf story. The werewolfism was simply a means to create the inner tension and (odd as it may seem) some humour, since the story was supposed to be vaguely comic.

It started as a love story seen from the perspective of Rose, a protective third person watching from the shadows. Sometime in the last seven years, I’ve changed and so has she.

The story is now predominantly about Rose herself, about dealing with grief, about starting again, about siblings, about friendship, about rekindling dormant creativity, about ceasing to be the passive observer and choosing to control one’s own destiny, about hope and faith. The fact that her brother is a werewolf (and sometimes a bit of an idiot) is just one more thing to overcome. It’s hopefully not without humour and mystery, but I want it to convey about being caught between worlds, whether mental or metaphorical. Whether it’s any good or not, of course, is another matter.

‘Reverse’ is still in first draft and I am not sure when I’ll edit it or what it will be called. Three days after putting the final full-stop (am owning up now, I did a bit of tweaking on Friday), I am still half visualising (imaginary) Rose’s (imaginary) view from her (imaginary) house and wondering what she’s going to do today. But I have to put it to one side and let it brew. I still have November 2015’s nanowrimo to edit and that’s a completely different story in more ways than one.

Meeting a lot of local authors at a fair on Saturday was like therapy because I could tell them (even though they were all strangers) and every single one knew what I was talking about.
All of them struggle with juggling other commitments: children, work, caring responsibilities. All of them have had to put writing on hold at some point until one day, they had to pick up a pen or explode and found that the muse was waiting to whisper again.

So I’d just like to say to anyone out there who’s struggling to find the time or the energy to write or to follow any other dream for that matter: it can work out. It may not be today, but that doesn’t mean it will be never. In 2010, I thought I would never finish a story ever again, but I was wrong.

Don’t give up.

keep swimming

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

Feeling Failure

We rarely used our ancient microwave. Its main purpose was cooking peas and porridge (not together). Nevertheless it caught fire last week when all I was doing was heating up a little water in a dish to warm the dish. (Don’t ask me why I didn’t just use water from the kettle, but it may indicate my current state of mind. Plus the house was very cold, hence warming the plate.)

A couple of days after this, the internet router went into death spasms and finally croaked on Friday evening, just in time for a weekend when having access to the web was actually essential rather than simply desirable.

This seemed a fitting end to a stressful November and I’m trying to restrain the illogical superstitious nagging voice which sneers “things come in threes – it’ll be the washing machine next. Mwah-ha-ha!”

This time two years ago, everything I had ever written was for family viewing only because I was too shy to let anyone else see it. In 2015, with some prompting, I entered a local competition and then joined some Facebook writing groups and by the end of November, had managed to complete my first Nanowrimo with a thriller (completely different sort of genre for me), had written a piece of flash every day for Flashnano, had joined a local writers’ group and was, having enjoyed this experience so much, was about to launch into writing a piece of flash every day for advent too. These two sets of flash ended up as the basis of two collections of short stories: “Kindling” and “The Advent Calendar”.

So having got to the end of 2015, my plans for 2016 included: finding a new job or new role within my current organisation; self-publishing “Kindling” before June and “The Advent Calendar” in September; revising last year’s Nanowrimo novel and finding an agent with a view to maybe getting it published; finishing a novella I started a few years ago and maybe (when feeling at my most optimistic) losing two stone (twenty-eight pounds), getting fit, getting/keeping the house straight and increasing our family intake of vegetables.

Things started ok. I went running after work in January and used my Christmas money to book onto a “how to self-publish your book” course at an arts centre which counts as local if seventeen miles is local. In February, I finally braced myself to actually read my 2015 Nanowrimo novel and found it was not too terrible. I started to read bits of it out at my Writers’ Group and got some good, useful feedback.

The actual slog of revising the novel however, was put to one side as I revised “Kindling” and “The Advent Calendar” and found volunteers to be my reviewers/proof readers and tried to work out what to do about covers. Meanwhile, the “how to self-publish your book” course was cancelled. The urge to exercise waxed and waned with the outside temperatures/weather fronts and inside stress levels. All the other things were a non-starter as they had been every year beforehand.

