To Hamster or Not To Hamster…

Meeting a good friend the other day and having to elbow bump when normally she’d drag me into an engulfing embrace felt rather surreal and very sad. I never knew until social distancing became advisable how much I’d miss hugging. Being unable to hug my mother and having to keep a two metre distance at closest, is just awful, especially as it was Mothering Sunday yesterday.

Who could imagine I’d also be missing the twice weekly commute to London? I always knew it was unhealthy. I never thought it could kill me. But I do miss the routine and I do miss meeting my colleagues face to face rather than just by video conferencing.

At the point of writing, the UK is not yet in lockdown. In my town, awareness of the seriousness of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) situation seems only just to have sunk in. I went for a walk at lunch-time and not only were more than 95% of the shops/businesses shut but I only saw about ten people. One of them, forced to pass me on a narrow pavement, nearly fell into the gutter trying to put as much space as possible between us. I felt like saying ‘I am holding my breath you know’ but of course that wasn’t physically possible since I’m not a ventriloquist.

Until today, the clearest sign that some people did know there was an issue was the panic-buying. Last Friday, a plague of ‘locusts’ apparently stripped almost every shop of fresh fruit and vegetables. I’m still completely baffled as to what they planned to do with them. You can only store that sort of stuff for so long. I’m not convinced that so many people know how to make edible soup any more than they know how to make edible bread with the yeast that’s long disappeared from the shelves. I dread to imagine the size of the hoarders’ next credit card bills.

I’m also angry. This behaviour impacts on shift-workers, the vulnerable and anyone who can only buy what they have money for on any given day. And the likelihood that a lot of that hoarded food will ultimately go to waste is shameful when people go hungry even in rich countries. 

When my mother took me to the shops as a little girl, she did it on foot with a fixed sum of cash, This meant that she only bought what she could carry. Perhaps that’s a simple solution to panic-shopping: no-one can buy more than can be put in a basket. 

I doubt I’m alone in feeling like Coronavirus has thrown me into a whirlpool of emotions:

  • Anger – see above. Why can’t people look out for each other instead of themselves for once?
  • Anxiety – have I got coronavirus unwittingly and am passing it on to others despite being very largely social distancing for the last two weeks? 
  • Disbelief – How can this be happening when the sun is finally shining and everything appears so normal till I go into a shop or turn on the news? Is this really happening on a global scale?
  • Confliction – What can I trust in the news and social media? Do I really want the country to go into lock-down when this will mean being stuck indoors for weeks?

Oddly on a writing/creative front, while I couldn’t concentrate when Mum was ill, I could easily concentrate on it now as even the most unlikely of my plots seems more believable than the current state of the world. Having said that, although my ‘book-in-edits’ is set in 1910 and not about any sort of virus, I do find that I keep worrying every time a character shakes hands, hugs or kisses – which would rather spoil some of the plot. I really need to get a grip.

It’s hard to think of positives sometimes, particularly when the media tends to focus on nothing but the bad, but there are a few things in links below which I hope you find helpful whether you’re self-isolating on lock-down or just generally looking for something positive to read. And while every single person who’s unexpectedly at home (whether also trying to work or not) with a child/teenager (or partner who’s like a caged animal when stuck indoors) has my sympathy – I hope this will turn out to be a time of bonding rather than discord. Time to break out the board games perhaps? 

One thing that did make me chuckle this week was finding out that the German expression for panic-buying was Hamsterkauf – I can’t think of a better word.

I hope that’s cheered you up too if you didn’t know it already and if you’re going to hamster anything – I hope it’s good memories, shared experiences, appreciation of the important things, creativity and of course – books! 

So as promised, here are more offers:

The Case of the Black Tulips the first book in the Caster & Fleet Victorian mystery series written by Liz Hedgecock and me is currently (23rd March) 99p/99c instead of the usual £2.99/$2.99. A frustrated typist, a bored socialite, an anonymous letter…

Murder Britannica is currently £2.99/$1.99 before returning to normal price of £3.50/$2.99 on 25/3. A self-centred rich woman, a plot to get rich only ruined by a series of unexpected deaths…

Weird and Peculiar Tales a collection of short stories by me and Val Portelli will be on a countdown deal from 26th March starting at 99p/99c. An anthology that contains exactly what the title implies.

