Kindling – New Cover!

Kindling is my collection of short stories which I pulled together from the various stories that just poured out when my self-imposed writing dam burst in 2015.

Courtesy of various prompts, I recalled a spirit of place which had somehow been lost in growing up, building a career, bringing up a family and general life. I recalled places in South Wales where I’d wandered as a child and imagined going back to them (even though my childhood friend recommended not doing so) and remembered some of the stories I’d heard about the village.

I also remembered or reimagined places I’d known in Gloucestershire and know in Dorset and even one of my office blocks and a hotel I’d stayed in while on a training course in London.

From all these memories grew stories and flash fiction. Most are contemporary fiction, some are ghost stories, a few are sad although not without hope. One or two are true, most aren’t and some are frankly complete fiction (it may surprise you to know that the one in the bar in Fairyland with the Tooth Fairy bemoaning her lot is one of these).

As the title story involves a woman going into the forest at full-moon with her e-reader and what happens next, I chose a cover which to me made me think of a slightly mysterious wood where someone might be waiting. I loved the cover, but feedback mostly suggested that people thought it was a children’s book. While there’s nothing in ‘Kindling’ which would be unsuitable for a child, a lot of it would be baffling.

So I changed the cover. I thought of those woods where as a very lonely little girl I’d wandered and the river where I spoke to the sparkling waters because it was the friend who wouldn’t tell my secrets. After a long time, I found an image on Dreamstime and used it to create a cover which I hope is more representative about a book of hope, imagination, possibilities and a little bit of magic.

It would be interesting to know what you think.

Kindling is available on Amazon

kindling j7

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image used for cover ‘Double Exposure Portrait’ by © Lenanet | Dreamstime.com

Advertisements

Some Daughters (in-law) Do ‘ave ’em

I have been very lucky with my mother-in-law. She treats me exactly like the daughter she wanted but never had, loving me, spoiling me, supporting me and periodically telling me to shut up when I’m talking nonsense.

One of her best attributes is that she never ever criticises the abysmal state of my house-wifery and says as long as I provide her with lovely home-cooked meals when she visits and she has a comfortable bed to sleep in and a book or three to read, a glass of wine and some lively conversation, she is never going to complain about anything as irrelevant as dust.  I happily manage my side of the bargain.

She quite appreciates, I think, the fact that after all years living in a male dominated home, she now has an ally. In general, she’s happy to gang up on her own son in my defence, although she says his failings are now my responsibility as he’s now been with me longer than he was with her. I say that Aristotle said all the damage is done by the time a child is seven, so it’s her fault. This is the sort of moment she tells me to shut up.

Several years ago, in my lunch-break, I started writing out a scene in a Romano-British home where a daughter-in-law is enduring the insults of her loathsome mother-in-law. I thought at the time, it might form part of a novel written along the same lines as a Golden Era country house murder mystery. You know, the sort where pretty much every character is a suspect yet somehow indifferent to the mayhem around them. (‘Oh goodness Papa is dead. Does anyone else know where the key to the drinks cabinet is?’ – that sort of thing.) Well, I developed this idea eventually and now MURDER BRITANNICA is finally for sale. It has plenty of murders, a lot (I hope) of merriment and a monstrous mother/mother-in-law Lucretia. I really enjoyed writing Lucretia. I have no idea on whom she’s based, although I’ve met plenty of bullying women in my time. She’s certainly not based on my mother or mother-in-law – they are the basis of two of the other older female characters: enigmatic Tullia and practical Tryssa.

While looking for a cover picture for the book I came across the one below (although I didn’t use it in the end). I like to think that these are the three younger women who have to endure Lucretia as her schemes unfold. Seventeen year old Camilla has pinched her brother’s lyre (although she has no idea what to do with it) and is considering how awful it must be to be as old as Poppaea (who’s twenty-five) or Prisca who is thirty-something. Prisca is thinking of gladiators and Poppaea is wondering … well no-one ever quite knows what she’s wondering.

The men (and there are quite a few of them too) are probably looking for food because there’s a bit of a culinary crisis going on.

I hope if you read Murder Britannica, you’ll enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. It was great fun. And I’ve dedicated it to my mother-in-law because she loves murder mysteries and is NOTHING like Lucretia.

roman-women-33046_1280 copy

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

Picture from Pixabay.

A Tale of Two Trees.

This week we lost a tree.

When we bought our house twelve years ago, it came with a fair sized garden with trees all around. Planted in the lawn were a fir and a maple.