Then again, with the help of old friends, new friends, internet friends and books by Jo Roderick (“Publish it Yourself” and “Format it Yourself”) and Rick Smith (“How to Publish your Paperback with Createspace”), I published “Kindling” at the end of September. I agonised over the design of a cover and in the end, bought one. “The Advent Calendar”, with a cover I designed myself, came out just in time for Christmas and the leader of my writers’ group organised a story evening when I would get the chance to showcase my work and maybe sell some copies of both books. I decided I would do Nanowrimo again and maybe actually finish that novella after all and should it finish short of 50k, start something else to make up the words.

Meanwhile, after seven internal applications, I finally obtained another role within my own organisation and this started on 1st November, with two days of travelling to London and back from country-mouse territory, just in time for Nano and Flashnano. All started well. But, to cut a long story short, what with work and a number of other things, I gave up on Flashnano after 11th November and on Nanowrimo on 20th (having reached 25k and knowing it would be impossible to get any further).

The day of the story evening loomed. I was immensely nervous. “Tell us something about yourself” I was advised. What’s there to say about myself? I’m just a working mother who juggles work, teenagers, husband, housework, writing despite the fact I can’t juggle. In the end, on the way to a meeting the morning of the event, I sat on the train and jotted down a plan to “tell my story” using my actual stories. The day at work then deteriorated into one of those where you end up just wanting to crawl in a hole and lick your self-confidence back from minus ten to maybe zero. From this, I had to force myself into actress mode and be a story teller, make people laugh, make people think, make people go “aah”.

Do you know what? It went well. It went really well. I should have an Oscar for that performance. I sold some books. People said nice things. They wrote even nicer things. I came home high as a kite. But at four a.m. what woke me up was the bad day at work, churning over and over and over, obliterating all the positives. And although I had already resigned myself to not finishing Nano, I still felt disappointed that I hadn’t managed to do half of what I’d done the year before.

I’m not naturally a pessimist, so what’s wrong? Why is my default to think about the things which haven’t worked out rather than the things which have? My whole life has been a series of changes of direction resulting from bad choices or bad grades or just taking different routes from the ones I meant to take or simply life getting in the way of plans as it tends to do. (For example, if I’d followed the plan I’d set at eighteen, I’d have married my first love, would now have four grown up children and be a long established, award winning novelist. Instead I married a later love, have two teenage children (aargh), am still employed and only just starting on my published journey.)

Of the many management courses I’ve been on in a long (some days it feels longer than others) career, the one which I found most useful was about coping with change. Reference was made to “the change curve”. This was established from research into grieving, when it was discovered that the same pattern of behaviour applies to major change as it does to grief. Understanding this helped me immensely a few years later when my father died. I knew I was feeling positive because I needed to do a lot of coping for myself and my mother and also knew that shortly, the grief and disbelief would kick in, followed by a period of depression and/or utter weariness, followed by picking up the pieces once more.

In November this year, I started a new job and launched two books to an audience of strangers. These two things were good but stressful. The two books were the result of a year of work and emotion.

It is now wintertime, getting darker and darker, colder and colder, a season which drains me. My daughter is about to do her GSCEs and my son, about to do his A Levels, has his first university interview next week. They are on the threshold of adulthood. It seems like a hundred years since I was at that stage of life. There was bound to be a reaction.

Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, the ability to feel positive, however illogically, is overwhelmed by negative events. I need to give myself a break. It’s just the way I feel right now.

And if you’re feeling as down as I am, you need to give yourself a break too.

watch

Words and photograph copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

The Truth, The Partial Truth and a Little Bit of Nostalgia (with explanatory notes at the end)

Yesterday, I wrote a story. I sent it to a friend for input and she said “why am I always convinced your stories are true?”