In case you’re wondering about the photos, they’re pictures of my daughter’s erstwhile hamsters Frodo and Pip, to remind everyone that you’re lot cuter when you aren’t hoarding more than you need – apart from books of course – you can hoard those as much as you like!

Apologies for the blurriness but hey – they’re still nicer to look at than a virus.

As ever: keep well.

 

 

10 Nature Activities for children while self-isolating

Activity Ideas for children of all ages while self-isolating

Coronavirus: Hope Amid Outbreak

The Volunteer Army Helping Self-Isolating Neighbours

Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

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.

 

World Book Day – some ideas!

#Worldbookday some authors to check out on facebook (too many to tag everyone so I’ll do it again soon)

For fiction from mystery to children’s Paula Harmon

For historical and contemporary mysteries and children’s fiction Liz Hedgecock

For romance and fantasy  Val Portelli

For poetry and cookery books (you know you need both!) Debbie Ross

For historical fiction Catherine Kullmann

For YA fiction Chantelle Atkins

And also Tom Simons

And also N J Simmonds

For spooky shorts Sim Sansford

For ghost hunting Leta Hawk

For wonderful stories Julie Eger

For an animal story with a strong message Jan McCulloch

For science fiction Nick Perkins

For something completely out of the ordinary Gary Bonn

And also Kathy Sharp 

For women with attitude (and magic) in Edwardian England Michael Williams

For sunshine and romance Rosanna Ley

For romance with a twist Natalina Reis 

For thought provoking coming of age Gail Aldwin 

And also Maria Donovan

For golden age mysteries Vicki Goldie

For modern crime Gail Williams 

And also Lisa Sell

For noir Helen Matthews

For non-fiction glimpses into the past Helen Baggott

For drabbles and short fiction Rick Haynes

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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

Roaring into the Twenties

The nicest thing happened to me on 31st December. Val Portelli emailed New Year’s wishes for me:

  1. A secret writing space
  2. Trained housework fairies
  3. Self cleaning and ironing clothes
  4. Self cooking and washing up meals
  5. Empty, peaceful train journeys
  6. Supportive work colleagues
  7. Considerate offspring
  8. Strong anti-bodies as soldiers for ailing relative
  9. No plot holes, and
  10. A successful writing year

Thankfully, I already have number 6. Numbers 2, 3 and 4 are sadly unlikely but I’m hopeful for the others.

How can it possibly be 2020?

To me the Twenties are the 1920s – an apparently golden age full of possibilities between the War to end all Wars and the Great Depression; a time when things appeared to be getting better as people entered a brave new world. 

Unfortunately, the problem was in the word ‘people’.

A hundred years later and it’s hard to see what we’ve really achieved.  The last decade seems to have unearthed political extremes, better means of communication but less listening, more openness but less courtesy, more globalisation but less tolerance, the means to see the world in virtual reality without realising if we’re not careful, that’s all we’ll be left with. 

Looking back on a decade which started with economic collapse and ended with ongoing political unrest and environmental disaster, and on a personal level has included bereavement and worry about the health of loved ones, it’s easy to feel depressed. 

But on the plus side, it’s been the decade when my children grew into delightful young people, my husband and I have been employed, our health has been good, I started writing seriously and I met loads of new people some of whom are now among my best friends.

Looking at 2019 itself, I checked my 31st December 2018 blog and found it nicely vague.

There were ‘targets’ in my head and I achieved most of them. I published Murder Durnovaria and The Seaside Dragon, I took part in organising and running the first literary festival in my town and with Liz Hedgecock, I published The Case of the Fateful Legacy and The Case of the Crystal Kisses.  I couldn’t however, finish other projects without resigning from a demanding day-job. That’s not currently feasible.

Being typically human or at any rate me, it wasn’t till I reflected that I realised I’ve been so busy feeling like a failure for the things I couldn’t finish to feel pleased with what I did achieve.