The fir is so very much in the wrong position that we often wonder if a previous owner decided to plant a Christmas Tree to see if it would survive. Boy oh boy has it exceeded expectations. It is now probably nearly as high as the ridge tiles on the roof.

That tree nearly killed me once, or more specifically, my daughter. Eleven years ago when it was a mere twenty feet tall, I brought the children back from school on a fine summer’s day and sat down to write an email. At the time, due to a storm, there was no fence between our garden and next door’s. It didn’t matter then, because my daughter and the little girl next door were good friends and this way they could visit without having to go round the front and knock on doors. 

So there I was, luxuriating in a rare moment of peace while my son (7) played in his room and my daughter (6) and the little girl from next door (5½) played in the garden.

And then I heard next door’s little girl say: ‘are you at the top yet?’

The top of what? I rushed out onto the decking and scanned our garden and what I could see of next door’s. No-one was there apart from the cat.

And then I heard her say, ‘I’m stuck.’

And my daughter answered, ‘Keep going, I’m nearly at the sky!’

I realised the fir tree was swaying and my daughter, just visible through the branches, was ten feet above the ground with next door’s little girl about three feet below her. I am, to put this in context, only 4’ 11”. Fortunately the other little girl’s father (6’ 5”) was home early from work. I ran for help. It didn’t take him long to get his own child down, but it took a little longer to persuade my daughter. She has never quite forgiven me for stopping her ascent to the top where she planned to survey the neighbourhood like one of the wood pigeons.

So anyway, I’m not fond of the fir. It’s very big, shades part of the washing line and nearly ate my daughter. It sort of smirks. I know it does.

But then there was the maple. My daughter learnt to ride a bike cycling in a big swoop round the maple. It spread big welcoming branches. In autumn, the leaves turned colour and then fell into a carpet of crisp russets and golds. (It’s easy for me to be romantic about it, my husband was the one who swept them up.) On winter days the wood pigeons huddled on its bare branches getting rained on (we have very stupid wood pigeons). Some years its sleeping form would be frosted with snow. And then in spring, just as we were wondering whether the leaves would come back, they started to bud and unfurl. Under their dappled shade bluebells and primroses flourished. In summer, the tree rustled. We heard a constant susurration as we sat on the decking in the evening, lay in bed at night, or, as I have been doing recently, worked in the kitchen with the door open during the day, my typing accompanied by the sounds of the garden. 

But the maple grew too big. Once, ten years ago, a branch fell off. We took advice and the tree was pollarded. Anxiously we waited to see if it would recover. It did. However its branches grew spindly, wild and asymmetric. When, beautiful and straggly, it became tall enough to block the satellite dish, we knew something needed to be done*. 

Again we sought advice, this time we were told that it might be best to take it down altogether. We didn’t want it to go. On Thursday, I warned our neighbour that our shared driveway would be partly blocked by the tree surgeon’s vehicle. When I explained why, I found myself dropping my voice, as if the maple could hear me. On Friday morning, my husband and I were still dithering. Should we just get it pollarded again instead? It was so pretty. The tree surgeon left it to us, but warned that there was evidence of rot getting in, that some trees never quite recover from pollarding and he couldn’t be certain how far the rot went. In the end, with heavy hearts, we decided to let it be felled.

I never feel right when I can’t see at least one tree nearby. Yet I’d never wanted to hug a tree before, not even when I was a little girl myself and spent half my time in woods talking to the spirits of the forest. But on Friday, I wanted to hug that tree and ask its forgiveness. Perhaps I read too many Narnia and Tolkein books or perhaps it was a connection with something that was so very alive and would soon be dead.

At 30℃ (86℉), it was very hot for South West England on Friday. I don’t know about where you are, but we are in the middle of a heatwave and drought, with the kind of weather British people usually have to go on holiday for. I had booked the day off work to do some writing but if it was too hot for me inside as my fingers slipped on the keyboard, I can’t imagine how unbearable it was for the tree surgeon and his assistant outside as they chain-sawed and shredded. I made them cups of tea and replenished their 5 litre bottle of water and bit by bit, I watched the maple come down: first its branches, then its trunk, until there was nothing but a stump.

‘You made the right decision,’ said the tree surgeon. ‘The rot went all the way down to the root. The tree was dying.’

There’s a metaphor in here somewhere. The tree looked lovely. It functioned perfectly well. The birds could sit on its branches, the delicate flowers could thrive in its shade. And yet, a trauma from many years ago had caused permanent scarring no-one could see. At any time, the tree could have split apart and caused who knows what harm.

This is true of all living things, including humans. Don’t be fooled by outward appearances, they might cover all sorts of internal damage.