Well, the fact is that there really was some truth in that story.  In fact, there is a lot of truth in most of my stories. Some of the twists and turns may be imaginary; some of the characters and creatures may not exist; but somewhere in them is something that’s real.

Answering her question though, brought back a lot of memories. The story starts with two girls and their little sisters carol-singing round the neighbours’ houses, hoping for money. The girls have put a lot of effort in, but the local boys, without putting effort in at all, got to the neighbours first and received all the spare cash anyone was willing to give. The boys had done exactly the same thing with “penny for the guy”* a month earlier. This part of the story was pretty much true.

My friend and I were very creative. The good thing about my house, from her perspective, was that my mother absolutely didn’t care how much mess we made, whereas her mother absolutely did.  I made papier-mâché headed glove puppets and together we put on puppet shows for my sister’s birthday parties. The puppets acted out our versions of fairy tales scripted with some under-parental-radar naughtiness. Sadly I can’t remember any of them now.

She and I also organised a bunch of girls into putting on a play. The script was in rhyming couplets and had allegedly been written by another girl’s mother.  It was a classic drama with an evil villain, a swooning heroine, an elderly mother and a swash-buckling hero. We performed it for anyone we could round up, taking milk bottle tops as payment which we then sent to the Blue Peter** appeal which was raising money for guide dogs for the blind. Dad (who probably wished he could have joined in) even bought us stage paints to make our faces up with. The only lines I can now remember are the heroine’s, when faced with the choice of eviction or marriage to the villain:

“Sir Jasper, don’t be such a creep;
The snow outside is six feet deep!”

We always had our doubts that the other girl’s mother had actually written it, but on the other hand, she may have.  I wish I still had a copy.

I was lucky enough to grow up at a time when, in the absence of anything else to do, children were outdoors, unsupervised, whenever it wasn’t raining. There were few cars in our village and we could run and cycle and play tennis in the road or venture into the wilds. I grew up within five minutes’ walk of woods, old quarry workings which we called caves, mountains, two rivers, a canal and a waterfall. In the woods there might have been elves; in the mountains there might have been giants and dragons; in the caves there might have been witches; somewhere under the bracken was an old Roman road and we might meet a centurion’s ghost. It was always worth trying to find out.

If I count up the ways in which I could have died or seriously injured myself, ambling about, often alone, in all of these places, I run out of fingers. One of the local boys nearly did die, almost hanged while messing about with rope in the trees, but he survived, and so did I. The greatest danger I think I faced was when two of the nastier boys grabbed me when I was on my own and bundled me into one of the caves.  I remember being very frightened but also angry. At that moment, an older girl called out for me across the woods. Even though I was being threatened to keep quiet, I shouted back “here I am!” and the boys let me go. It was only many many years later, I realised what might have been in their minds.

Our village consisted of two roads which led off a main road. They started at the bottom of the hill and immediately parted company.  I lived on the steepest road which twisted in narrow hairpins towards the chapel and then straightened up just as you passed the big black and gold notice board with “whosoever” on it.  I loved that word.

We moved there when I was eight. The old school house was redundant and was in the process of being turned into a dwelling. There simply weren’t enough children to keep it open and we went by bus to school in the next village. Houses ranging from semis to terraces to miners’ cottages lined the road. On one side was an upward slope which led into the woods. On the other was a field which led down to the river. (The field was, much to our disgust, later turned into a housing estate.)  The river led down to the waterfall and then joined a bigger river which ran alongside the newly renovated canal.

We’d sometimes have picnics at the canal, and Dad would send us with a bottle of home-made ginger beer which he made from what he called a “ginger-beer plant”. There is another version, using a lot more fresh ginger, but this is the one he made. The resulting liquid looked utterly disgusting but was sort of nice and nasty all at the same time. I have just looked this up and this is how it’s made:

Ingredients for the ‘fake’ ginger beer plant:

Half a teaspoon of dried yeast
1 teaspoon of ground or fresh grated ginger
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup warm water
Making the ‘fake’ ginger beer plant:  Mix ingredients in a jar and cover with a piece of muslin. Secure with a rubber band. For the following week, add 1 teaspoon of sugar and 1 teaspoon of ground or fresh grated ginger daily.