And for 2020? I could be as vague as I was for 2019 but instead I’ll be a little more specific. All things being well I hope to:

  • Publish two books
  • Learn to crochet
  • Maybe join a choir
  • Live more sustainably
  • Be more spiritually aware
  • Get on with clearing attic

But as for today, I think I’ll follow my friend’s lead and send you some wishes for 2020.

  • May you find space and time for creativity in whatever form that works for you
  • May you find space and time to connect with the world around you and maybe beyond you
  • May you feel loved and able to give love
  • May you wave goodbye to the things that dragged you down in 2019 and find things that lift you up in 2020
  • May your joys outnumber your worries and if not, may you find comfort through the worry
  • May you realise that your very existence is part of the jigsaw which makes the world tick even if that sometimes doesn’t feel blindingly obvious

With the very best wishes for the New Year and many thanks for reading!

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Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image by Kranich17 from Pixabay

Val Portelli’s book recommendations for 2020

Liz Hedgecock’s new series ‘Maisie Frobisher Mysteries’

Glimmers

I sometime imagine myself dragging my spirit through mire in the last few weeks towards Christmas, whispering encouragingly ‘nearly there, nearly there’.

It’s not about Christmas itself, which I enjoy and try to make as laid back as possible. It’s about the increasing darkness beforehand.

I’m not entirely sure when this really kicked in. As a child, I recall not really liking winter. The highlights were Christmas plays, carol concerts and the massive family dinner put on by my great aunt. Winter as a teenager is a bit more of a blur because duh – hormones warp your priorities. I have two main midwinter memories. One is being in the school choir with the music teacher coaching us in a new arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy and trying forlornly to get us to pronounce ‘choir’ à la Queen’s English (e.g. to rhyme with ‘hire’) rather than in the local South Welsh accent (in which it rhymed – just about – with lawyer). The other is about turning up at the fifth form Christmas disco to find my best friend more or less wearing the same outfit and the boy of my dreams not noticing me yet again. 

At some point in adulthood however, I realised that going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark and – given the nature of some of the offices I’ve worked in (same career – lots of roles) – working in the dark wasn’t doing a lot for my mental health. As the days grow shorter, so does my attention span, my enthusiasm, my mood and my desire to be awake. They improve as Christmas nears and multi-coloured lights start to brighten houses that hitherto seem shuttered as firmly against winter as they would be against wolves.

At some point of course, I realised that I probably suffer from low level seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Moving to the equator or hibernating aren’t options. Recognising how I feel, looking it in the face and knowing that around Christmas I’ll start to feel better has helped me focus on the finishing line rather than the race. However imperceptible, I know that as the last Christmas leftovers are being eaten up and I’m starting to get annoyed with the decorations, the days will be getting longer and I’ll be starting to feel better. 

It’s not been quite so bad this year because my November, which is usually when I start to feel low, was supremely busy. I was heavily involved in the first literary festival in my town. I also had Murder Durnovaria to get out. I’m not sure I had time to even notice the change in light until I was on the other side of the festival and found myself heading to my day job in the pitch dark. Then I was starting to droop, staring blankly at editing I need to do on a novel and wincing at my total lack of preparation for Christmas. 

Christmas itself isn’t an issue. I grew up in a family which enjoyed Christmas but was never excessive about it. There weren’t many presents, but we ate well and spent several days being creative or reading without anyone expecting anyone to do something else instead. I’ve tried to continue that relaxed tradition with my own children. And after the year when I had to buy the entire Christmas meal on Christmas Eve and the world didn’t end and I realised no-one would have cared if we’d had spaghetti bolognese instead, I’ve been able to go with the flow about the food too.

Not every Christmas has been happy of course. Several have been clouded with a broken heart or a death or the shadow of serious illness and the mood has been less about a dizzying blaze of multi-coloured light and more about standing fast in a darkness illuminated by one defiant lantern – which for many is the whole point of the season. This year for me, the certainty that I’d got over the worst of SAD and simply needed to order food and persuade my slightly Bah Humbug husband to put decorations up and everything would be fine was knocked sideways by news I wasn’t expecting and which is currently still hanging over everything.