All of which sentiment seems somewhat hypocritical as I have no urge to hug the fir. Although, to be honest, that’s a little bit because it’s too spiky, largely because I just wish it was (a lot) further down the garden and mostly because it tried to eat my daughter. 

I wonder if I speak nicely to its dryad whether it’ll just move of its own accord? Now there’s a story idea.

 

*(Little aside here, we have no TV aerial on our house as they tend to blow down, so all TV has to come via satellite. We don’t watch a lot, but it’s nice to have as an option. Up till this summer, I had no idea satellite dishes could be blocked. I thought they were magic, like electricity and engines.) 

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

Hold the Line, Caller

Writing novels set in the past can bring up all sorts of problems.

There are laws that haven’t been invented; there are transport issues; there are food restrictions; there are, more than anything, communication issues.

Before you know it, you’re disappearing down a research rabbit-hole and finding yourself in a warren of confusing, fascinating and baffling facts and thoughts.

Take the telephone. 

Currently I’m writing a novel set largely between 1946 and 1950. The main character, Sarah, in common with many people in 1950’s Britain, doesn’t have a telephone. Her love interest, Jim, however does. 

At the end of a long trying day Sarah goes to a telephone box to tell Jim about the long trying day and apologise for not ringing earlier. Jim, having been worried sick because she had disappeared without explanation starts off on the wrong foot by asking her where on earth she thinks she’s been, whereupon she loses her temper etc etc. Then her money runs out.
I don’t know how many of you use pay-phones now or remember using them in days of yore. It’s rare thing nowadays because most of us have a mobile. 

When I was in college, I recall queuing for some time listening to someone else’s inane conversation in the bicycle shed where the pay-phone was kept until it was my turn to use it. I’d then stuff 2p pieces into the machine and call my boyfriend (or occasionally my parents). Standing in the cold I’d be hoping the pips which sounded when more money was needed wouldn’t go off half-way through a sentence as I generally hadn’t any more money. Was it 2p pieces or 10p pieces? I can’t really remember. Actual traditional red telephone boxes were only used in times of extreme desperation due to their er… fragrance: eau d’urine. 

In contrast of course, my children can communicate (and frequently do) at all times of the day or night via mobile, app, video call, email. Admittedly not much of this is aimed at us unless they want something but then as you can see from the above, I wasn’t really interested in contacting my parents either when I was in my late teens.

Back to my character though. It’s 1950. What happens when Sarah’s money runs out? Does an operator intervene to tell her to put more money in or were there pips? 

I wasn’t around in 1950 so I don’t know. A quick internet search didn’t help. There was a button A which you pressed when you were connected which took your money and a button B which you pressed if the call didn’t connect so you had your money back. I sort of knew that much from books. 

I asked my mother but she couldn’t remember. To be fair, she was only thirteen in 1950 and it turns out her family did have a phone. She told me that she and her brother were socially embarrassed by it – an old bakelite trumpet from the 1930s: SOOOOO old-fashioned. They begged their father to buy a modern one but as good canny Scots my grandparents weren’t wasting money to replace something which functioned perfectly well. In desperation my uncle put the dart board above the phone in the hope he and Mum might ‘accidentally’ destroy it with a stray dart. It didn’t work. I think my mother and uncle grew up, married and left home before my grandmother decided to replace the telephone. It’s a shame really. I expect it would still work nowadays if you could work out how to plug it in.

Interesting as this side-light into my mother’s teenager-hood was, it didn’t help me with what happens when Sarah’s money runs out. In the end I just decided to let her slam the phone down on Jim and let him stew. 

All the same, it got me thinking about how modern phones just don’t cut the mustard sometimes: 

  1. you can’t slam them down – they will break 
  2. you can’t chuck darts at them – they will break 
  3. you can’t get them wet – they will break 
  4. they will refuse to work at precisely the moment you need them due to something petty like lack of signal or battery or simply because you’ve insulted them (I’m worried mine is reading this right now and will turn itself off for two days in a huff).
  5. They are more restrictive than freeing. 

Re (5) while on the one hand in theory a mobile means you’re contactable all the time, on the other hand…. you’re contactable all the time. There is no peace whatsoever unless you make the conscious effort to turn the thing off. There is no getting deliciously ‘lost’, people (parents, partners, work) worry because they can’t get hold of you, you worry because you can’t get hold of someone else (parents, children, partners). You feel you have to tell people where you are by text or message or social media. You photograph and film things instead of just experiencing them. I sort of miss the days when I could just disappear for a few hours.