Apart from a few teenagers (of no interest to us), in the village there were, as far as I can recall about ten girls and about ten boys under twelve.

One of the girls used to pop in to see her grandmother on the way to the school bus because the grandmother would open a drawer full of sweets and select something for her to take to school against starvation. Candy was discouraged in our house, so I was always jealous. On the other hand, the poor girl subsequently spent most of her teens trying to lose weight and going to the dentist.

Many of the boys were trouble.  Some of them were motherless, which might have been why they were so wild, but even so, they were a horrible bunch. They stole our apples. They set their dog on our cat (although she got her own back by slashing it across its nose). At Hallowe’en they would chuck eggs at doors and torment people by placing leering Jack O’Lanterns along their walls.

Of the nicer boys, I remember that one said he saved time at breakfast by putting his toast and marmalade on top of his cornflakes and poured his tea over the top so that he could eat the whole thing as a sort of mush.  This always appalled me, because chaotic as my house was, table manners were rigid.

As we grew out of childhood and into our teens, we spent less time outside, found friends from other places and discovered other pastimes. Our secondary education was fragmented and split us up. We attended one school in a village a bus ride away between the ages of  eleven and twelve and then another, a mile’s walk away, between the ages of twelve and sixteen. At sixteen, if we wanted to go to sixth form or college, they were in a different town altogether. At eighteen, those of us who went on to university, mostly moved away and never went back.

The point of all this nostalgic rambling is that just looking back at being eight to twelve years old, I have plenty of fuel for my imagination. So yes, a lot of the stories are true, just not entirely true.

Apart from the dragons of course…
JUST IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW:
* “penny for the guy”. I haven’t seen this for a very long time. When I was a child and where I lived, not much was made of Hallowe’en. We’d never heard of trick or treating. My husband who is the same age as I am, says he does remember it. But then he lived in a city and I lived in the west about twenty years behind. However, we did celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, also called Bonfire or Fireworks Night. Nowadays not many people do this at home as fireworks are expensive and people are more safety conscious. Except in a few places, the taste for making a “guy” (an effigy named after Guy Fawkes who, in 1606, was caught in an act of terrorism and subsequently executed) and setting fire to it, is also less popular, especially because of the sectarian implications. Back then however, children (who couldn’t care less about the political or religious aspects, but just liked the chance to get some cash) would make a guy out of old clothes and cart it round the neighbours’ houses. If you were lucky, they’d give you some cash. Sometimes you got sweets. A month later, we went round carol-singing with the same aim in mind.

** “Blue Peter” is a long running BBC TV children’s programme. It runs an annual charity appeal, giving children the chance to raise money in simple ways. I like to think we contributed to training perhaps a paw of a guide dog.

dragon
Words and photograph copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon (pottery dragon bought many many years ago in Neath, West Glamorgan, South Wales.  I would credit the maker if I could!). All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

At the Book-Signing

“I don’t really read.”
“Oh”
“But I came cos your name reminded me of someone I knew at school. In fact it’s weird. You look just like her.”
“That’s because I AM her.”
“No you can’t be.”
“I am. And I recognise you too.”
“No you’re not her. She was a weirdo. And a swot.”
“Yup. That was me.”
“Yeah but you look normal.”
“I did then too.”
“And see, it says here on the front cover ‘humour’. She didn’t have a sense of humour at all. Trust me.”
“It’s hard to laugh when someone’s hidden your stuff, beaten you up and isolated you from the rest of the class.”
“She was good at those boring things like history and English. She liked reading. She’d probably have read your book.”
“I have.”
“I always wanted to be in a book.”
“You are. Fourth story in. The one called ‘Revenge’.”
….
“That’s gross. Is that even physically possible?”
“Tell you what, take a book home with my compliments before I’m tempted to find out.”
“Nah. Like I said, I don’t really read.”

pen

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

(This was written in response to a prompt “Imagine you’re at a book signing – what happens?”)