If like me, you find the last dark days of the year hard to bear, or if for you this Christmas or Christmas in general is difficult because of other people’s expectations, or you don’t buy into the hype or you’re alone and/or grieving, I’ve put some links below which you might find useful – some for support, some for ideas.

But I’d just like to finish on a note that’s not doom and gloom. 

I finally persuaded old Bah Humbug to help put up the decorations on Saturday. Naturally, no sooner was I ready to go than he decided to put up a new curtain rail in our daughter’s room instead – a job which had been waiting since September. 

Long story short, I threw up my hands in irritation and stormed off to assemble fake Christmas trees on my own.

I got Christmas trees 1 & 2 up (different rooms) and extracted the lights for Christmas tree 2 from their box. Half way out of the box, like sneaky serpents they spiralled into a hyper-granny-knot.

Having finished fitting the new curtain rail, my husband came to see what I’d been up to while he’d been ‘slogging away’ making a boil out of a pimple.

He tutted.

‘Now you see these lights,’ he said sagely. ‘What’s gone wrong here, the reason they’re tangled, is that you, being an impatient woman, pulled them out of the box the wrong way. As a patient man, I shall untangle them and put them on the tree. Stand back and watch the master at work.’

I left him wrestling them into submission while I did an internet search to establish whether Vlad the Impaler ever deployed a fake Christmas tree and if so how.

History is mute on the subject. It may yet be rewritten.

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Some ideas for doing something entirely different at Christmas

Coping with Anxiety and Depression at Christmas

Depression at Christmas – a Survival Guide

The Samaritans (UK)

 

Daisy-chains and Black Holes

If making daisy-chains and acting out what might happen as you fall into a black hole or similar were Olympic events, I might have had the chance as a sportswoman.

Or maybe not. 

I used to blame my lack of confidence at sport on childhood trauma: firstly aged five, hearing two grannies laugh at me as I tried to be placed in the egg and spoon race at school and later, aged nine or so, suffering two years of bullying which included being picked last for every team.

Looking back now, I realise not all of this is reasonable. 

I was the littlest child in my school in the youngest class. I was also extremely serious. I imagine a very small girl, running along clasping her egg and spoon (and they were the real thing in my day – none of this plastic nonsense) with a look of utter determination, socks falling down little legs, scabby knees occasionally showing as the overlong skirt flapped, mousy bunches bouncing above her shoulders. I was probably rather sweet and certainly funny. My own daughter, hampered by height in a similar manner just hammed up the whole thing as she competed with her best friend (the tallest in her class) to general hilarity including her own. I took myself far too seriously and felt quite bruised afterwards.

I recovered a bit when two years later, I went to a forward thinking junior school and was encouraged, despite my lack of stature, to learn the high jump and long jump properly. I was never going to win, but I did OK and was relatively confident in my abilities.

Then we moved again and I joined a school which had barely moved into the first half of the 20th century, let alone the last quarter. If there was any spare time, the boys got to do extra sport. The girls got to do extra needlework. If it was a very hot day, the girls got to do extra needlework while watching the boys do extra sport. My mother still has the item I embroidered that summer, every cross-stitch stabbed with boredom.

This was the school where I was comprehensively bullied for two years. On the one hand it crushed any small confidence I had that I could at least run, even if I wasn’t much good at catching or hitting a ball. It also put me off team games for life to the extent that when someone at work suggested an inter-team rounders match in St James’s Park, it took me straight back to those awful days of being jeered at and made me feel slightly sick. On the other hand, the junior school bullying – once I’d decided to stop letting people see they were hurting me – probably started me on a path of being determined to do my own thing and ultimately to stop worrying about what other people thought and worry more about whether I was meeting my own standards. 

Secondary school was a little different. Our games sessions involved four forms and therefore two groups of around sixty girls or sixty boys. How the teachers didn’t go mad I have no idea. Encouragement of women in sport was dampened by a teacher declaring in tones of despair that girls were useless once they hit puberty as women’s hips made it harder to run and busts made them more self-conscious. I’d never thought about my hips before and ever afterwards I’ve wondered if I really did run differently after the age of twelve. My bust was another matter. The last thing I was even remotely good at – running – became a torment both physical and mental as I was ‘wobbly’ very early on. 