Obviously it’s not all bad with modern phones. I remember moving from Berkshire to South Wales at the age of eight, away from the grandparents we had always seen every weekend. It was actually cheaper for us to record long chats on a cassette tape and post it to them than make a trunk call. Our village, when we moved to it, still had party lines for a year or so, which meant every conversation could potentially be listened in to. 

By the time I was sixteen and had a boyfriend, the party line thing was no longer an issue but having a phone tethered to the wall was and so was my father. He took great pleasure in passing by while I was phoned my boyfriend, making little kissing noises and on one occasion sneaking up to take a photo of me. I had been hoping my boyfriend imagined me sitting elegant and beautiful and well-coiffed in my best dress, fully made-up etc etc. In fact, I was sitting on the floor in an old jumper and scraggy skirt and fluffy slippers, bare-faced and straggly-haired. Not only did my father take that picture but… he showed it to my boyfriend next time he came round. It’s surprising he stuck around after that. So far I haven’t done anything similar to my children. Well, apart from shouting hello to their friends when they’re on video call, or once, having a conversation with my daughter’s friend’s mother during the video call the girls were having even though they’d spent all day together in school. 

I don’t miss phone boxes. The last time I used one was a couple of years ago when I drove my son to a piano lesson four miles away in midwinter. The road was shut due to an accident and the only way round was a horrible, pitch dark, rutted country road. Naturally I managed to hit an invisible pot-hole and burst a tyre. I got the car to a pub and at that point realised I didn’t have my mobile with me. My son hadn’t got his either. And I didn’t have a purse, just £15 in notes to pay the piano teacher. The landlady in the pub clearly distrusted someone who didn’t have either a phone or a purse. She said there was a phone-box somewhere along the road. Just to annoy her since she wasn’t going to help, I bought two packets of crisps to get some change and after some stumbling about in the dark, found the phone-box. Although not red it was fragrant with yes, eau d’urine… However, it didn’t take coins and having no purse with me, I didn’t have any kind of bank or credit card. Oh that was a fun evening.

And the phone in this picture? Yes it’s a good old plug-in one, useful in thunderstorms and power cuts. The black hand means nothing sinister. It hails from the days when the children had stickers and knew how to use them. It won’t come off. The phone itself was from the office where my husband and I met. When the office was upgraded, they got rid of the out-of-date telephones and we took one home out of nostalgia. It lives in the hall and only gets used in emergencies (e.g. when a teenager has ‘lost’ one of the radio-phones). If I do use it to make calls, I’m so institutionalised that because I associate it with the office I have to restrain myself from dialling 9 for an outside line.

Back to the novel, two weeks later, and I’m still none the wiser about the pips. But Sarah and Jim are just about talking to each other. Really, they have bigger things to worry about. 

Things I have to research. Sigh. Back down the rabbit hole…

IMG_0425

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

Dear Travel Journal

It’s day three and I’m not sure future generations will ever believe my record of commuting in 2018. Travel is supposed to broaden the mind but it’s just making me lose mine.

Today is typical. I drove to catch the 6:45am train and I came across a group or (to use the proper collective noun) ‘murder’ of crows in the middle of the country road. One which was too idle to take off in time met its maker at 60 mph, showering my car in sinister feathers. My question is: if I’ve murdered a crow in a murder of crows am I a double murderer?

Somewhat rattled, I got to the station in time but to no avail. I know I live in the country but it’s still absurd when your train has been cancelled due to bird strike on the driver’s window. And that bird was a pheasant.

The 6.45 being out of action, the next departure was also delayed because, according to a weary announcement, there were ‘two lads who are refusing to pay for their tickets and until we get them off the train, we’re not leaving.’ Wherever the excitement was, it wasn’t in my carriage and despite everyone craning over each other to look out of the window, we never saw the miscreants being hauled off which was a shame as it would have livened things up. Perhaps it was no wonder that after that, when we finally got moving, the person in charge of the train wasn’t sure where we were. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this train will shortly be arriving at …….’ Very long pause…Eventually an automated tannoy announcement came on. I wasn’t really listening to the destination list until it said ‘next station Axminster’ which is in the wrong direction. No one else in the carriage seemed to notice (probably, like me, busy trying to get the free wifi to connect). I looked up and the information doodah screen definitely said the next station was Andover. I spent the next half an hour in a state of mild anxiety but eventually Andover rolled into view. After that, they seemed to have changed the tape.