Postal Writers’ Club – this time it’s historical

The door to the oak panelled London chop house was flung open and thick oily fog roiled round the door way. Out of its midst a strange figure emerged, seemingly a vaguely human form with a pillar on its head. As the door swung closed and the stranger moved into the candlelight, it became clear that the figure was a very short pigeon-chested man with a top hat almost half as tall as its wearer. He was carrying a briefcase in an odd colour which, if this hadn’t been most unlikely, appeared to be deep pink with a pattern of roses tooled into the leather.

“Hello” said the man somewhat squeakily as he raised his hat and reduced his height by a third. He coughed and then in a lower tone, “good evening, my name is Tobias Cake. I presume I finally have the pleasure of meeting my fellow members of the Postal Writers’ Club.”

“Sit ye down, sit ye down,” offered Sebastian Whitcher.

“A pleasure to meet you after all these months, Sir Whitcher. I little thought when I answered the small advertisement that I would become a member of such an esteemed group of such gifted wielders of the pen as this. Such a group as would…”

“Welcome,” interrupted Sebastian Whitcher quickly, staring briefly at the pigeon chest which looked rather strange. “I am, as you realise, Sir Sebastian Whitcher of Hampshire, the instigator of this endeavour. Let me introduce everyone else.” He indicated the individuals ranged round the fire and summonsed the waiter to take Mr Cake’s order.

“Here we have Miss Arabella Beamish from the Black Country; Mr Theocrates Hummerston, like you, from the West Country; Mr Montgomery Sawden and Miss Camelia Braithwaite from the North Country; Mr Daniel Brannelly from Ulster; Henry Ap Henry from Wales and Monsignor Horatio Tortellignioni who hails from a mysteries Mediterranean isle but lives in Putney. Now…”

Before he could go on, Mr Sawden, shifting in his chair somewhat, interrupted.

“There’s North Country and North Country,” he said leaning forward, “I’m a proper Northerner. I’ve even brought my own cushion because I don’t hold with soft southern practices. It’s filled with gravel. Some of us don’t spend our time tripping through daffodils and looking at lakes but out on starving moor without our hats.”

He looked pointedly at Miss Braithwaite who tried to simper. Mr Cake watched the attempt at simpering and frowned. Miss Braithwaite, despite the fluttering eyelashes and tossing of curls, looked like she could use her jaw to crack rocks. However, he was aware of Sir Whitcher’s scrutiny of his chest and tried to make it concave while still maintaining what little height he had.

Sebastian Whitcher started again.

“Now as you know, we’ve been exchanging stories by post for some months now and daily I receive applications to join our happy band. I thought therefore we should meet and before we start reading aloud to each other…” (eight people hastily withdrew their hands from various manuscripts) “we should draw up some rules. Here are my proposals.”

Carefully donning some pince nez, the baronet drew out a single sheet of paper and turning it to the light, started to intone:

“Number One: let’s call a spade a spade, or, should I say call a spade a bloody shovel, (pardon me ladies)” Arabella, apparently about to swoon was reinforcing herself with absinth.

“What I mean to say is this, let’s stop all the dashed dashes. Here’s an example from one of your stories: ‘It was a glorious day in the beautiful county of D_____ as Lady W_______ cantered up the long drive towards B_____ Castle.’ For ___ Pity’s sake, you’re authors – make something up.”

Everyone nodded.

“Number Two: fewer stories about supernatural beings or things that have come back from the grave. Your latest for example, Mr Sawden, all about the pixies’ love lorn tragedy against the backdrop of some __ forsaken wilderness. Really, can’t you use actual humans?”

Mr Sawden pouted, which looked rather odd. What looked odder was the fact that some of his five o’clock shadow was missing where he had been cupping his chin.