The teachers concentrated on those who were teachable. These didn’t include me. During one year, in netball season, the teachers went off to coach girls with potential while those without were left alone – pitched in a vicious match against the goddesses of the school netball team. Imagine the Roman arena where useless specimens of humanity have been thrown to the top gladiators for a bit of light-hearted weapons practice. With no teacher watching, every rule (except bizarrely, staying in the right part of the court) was broken. Elbows, knees, and feet were employed to get the ball into the right goal. Meanwhile, even more feet were being applied to ankles within the useless girls’ team as low level feuds were played out under the guise of a match. In a vicious sort of way it was quite fun really. 

The teacher gave up trying to teach me tennis the day a cry came from the field where the boys were playing cricket: ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Paula’s tennis ball.’ I thought my serves were innovative but never mind. In the sixth form I went on a course to learn squash and afterwards challenged my boyfriend – a very competent sportsman – to a match. Afterwards, this generally mild-mannered young man said if anyone tried to make him play squash with me again, he’d have to kill them and me and possibly himself. This seemed harsh. My husband (not the same man and not as mild mannered) might feel similarly about teaching me dinghy sailing or ice-skating except he’s too busy laughing. I have fortunately learnt to put my nose in the air, get a cup of tea, stalk off and read or write something which is the adult equivalent of what I did in the days when I was picked last in teams – make daisy-chains and daydream.

You see, in school, the main sport in the summer was rounders. This – for anyone who doesn’t know – is related to baseball and consists of one team taking it in turns to whack a ball and try to get round four bases without being caught out, while the other team fields and tries to catch the ball in order to get them out. I hated batting because I was genuinely rubbish at it, bullying or no bullying, but I quite liked fielding if I could be as far away as possible from any likelihood of having to try and catch a ball.

Our country school had a massive daisy-covered field. Near one edge was a sort of copse. In break-times, the copse was crucial to me and the one person who’d play with me. It formed part of the world in which we acted out a very complicated story in which we’d gone through some sort of portal made of a translucent but tangible wall (a bit like clear jelly) to another world. We spent a great deal of time acting out the sheer terror of going through this invisible wall in which were trapped various enormous insects and managing the challenges on the other side as we tried to get back. It really doesn’t bear thinking about what we must have looked like and maybe it’s no wonder we were both considered odd. 

During a game of rounders, it was too risky to sneak off into the copse as the teacher wasn’t that daft. It was however possible to lay down in the grass as far away from any action as possible and make daisy-chains. Which is pretty much what I did, while imagining myself in the middle of one of my own stories having an adventure. On the very rare occasion a ball did come my way and an exasperated roar of ‘Paula!’ was bellowed by my team, it was really annoying. The one time I managed to scramble to my feet and catch the ball I was as surprised as anyone.

My own children turned out to be both creative and good at sports. My daughter did well and was quite focussed, particularly on gymnastics. But watching my son, who had a lot of potential, struggle with the team element of sport was baffling. No-one was picking on him (or at least not until his team lost because he wasn’t concentrating), he was capable and confident, he was being given lots of encouragement. So I asked him whether, apart from his struggles with concentration there was another problem. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I want there to be a story and no-one else does.’ He wasn’t really interested in playing football or swimming or learning judo for itself or for the sake of winning. He wanted it to be part of a story – a quest, a challenge, an adventure and none of the other children or the trainers understood. 

But I did. Because looking back, bullying aside, that’s exactly how I felt about sport and fundamentally still do. I want there to be a story, otherwise I’d rather be reading or writing one.

I like to think that if I ever was silly enough to agree to be on an office team playing rounders in St James’s Park, you’d be able to find me as a fielder, a long way from the action, making daisy-chains. I can still do it you know. 

As for acting out finding myself in another world, I lost touch with that friend for a long time until a few years ago. But as we caught up with each other over a series of emails, one of her first questions was ‘do you remember the jelly wall with the fly in it?’ Perhaps this is because, though we’re both now grown up and she’s not odd at all and maybe neither am I, we’re both writers and still looking for the story in every situation and wondering how best to describe what might happen if we step through a jelly wall or a black hole into another world. 

It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it. Beats whacking a ball in my view anyway.

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Words and photographs (c) Copyright 2019 Paula Harmon. Not to be reproduced without author’s express permission.

A Letter to My Bully

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

 

Nest Emptying

My girl has gone.

Well, ok, my daughter – my younger child – has gone to university and will no doubt be back before we know it, but at the moment, it feels very strange.

For the first time in twenty years, my husband and I are on our own in the house with the prospect of it being this way for several weeks rather than a few days.

I know I’m not the only one right now, wondering where all those years went (apart from into grey hair). It’s odd isn’t it? I’m proud my daughter is able to go, able to stretch her wings, proud of the young woman she has grown into, excited for her to be meeting new people and hearing new ideas – to be living in a completely different environment to the one she’s grown up in. But it’s weird.

Admittedly, before she left, we hadn’t seen a lot of her since she passed her driving test. Either at school or working or socialising, our daughter was generally somewhere less dull than at home with her parents. All the same, she was around some of the time and we knew roughly what was going on.

Now, if she stays out till 4am, we won’t know. So we won’t be worrying, we will be assuming she’s been tucked up with cocoa and an improving book since 8pm. That’s the theory anyway. Of course in reality, we’re still wondering if she’s all right – happy, eating properly, safe – in just the same way as we do about our son.

As my daughter and I were going round a hypermarket buying her last groceries before she left, she was quite excited until for the first time she had to pay attention in the detergent aisle. She said ‘I’m dreading doing my own washing’. ‘Dreading’ seems like a heavy word. I’m now afraid I may have passed my laundry obsession on to her. (But I admit to breathing a sigh of relief that I won’t have mountains of the stuff till they come home.)

My lovely girl has always been the independent sort. She fooled us for a total of twenty-three months by being the perfect baby. This was quite a relief given that her brother, less than two years older, is hyperactive. She slept… well pretty much all she did was sleep and smile. She would sit and ‘read’ to her toys before she could form proper words, showing them the pictures and pointing at the writing but using a language all of her own. She looked no more than slightly surprised the time I wheeled her about in the pushchair in the snow without strapping her in and hitting a hidden kerb sent her flying in her snowsuit face down into a snowdrift like a padded starfish. We probably should have taken note when her wicked sense of humour started to emerge at 14 months when she sniggered after shutting her big brother’s fingers in the door of the cupboard where she was ‘hiding’. 

At just under two, she shoved aside all the perfect baby nonsense and she emerged as funny, bright, independent, fiery, creative and lovely. She hasn’t looked back since. If she doesn’t fancy what’s planned for dinner, she’ll cook her own – much preferring vegetarian food to any other. Like me, her grandmothers and her great grandmothers, she makes recipes up to see what happens. Arguing with her is reasonably pointless but as she gets the belligerence from me naturally I do it anyway. 

She could draw recognisable characters with unique expressions before she could write properly. I still treasure the sketch she drew aged 4 on my Christmas wish list. I had put on it jewellery and art but she drew a picture of me grinning and loading a tumble dryer – something I didn’t possess but could have done with. I’ve also kept a copy of a diptych of a sad little girl faced with carrots and peas and a happy little girl faced with a Christmas present. This pretty much summed up her view of the injustices she faced at the time.

Just like my son with music, there was little doubt when she was small that art was where her heart lay.

Well now she’s flown the nest. She may be back (as will our son be) but she’s started adult life with a ton of grown up household setting up stuff (photo is a fraction of it) and sooner or later, they’ll both be gone for good.

How do my husband and I feel? I’m not sure it’s quite sunk in yet. I think yesterday we started to realise those two unnaturally tidy bedrooms were going to be tidy for some time and it felt very strange. I missed being able to just go and chat to her without having to go through some IT channel. Not because I was chasing up on her, just because I suddenly missed her very much.

I think of how it was when I went to university and communicating with my parents involved letters and a weekly phone call if I could face standing in the freezing campus phone box. It’s never occurred to me until now to ask my mother how she felt when I went to university. She says ‘it was so quiet. I missed you so much.’ Which is nice to know. My sister left home some years later and I remember Dad saying that he was still defaulting to cooking for four for some time afterwards. 

Although admittedly, knowing Dad, that was just because he liked food.

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Words and picture copyright (c) Paula Harmon 2019. Please do not use without the author’s express permission.

Writing Between the Fine Lines

Books for Older Readers?

How is an older reader any different from a younger one? We aren’t of course – except for the level of irritation we may feel when reading how we’re portrayed.

A great many industries have fallen foul of this (retailers – you know who you are) and the writing industry is one of them. 

Things some authors forget about people over fifty and indeed over seventy:

  • We don’t usually wear clothes from before WWII unless we’re going to a fancy dress party. 
  • In our teens we danced to anything from rock ’n’ roll to hip-hop – therefore it’s unlikely our favourite tunes are from the 1930s or before.
  • We grew up in a society which was described as ‘permissive’ and some of us were hippies. Whether we are/were permissive or not, whether we want to read about it or not, few of us find sex shocking or dirty. 
  • Apart from in a professional context, we prefer (or at least I prefer) not to be addressed formally. I find the words ‘Mrs Harmon…’ tend to precede bad news.
  • The menopause is not the morphopause. A woman on the far side of it is no different from the woman on the near side only except that she has one less thing on her shopping list every month.
  • Regardless of gender, we’re probably still working or have worked most of our adult lives.
  • We understand more of what teenagers and twenty-somethings say than we let on.

Under the spare bed I’ve stored various story segments written between the ages of sixteen and thirty. Whether I’ll ever do anything with them I don’t know. 

In my teenage jottings, all the main characters are under eighteen. Anyone over twenty is of doubtful interest since their sole function is to do what the adults around me seemed to be doing: boss people about and mess things up for the next generation. 

Back then, older people said if we worried about the future we were naïve and if we didn’t we were frivolous. ‘All you care about,’ they said, ‘is sex, awful so-called music, ridiculous fashions and avoiding settling down.’ (From what I recall we were interested in all those things – as are young people in every generation – but also the fairly major risk of being blown up in a nuclear war because of sabre-shaking adults.)

At twenty-one, I graduated and started working. The characters in my stories then were also in their twenties, torn between having to earn a living, wanting to do something interesting instead, wondering if they would ever find The One and fundamentally feeling that adult life was frankly not worth the bother.

After I hit thirty, there was a long gap when I didn’t write much at all, because earning a living turned into a career, The One finally turned up (albeit not to the timetable I had in mind as a teenager) and consequently I had two children. Adult life, whether worth the bother or not, got in the way.

By the time I got round to writing properly again I was, of course, older. 

Things that I’d discovered in the meantime included:

  • Some people have lots of energy and want to change the world for the better.
  • Some people have lots of energy and want to change it for the worse.
  • Some people are tired, busy, ill, disillusioned.
  • Some people just want to have some fun. 
  • Some people just don’t care.
  • People can be insecure, worried, want to love and be loved, want sex or not want sex, be angry, happy, spiritual, a-spiritual, confused, hopeful, dangerous. 
  • They can be all these things at the same time or at different times.
  • Crucially, they can be all these things whatever age they are.

The only difference between a younger person and an older one is that the younger one looks at the older and thinks it’ll never happen to me and the older looks at the younger and thinks when did I stop being you?

By the time I started writing again, I realised that whatever age my characters were they had to be as multi-faceted as real people. 

How have I tried to reflect that in my own stories? 