I got a drink from the trolley to calm my nerves, took a swig of tea and discovered it was coffee. Yuk. The next unpleasant thing was realising someone in the carriage was constantly but silently breaking wind and knowing they might be doing it all the way to London. Luckily, he seemed to get off at the next stop, or else just ran out of methane. But when I got up to put my tea, or rather, coffee container in the bin, I got back to witness an otherwise attractive young man picking his nose. He then ate it. Perhaps he considered it to be breakfast.

A bit later, a glamorous young woman got on. She started by fixing her enormous pseudo beehive with hairspray. Yes. In the carriage full of people. Shortly after that, she sharpened her talons with an emery board. It sounds like nails on blackboard and bits of shavings went everywhere.

I averted my eyes to the view out of the window but when at the next stop, a man sat next to me and started crocheting, I ended up mesmerised by his creation. So I was still looking when he put the wool down and started scrawling a list instead. It appeared to say:

  1. Cheese
  2. Fluffy PJs
  3. Bedsocks
  4. Pillows
  5. Travel rabbit

Now, I’m fairly sure that the last item was travel tablets scribed in bad handwriting, but you never know. I wonder (apart from anything obvious) what a travel rabbit could be. I may have to write a story.

Oh but the joys of an early morning commute in midwinter. The squelchy sneezes, the coughs full of enough catarrh to coat the back of a spoon, the sniffs, all the germs joyfully mingling when it turned out the train was three carriages short and the virus laden bodies were crammed up against each other in a proximity British people abhor unless newly in love. Ah the joys of finding the train journey will take an extra 40 mins due to a sick person in another train at Clapham Junction. I mean why? What could we do about it?

And then the journey stopped completely due to signalling problems. Apparently trains were being signalled through one by one by hand. I am not sure what this means but had visions of The Railway Children waving a petticoat. I suppose it can’t be the same as the average modern petticoat is too flimsy to re-direct a train.

So that was then. Somewhere in between there was a day at work (same old same old) and then I started home.

I was slightly worried to start with because the announcer on the train sounded French. Initially I wondered if I had been transported, without noticing, from London to Paris or, in fact, to the other Waterloo? (Is the other Waterloo French speaking? Quick internet search…. Yes I think it is). Anyway, I was ALMOST sure I heard Salisbury being mentioned as a destination, so I thought I should be safe. Bit of a shame really, I wouldn’t mind finding myself in Belgium instead and from thence, after a bit of sight-seeing, on a south-bound train to the Côte d’Azur.

At the beginning of the journey, I sat next to a dainty looking young woman who turned out to be eating a burger bigger than her head. It was a bit grim to watch and worse to smell but I managed to move across the aisle to give her elbow room while she shoved it down. I thought her jaw might dislocate at one point. Meanwhile some loud man was holding forth about politics. He sounded like someone from a thirties gangster movie and was trying to get the postal address and photo of another passenger who managed to escape at the next stop (and I have a feeling he didn’t even really want to get off there). As the train pulled off again, the burger-girl dropped the last bits of fast food on her black trousers. I was so glad I’d moved. My dress wouldn’t have been improved by ground beef, ketchup and mayo.

For the next half hour our carriage was invaded by a loud group who had been chucked, effing and blinding out of the ‘quiet’ carriage. The loudest one yelled ‘I’m gonna complain to the train company! What’s the point of quiet carriages? Who wants to be quiet on a train?’ It sums up the average Briton’s sang-froid (or distaste for confrontation) that despite the fact everyone else was thinking ‘me – I want to be quiet’, all anyone did was tut and roll eyes at each other.

Meanwhile, burger-girl was replaced by a series of quiet but revolting people. Taking her place across the aisle was someone scratching and scraping flakes of skin onto the seat next to him. Someone somewhere else was breaking wind. Then a small man sat down beside me and stuck his elbows out. Shortly thereafter, he ate crisps and a ripe egg mayo sandwich loudly WITH HIS MOUTH OPEN and drank tea with slurps worthy of a drain clearing machine. The phantom farter upped his or her game and this added to the effluence of the egg sarnies. I would have been sick, but there wasn’t enough room. When the passengers thinned out, the mouth-open-slurper did go off to another seat, but not before kicking most of his rubbish onto the floor. Lovely.

I might have relaxed then but was busy restraining myself from standing up, leaning over the seat behind and telling the girl sitting there that if she persisted in saying “like” every third word I might have to kill her. I imagined that if I did, she’d just say “so I’m just like sitting here and you’re like being so like aggressive and like I think like killing me is like illegal or like something”. And it was all too exhausting, so I didn’t.

And now, with just 40 minutes to go, the train has just stopped in middle of nowhere. Apparently there is a cow on the line. We have to wait while a railway manager with herding experience gets her back into the field and stands guard at the side of the railway to keep her from being turned into mincemeat. Although quite possible burger-girl would lick the tracks.