He protested with emotion: “but my tale is both timeless and original. No-one else has come up with anything like it. And I am desperately proud of the title: ‘Withering Sprites’!”

(In a far corner, a young lady unconnected with their party started rummaging in her reticule for some paper.)

“I would be loathe to forsake my resurrected creations” intoned Mr Brannelly, “I have been wondering what would happen if you applied the new science of electricity to body parts.”

(A different unconnected young lady not far away, stirred in her laudanum induced slumber as if the words were filtering into her subconscious.)

Miss Braithwaite gruffly disagreed, “Well I think we should be writing something, to coin a phrase, more cutting edge. Real life, that sort of thing.”

“No no!” exclaimed Signor Tortellignioni, in heavy but unplaceable accents, “who wants to read about workhouse children, pickpockets, lonely old rich women, convicts, moneylenders and so on?”

(In another corner, a strange young man put down his beer to frantically scribble with a stub of pencil on the back of an envelope.)

“I agree with Signor Torto..torto.. I agree” Mr Cake interposed. His agitation caused his shirt buttons to pop. His undershirt appeared to have lace. “Nothing happens in Dorset except the odd hanging and wife selling and milkmaids getting pregnant. And no-one understands the local dialect. Who’d read about them?”

(Meanwhile, in a fourth corner, another strange young man chewed his thumb and appeared to sink into deep thought.)

“I”ll try anything once” purred Miss Beamish in velvet tones, poking out her flat chest.

“Number Three: word limits. I think we need to agree a suitable length for our short stories.” Sir Whitcher picked up a six inch thick pile of paper and Mr Ap Henry blushed slightly. “I suggest no longer than three thousand words and for the purposes of this group, perhaps as short as one thousand. Maybe we could try and see if it’s possible to write the whole thing in five hundred, rather than using five hundred in the first paragraph just to describe the view.”

“I’ve done a dribble!” Mr Hummerston said proudly. His neighbour Miss Beamish moved her crinoline.

“You should shake it three times afterwards” said Miss Braithwaite.

“Shake what?” asked Mr Hummerston in puzzlement.

“Er, I don’t know” replied Miss Braithwaite looking suddenly disinterested.

“Well anyway a dribble is a story in six words. At least that’s what I call it.”

“Impossible!” the others chorused.

“It goes: ‘Saddle empty horses run, hooves blood-spattered.”

“Poppycock!”

“We’ll stick to 1000,” interrupted Sir Whitcher.

“Number Four: I think that within this circle we should be open and honest with each other. Who writes under a pseudonym?”

After some hesitation, all hands save his own rose in the air.

“That’s not all, is it?” sighed Sir Whitcher, staring pointedly at Mr Cake’s chest and then at the chins of Miss Beamish and Mr Sawden, “which of you is dressed as the opposite sex?”

There was more hesitation and shifting of feet and some false movements before again, all hands were raised.

Sebastian Whitcher sighed, “why exactly?”

Mr Cake said hesitantly: “it’s just so hard to get published as a woman. Editors think it’s unladylike to write tales of searing passion.”

“You write about elves holding hands in the moonlight Mr, or should I say Miss Cake. If that’s what passes for searing passion in Dorset, no wonder people sell their wives.” He shook his head, “so presumably that’s the excuse of all of the ‘gentlemen’?”

Nods.

“So what’s the excuse of the ‘ladies’?”

“Well mate, it’s like this.” explained ‘Miss’ Braithwaite leaning back in her chair and lighting a pipe. “Some of us are a bit more up to the minute than others. The thing is, the tide is changing and nowadays female writers are all the rage. It’s called a bandwagon and we’re on it. Besides, you ladies were right about corsets, but you kept quiet about the pleasures of a gentle breeze wafting about under your crinoline.” She waggled her eyebrows “come on Cake, stop blushing and get your round in. I’ve got a thousand word snippet to read and my throat’s drier than a salted tea-leaf in Arizona.”

Buckler's Hard

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission