Bones, Stones and Long, Long Roots

Today, my husband and I dug up two old bones.

One was definitely some sort of leg joint, the other, which had snapped, was harder to distinguish. ‘I assume they’re not human,’ I said, dubiously.

For the record, we weren’t on an archaeological dig, but clearing a part of the garden which was once thought of as a bit of No Man’s land between us and the house behind, until the house behind wanted to do some building work and everyone looked at their deeds and realised the No Man’s land was actually ours. 

Equally for the record, I’m not talking massive country estates or old manor houses here. Our house is an average sort of house and the oldest bits of it are from the 1950s, prior to which acres and acres of land around us, now covered in houses, was farmland. But the boundaries for our house are so inexplicably and unnecessarily complicated, the solicitor spent two hours explaining them to us when we bought the house.

No one in their right mind would call me a natural, enthusiastic or good (or even adequate) gardener but there’s something about doing battle with hidden roots, identifying what to keep and what to dig up, and nurturing the new things I’ve planted, that helps my mind do much the same to any plot problem. What do I need to remove that’s killing the thing I need to live? What needs more care? What looks like a weed but is in fact something useful and precious? Or vice versa. So I’ve been enjoying putting my back into something different over the last couple of weeks, to help straighten things out creatively in my subconscious.

I’ve found working on the current ‘work in progress’ hard, because it’s part of a series set in the run up to World War I and naturally, right now, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels between the tensions in the 1910s and what’s happening in 2022. I consequently decided a while ago, to change to a slightly different tack – removing most of the international sabre-rattling and worse that were the background to a plot set in 1913 because it felt far too much like what is going on just now. 

But of course this put me back and meant removing perhaps thirty thousand hard-written words. It also meant I needed to review the backdrop to my story, which is now what on the surface appears to be a slightly calmer 1912. 

Maybe this was unnecessary (and the excised work won’t be wasted) but it feels right to me.

But it’s not all bad. Whatever the era, for most people, most of the time, while the things to worry about range widely from impending international crises to what to have for dinner, for most people, most of the time, the latter is higher up the list of importance, largely because it’s easier to control. Otherwise, at the point when the crisis directly impacts on us, we would not have the mental or physical resources to handle it.

I’m reminded of the letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during WWII which I ‘inherited’. He was in his forties and working in a reserved occupation in central London during the day and a Home Guard at night. My grandfather stayed in the family home in London, while my grandmother took my father (then about two) to live with relations in the countryside. (My mother’s family did something similar, but that’s another story.) My grandfather wrote to my grandmother about all sorts of things. He rarely mentioned the war at all. This stops me from trying and cram every significant historical event into a book, because at any given time, people don’t always realise which events are significant and often give many of them more than a passing thought or moment of interest.

In the period covered by the book I’m working on, the enquiry into the sinking of the Titanic has just begun and over five hundred households in Southampton are mourning a family member due to the disaster. The latest in a series of major strikes across the country is one by East End garment workers. Meanwhile, the Royal Flying Corps has started up as a branch of the armed forces and warplanes are being constructed. Suffragettes are stepping up the militancy of their campaign for the vote. So far, so gloomy.

On the plus side the National Insurance Act is about to be passed, which will ultimately put an end to the need for workhouses. And on the ‘moving forward if nothing else’ side, the Home Rule Bill has been passed in the Commons as a stepping stone towards Ireland’s long-awaited independence.

On the plus plus side, the Stockholm Olympics are on, and Britain wins ten golds, fifteen silver and sixteen bronze. British female athletes win medals in tennis, diving and swimming. 

And on the plain ridiculous front, one of the Olympiad events is Tug-of-War, in which only two teams competed. A team of Stockholm police from the host nation Sweden are up against a British team comprising London police (five from the City of London Police and six from ‘K’ (Stepney) division of the Metropolitan Police). The game ends when the British team succumb to exhaustion and sit down, thereby conceding defeat.

In the book, my characters are ordinary people whose lives are trundling along peacefully (with the possible exception of Fox’s life) until something happens to derail them. 

Some of them – Margaret Demeray and Fox in particular of course – are more informed than others. Some characters are more reliable and honest than others. Many read about current things in the paper and then largely forget them. Others don’t read about them at all. People get up, go about their daily duties, go to bed. Some lose someone or something. Some grieve. Some fight. Some heal. Some commit crime. Others solve crime. They fall in love, they bring up families, they laugh and play. They all wonder what’s for dinner. 

(Not all the same people are doing all those things at once of course. That would be very exhausting.)

While most of the ‘events of 1912’ above will have a mention in the book, only a few will have a personal significance to any of the characters. The key thing will be that someone, somewhere is dead before their time and Margaret and Fox need to find out why and do something about it.

I’m sometimes asked why I enjoy writing and reading murder-mysteries when I’m naturally a peaceful sort of person. The answer is that I think there is something in the psyche of most of us that enjoys reading something where we can face our fears in a fictional format and see justice to some extent being done. To me, that perhaps explains murder-mysteries’ popularity and certainly explains why I like reading and writing them. Why historical murder mysteries? That’s a whole other subject.

So it was helpful to root through these thoughts as I dug up weeds and brambles and endured the stings of nettles on my hands and arms. (No, I didn’t save any nettles to make soup and yes my arms are still tingling.)