Dear Travel Journal. As I say, no-one would ever believe this. I think I may have to change your function and turn you into a fantasy novel in which all the heroine wants to do is get home and is thwarted in every chapter by almost insurmountable challenges and drooling monsters.

It would probably seem more plausible than anything that’s happened today.

IMG_3079

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

If you want to read the story I wrote about ‘The Travel Rabbit’ you’ll have to check out this book!

Finding the Plot – Venturing Out part two

What an experience my first writing collaboration has been.

We started on 19th January thinking we’d be finished by the end of March but we got carried away and the last words of just under 54k were written yesterday (10th February) at 5pm.

The Case of the Black Tulips’  is now closed. The protagonists are having a day off in the sun. Liz Hedgecock and I are putting our feet up having toasted each other in a virtual sense from opposite ends of the country.

We started with a series of messages and a woolly idea. I sent Liz a photograph of some notes I’d scribbled on the back of something else (see scrawl below) and she still wanted to continue. We both work on the ‘write first, research as you go along’ principle which meant that periodically one of us would disappear down a research rabbit hole and pop back up not necessarily with a rabbit but something else entirely to drop into the stew.

Our book starts in 1890 or thereabouts, so there was a lot of background detail to investigate and I’ve put some links below which may or may not be included in the book but certainly kept us entertained, amazed and sometimes shocked.

Still, our protagonists are not women who let conventions get in the way of adventure, and perhaps in a different sort of way neither did we.

I presume that script-writers etc who work together on projects usually actually tell each other what they’re planning to do next. We took another approach. We weren’t going to spoil the fun with common sense when we could have shenanigans instead.

I wrote chapter one and Liz wrote chapter two and so on. Given the pace we were writing at (at least one chapter a day each) and the fact that boring things like work and family kept getting in the way, there wasn’t a lot of time to tell the other what we were planning to do next. Consequently in chapter nine I introduced an object, planning to utilise it in chapter eleven but then Liz ‘lost’ it in chapter ten. Liz introduced a character in chapter twenty but in chapter twenty-three I… nope, not telling you any more, you’ll have to read it to find out.

If you’re wondering why there’s a photograph of people rushing about, it’s because on Tuesday 6th February, I had been writing that day’s chapter on the morning train and hadn’t quite finished it. Liz was waiting. Before I disappeared into the underground on the way to work, I sat in the concourse of Waterloo, sat on a bench outside WH Smiths, frantically wrote the last words and emailed them off. It’s been that kind of experience.

Doing it again? I really hope so. It’s been great fun and I hope readers will enjoy the end result.

The painful part (editing) is yet to come, but the characters are itching to get their sleeves rolled up and sort out another mystery. Who knows what they’ll be up against next.

I can see some more research rabbit holes opening up as I type.

Better get my notebook out.

Why were women employed in the Victorian civil service? Small fingers, brains and lower pay…

Interactive map of gas lamps still in London

What did the creation of sewing machines mean to women?

How much could you earn as a servant in a big country house in 1890?

Women’s cycling – a revolution

A Victorian list of do’s & don’t’s for women cyclists!

Lighting in the Victorian home

Venturing Out

Put Down The Embroidery, We’re Going In

 

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

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

bloomers-1

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

Another Step

New Year’s Day. What resolutions have you made?

Yesterday, I resolved not to make any. Yet today, as I chewed my nails (must stop doing that) I realised I would have to revisit one of last year’s: tidy the loft.

There are three reasons for this:

  1. I was looking for something this time last year. Now I am looking for two things. Neither are terribly important, but I want them.
  2. The household ghost has gone very quiet, and this is either because he’s hiding from all the Christmas and New Year friends and relations or because he’s got stuck between all the additional boxes which have appeared in the last twelve months.
  3. The loft is now more chaotic than it was last year for reasons which defy explanation and despite my untidy genes, it is doing my head in.

Our home is, as I might have said before, something of a ‘house that Jack built’. It started as a bungalow and had various parts added at various times since the 1950s and we have yet to find a right angle. Anyway, all that aside, one of the previous owners must have had plans to turn the loft into another room because they put a window in one of the gable ends. They didn’t quite finish the job – you can still see breeze blocks and there is no sill – but the point is, subject to building regulations, an additional staircase and a chunk of cash, if I could only clear it out, we could have a loft room.

For years, this was my dream. I yearned for a place where I could hide away from the family and write, beyond the playstation, the kitchen, the washing machine, the TV. But it wasn’t financially feasible, so I turned my attention to the corner of the garden which had foundations from an old shed and longed for a new one. Not a dusty wooden box but a fancy garden-room: a place where I could hide away from the family and write, beyond the playstation, the kitchen, blah-blah-blah. The trouble was, even if I’d been able to find the money, I had better things to spend it on.

In the end, one day in Autumn 2015, I decided that it wasn’t the lack of a silent room of my own which was holding me back. It was myself. A year later, having got used to writing on my lap, on trains, in the kitchen, in whatever quietish corner I could find, I published ‘Kindling’.

What has any of this to do with New Year?

Well I still want to clear the loft, or at least get it organised. But the need to convert it, or have a garden-room is pretty much gone. My children are eighteen and sixteen. In a year or two, I will have more empty rooms and more quiet than I will know what to do with.

Now I feel slightly richer for the things I haven’t got because I’ve realised I didn’t need them in the first place. Ask me what I want for my birthday – go on ask me… I want nothing but a nice day out to make memories. I am fortunate enough to have the material things I need and the things I’d like for myself and others: health, world peace, freedom from anger, grief and fear cannot be purchased no matter how rich you are.

The only thing that I do lack is determination and you can’t buy me that either. I have to find it myself and I am inspired by others who, with much bigger things to worry about, demonstrate it.

Last year, I wept for many friends. For some of them, 2017 was the continuation of previous miserable years. For others, sickness, bereavement or betrayal came out of nowhere as the year unfolded. And then there were those who suffer ongoing chronic pain and/or fatigue. I know some of you will read this. I want to say to you – be proud of yourself, I am in awe of you.

You did amazing things: a writing group was started in the face of resistance; despite physical pain and exhaustion, a joyous wedding was prepared and celebrated; some of you are still bruised and damaged from your own childhoods, yet you are determined history will not repeat itself as you pour out love and provide guidance to your own children.

I know you are looking at another year and wondering how to keep going. I hope it helps a little to know that your true friends have cheered each tiny step you’ve taken against the odds and are urging you onward.

So yes, I do have plans for this year. Some of them are writing plans, some of them are not. Some of them involve getting fitter (yes, I know, I say this every year). All of them require determination. And of course, I don’t know what may happen which may make one or all of them difficult or impossible.

A tip I saw recently on Facebook (a tip which appears to have been doing the rounds since 2008) is to have a jar and inside it drop a note of each positive thing that happens whether it’s something big like the passing of an exam or simply the only thing you could find that day to make you smile or give you hope: the sun on a flower, the glow of the moon, a small kindness. This way, at the end of the year, you have a jar of happiness to read through and rejoice in.

So those are my resolutions: clear the loft, get fitter, note down every little joy which comes my way. I am determined to do at least the last one.

So whatever you plan for 2018, whatever the barriers you face, I hope you find the determination you need and can celebrate each triumph, big or small as it appears so that this time next year, you can open a jar of happiness…

fullsizeoutput_6e

 

Photograph is from the inside of Somerset House.

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

 

 

Music

My husband and I don’t quite see eye to eye on music.

It’s not so much about taste. We like a lot of the same stuff. There’s this theory that if you want to target an advertisement at a particular generation, you pick backing music from when they were 16-18. I think they’re probably right. Anything with music from the 80s will get our interest whether it’s to wallow in nostalgia and memories of slender waists (both of us), white jeans (him), permed hair (me) and that general restlessness and energy of youth is briefly remembered as we slob on the sofa with a glass of wine.

‘I used to dance for hours in shoes like those,’ I’ll say, ‘but I never quite had the nerve to wear the ra-ra skirt and my hair reverted to straight in two minutes.’

We sigh until the kids come in and ask what rubbish we’re watching now. 

On the other hand, if advertisers use a song we both love for something stupid (naming no high street banks here) we will both mutter and grumble. Fortunately for the bank, it already has our money. (Well, we put our salaries into it, then the money drains out on mortgage, bills and shopping, but you know what I mean.)

No the difference we have about music is volume and venue. My husband loves to turn up music loud in the house. As loud as he can get it. I can’t bear it. If for any reason, I can’t bear it to the extent that I’ll say so, he puts earphones in and blasts his ears to a volume that I can nevertheless still hear.

If I’m writing, I can’t stand this. I can’t tune into whatever wavelength my creativity plays through if there is music of any description in the background. If there are lyrics, they get into my words, if there is a rhythm, it’ll interfere with the rhythm of what I’m writing. One particularly difficult afternoon, I had not only my husband playing music, but my daughter playing (a totally different) music and my son playing online video games which seems to involve a lot of shouting. My son eventually hooked me up to a natural sounds website and I head-phoned into that, turned up the thunder and rainforest frogs, got back into my writing and became so lost in what I was doing that I kept looking up surprised to see no rain even though my ears could hear a positive downpour.