But none of the thinking got No Man’s land cleared. 

I threw another long, unidentified and unwanted root into the composting bag, while my husband contemplated the bones.  

‘I don’t think these are human,’ he said, scanning me from head to foot and clearly doing a mental comparison of what might have be a femur in his hand and my (rather short) leg. ‘But I gather there was a piggery here once, and pigs will eat anything. Who knows? Mwhahahaha!’

‘It’s no good offering that to me as a plot suggestion,’ I said. ‘It’s been done.’

‘Meh,’ said my husband, chucking what was hopefully nothing more sinister than someone’s dog’s long lost treasure on the pile of non compostable stuff.

‘Why can’t we find something useful that might earn us some money?’ I complained. ‘Like an Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold coins? Or a Roman mosaic?’

‘I don’t fancy digging that deep,’ he muttered. ‘And you never will, you slacker. Come on – get back to nettle-pulling or there’s no wine for you later.’

So I did.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image from Pixabay. (No, it’s not my garden!)

Something and Nothing

My son and I were discussing star signs the other day. Apparently I’m supposed to be good at organisation while my dislikes include absolutely everything at some point or other. We both laughed at the latter as it’s unfortunately quite true (although not necessarily for very long) but when he raised doubts about the former, I asked him who in the family knew where everything was, when everything was happening and who was supposed to be doing what at any given time, he had to concede that it’s me (if only so I’d tell him where his stuff is). 

My organisational skills are not obvious in our generally untidy house. This is because, while I can spend ages setting up an excellent storage system for books, paperwork, bed linen (yes honestly) etc, after employing said system for a while, I get bored and find something more interesting to do, so every few months I have to go through a reorganisation drive. 

Before I go any further, I’ll explain that I’m not an advocate of astrology and I know if you are, that it’s more complicated than a broad internet search, but my son and I had fun working our way through family members’ alleged overarching attributes saying ‘yes, no, no, oh yes, what her? Hahahaha’ etc and when we applied the test to my father (who was the same star sign as I am) we both said ‘nope, nope, nope, nothing like him, nope’. 

For a start, Dad liked almost everything, always. Secondly, no one in their right mind would have referred to my father as a planner except when it came to visiting bookshops and making meal-stops. As for organisation, he applied it to the most peculiar things. For example, after laborious calculations, he’d job down the fuel consumption of his car in little notebooks for no reason whatsoever. He’d record his weight every day in 1lb increments because he’d been on a diet once which told you to do it and helped him lose 14lb and therefore he’d kept recording his weight even though he’d long since stopped doing that particular diet, couldn’t remember which one it was and had put all the weight back on anyway.

His personal papers, when I had to sort them out, were scattered hither and yon except for one seam of perfectly organised files which he’d kept in meticulous order in a drawer for a whole eleven months, too many years earlier to be of any use to me whatsoever. If he had a ghost, it might have been cowering in a corner as I muttered, except it was probably happily haunting a bookshop as infinitely more interesting than watching me hunt for a P60.

I’m a lot more free-flowing with trips than paperwork. 

I once had a colleague who’d plot her itinerary for a city visit down to the minute – and I mean literally to the minute – knowing exactly where she would be at any given moment with no leeway whatsoever. I’m not sure how she planned to cope if anything threw the whole thing out. I didn’t dare ask. The thought of that kind of regimen filled me with horror. 

My approach to city visits (and thankfully that of anyone I’m likely to be with) tends to be ‘we know where we’re starting from, we know where we need to end up, there are lots of things we could do, let’s pick a few we might do and if we don’t do it all or any of it, or we find something unexpected and do that instead, it doesn’t matter as long as we have a good, interesting walk and most importantly a decent lunch’.

And then there’s writing.

Authors often refer to themselves as being plotter or pantser. Plotters often set their novel out in detail and know exactly what’s going to happen to whom at what point and why. Pantsers often start out with an idea and/or character, start writing and see what happens. Each may consider the other’s approach with as much horror as my erstwhile colleague and I viewed each other’s city visit technique.

(My father, who wrote too, was firmly in the pantser gang, never letting a plan get in the way of his characters’ adventures. Although having said that, when I was recently setting up a card index system for my characters, I found some old index cards in a box and discovered in the middle several with my father’s writing on them, outlining some of his characters’ details. It was a strange and wonderful moment especially as, putting his and mine side by side we’d both got bored after doing it for the same number of characters.)

I like to think I’m closer to the planning end of the plotter/pantser spectrum but current experience would suggest otherwise. I’m working on the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die. It started with a highly detailed plot outline. Somewhere as I wrote towards the middle, the story decided it didn’t want to do what it was told and veered off the route I’d planned and I headed into unfamiliar territory hoping to find my way back. 

Plotting or pantsering – which do I really prefer? I can never decide. 

Either way sometimes trying to get the words down is like wading through treacle wearing deep-sea diving kit. Yet even when sticking to the plan, there are passages which surprise me when I write them and there are eureka moments when things I hadn’t quite worked out, come into focus out of nowhere. 

I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not so much that I haven’t planned or that I’m not organised, it’s more that the story itself is as keen on being forced the way I want it to go as a tent is keen to be shoved back into its bag as neatly as it started. 

Oh well. I suppose that, after all, is what editing is for. 

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

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.

junkfoodbird

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.