That’s not to say I don’t like loud music. I do. But I like it in the car when I’m driving to or from work or the station. I tune into a vibe or a memory or a mood and somehow the things that are worrying me lift for the journey. I actually feel a little put out if I have to share my journey to work with someone I actually have to talk to.

But a word to anyone who needs to know: if I make a point of going for a drive with loud music playing when I have no reason to go out, or I have music playing loudly in the house, it’s not a good sign. It’s because I am very very low. I’m still tuning into a vibe or a memory or a mood, but it’s not a good one. If I feel the need to do it at home, which is my safe little nest, there’s something wrong.

The music may be the same in both instances. It’s how I respond which is different. I’m either defiant or defeated. The words (and I love good lyrics, often more than the music itself) either resonate or betray.

My father had been told by a teacher that as he was tone deaf, he’d never appreciate music. He spent the rest of his life building up a taste so eclectic it’s impossible to categorise. I grew up listening to The Goons, Beethoven, Bach, Grieg, Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Donnegan, Val Doonican, musical soundtracks from ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Oliver’ etc, Hawkwind and Mike Oldfield. We just never ever listened to whatever was popular at the time and it took me a while to catch up. The first pop song I heard (on a funny little radio a sort of relation had made for me) was ‘It’s a Rich Man’s World’ by Abba, after which I didn’t look back.

But otherwise, what songs am I talking about? OK so this is the divisive part, so sorry if I’ll now make you squirm, but these are the songs which still resonate no matter how many years have passed.

My first boyfriend introduced me to Genesis when I was sixteen. I probably couldn’t have been more square if I’d tried but I loved songs which seemed to have a hidden story in them like ‘Carpet Creepers’, ‘Trick of the Tail’. ‘Abacab’ takes me back to driving across the heathlands of the Gower on summer evenings.

A few years later, single, I sang along to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler as clearly ‘the best of all the years had gone by.’ I was twenty. Sigh. It was very real then.

A particularly bad period in my life some twenty years after that, had a soundtrack all of its own. One day I came home from work a little early. I was working part-time and it wasn’t quite time to pick the children up from school. I thought of going home to my chaotic home, the laundry, the housework, the cooking, the trying to get the children to eat something healthy and drove round and round with the CD player blasting at full volume. The songs which at that point seemed to sum up what was going on in my head were:
‘Cappucino Girls’ – Nia ‘Talking Far too loud, laughing with each other, like the days before we were someone else’s mother’
‘Another Place to Fall’ – KT Tunstall (one section of lyrics translated themselves as ‘find yourself another place to fall; bang your head against another brick wall’)
‘Crazy’ – Gnarls Barkley (the title speaks for itself)
I still can’t quite hear any of them without remembering that utter despair at a life which seemed to have run away and left me behind not knowing quite who I was or what I was for.

When my Dad died, he had set down everything he wanted for his funeral except what to play as the coffin was going up the aisle in the crematorium. Asked what to play by the funeral director, my mind went totally blank. All I could hear going through my head was ‘Right Said Fred, Better Get a Move on.’ Dad would probably have appreciated it, but I’m not sure anyone else would have. I left it to the Funeral Director and now couldn’t tell you what was played. I realised two weeks later that I’d wanted ‘You Raise Me Up’ (Secret Garden).

Well time has passed since either of those periods of awful misery. A lot of tears, some heartbreak and a great deal of talking later, I am in a different place. I still love older songs, I find new songs all the time. But here are some of the older ones which make me smile or dream whether I’m high or low.

‘Songbird’ – Fleetwood Mac
‘Fields of Gold’ – (Sting) – sung by Eva Cassidy
‘Fix You’ – Coldplay
‘How Long Will I Love You’ – Ellie Goulding
‘Perfect Day’ – Lou Reed
‘Solsbury Hill’ – Peter Gabriel

And there is a song ‘Ride On’ by Christy Moore which reminds me of sitting in the kitchen with my husband on Sunday afternoons, soon after we were married. It is on an album of Celtic Music and one day, one day, I am going to write the story it sparked in my subconscious. It’s not quite there yet, but it will be.

And finally, at my funeral, I want them to play ‘I Hope You Dance’ by Lee Ann Womack. Read the lyrics – it sums up everything I hope for everyone.

 

DSC_0164

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