Murder Britannica is a humorous murder-mystery set in 2nd Century south-east Wales. Its main characters Lucretia and Tryssa are two British women in their fifties who have loathed and subsequently avoided each other since since their teens. While the self-absorbed Lucretia is the richest woman in the area, suddenly she has to rely on Tryssa, the wisest woman in the area, to stop a string of mysterious deaths from really getting out of hand. I had great fun writing about them. Lucretia doesn’t think she’s too old for anything, whether it’s getting even richer or flirting with eligible (e.g. rich) men and thinks Tryssa is dull and possibly sneaky. Tryssa feels maturity should equal wisdom and equanimity and thinks Lucretia is ridiculous. A second book about them will hopefully be out in Spring 2020. It’s set in Durnovaria (modern day Dorchester) and while Lucretia’s visit to an old flame uncovers more than a plot to defraud her of money, Tryssa finds not just answers to a buried secret but also unexpected love.

The Cluttering Discombobulator is a fictionalised memoir about my father. It flips between memories of being a child in the 1970s and being the forty-something daughter of an elderly man who runs amok with a mobility scooter. The book started when my father challenged me to write an interesting short story about a retired couple, one of whom is in a wheelchair. Over time and circumstance, it morphed into something else entirely. 

Kindling and The Advent Calendar (collections of short stories, many of which are based on real events and/or places) have plenty of young people on the edge of adulthood or adolescence but also several older people revisiting their youth to close a circle.

Weird and Peculiar Tales (co-written with Val Portelli) features several older people either on the wrong side of things that go bump in the night or being the thing that goes bump in the night.

Starting with The Case of the Black Tulips, the Caster & Fleet series (co-written with Liz Hedgecock) is set in 1890s London. Katherine (25) and Connie (22) team up to solve one mystery and end up solving several. There’s romance, humour, dark deeds and plenty of tea. Where are the older characters? Well in an era when a nice girl (even aged 25) was still largely under someone’s supervision a lot of the time, Katherine has Aunt Alice and Aunt Alice’s friend Mina to chaperone her (assuming she doesn’t climb out of a window or something). Aunt Alice has been trying to bring up Katherine and Katherine’s sister Margaret since their mother’s death. She’s loving, shy, unworldly and doesn’t really feel equal to her nieces’ fire. She’s quietly horrified that Katherine’s working – even in a job suitable for a nice middle-class girl – and would rather live in genteel poverty. Her quiet and somewhat secretive friend Mina is more inclined to turn a blind eye to Katherine’s activities. Alice and Mina are both in their late forties, perhaps considered old maids. Has life passed them by? Perhaps it hasn’t. There are also two much less retiring women. One is Connie’s mother who could turn a disappointing jelly to stone with one glare and whose efforts to marry her daughter off to any suitable young man are the main reason Connie escapes to a side-street restaurant one rainy lunch-time and meets Katherine. The other is Penelope, the aunt of the young man who may or may not be on Katherine’s side. If anyone would swing from Tower Bridge the minute it’s built, it would be Penelope. As the bridge isn’t quite finished when we meet her, she settles for a different adventure altogether. There are older men too – enigmatic Mr Maynard, the senior civil servant and entrepreneurial Mr Templeton, the manager of a music-hall.

As a reader, I’ll read anything. I like old classics, I like new finds. I like mainstream fiction, genre fiction, young adult fiction and children’s fiction. I don’t care if the main characters are six or a hundred. The key thing is they need to be interesting and roundly authentic. 

As a writer, I find my characters tell me how old they are and I go from there. I myself haven’t got to sixty yet, let alone eighty or a hundred. Will that stop me writing about someone who tells me that’s how old they are? No. But I’ll do my best to make them real.

Before you make assumptions, have a look at the Books for Older Readers website and see what’s there. You’ll find quite a range. 

There may even be a few that older readers are apparently too old to understand. 

Who’d have thought it? 

Shocking.

The Books for Older Readers Facebook group and website was established in October 2017 to promote books (mainly fiction) with older protagonists or themes such as ‘second chances’, which tend to appeal to readers in mid-life or beyond.

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Words copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

My Glass is…

They say there are three types of people: one who thinks their glass is half-full, one who thinks it’s half-empty and one who says ‘beer? I never ordered beer!’

There’s actually a fourth type. 

Dad would say: ‘despite all evidence to the contrary, my glass is not simply full, it’s overflowing and while you’re asking silly questions can you buy me a doughnut to eat with my drink?’

Dad’s enthusiastic plans and reality were not so much loosely connected as operating on parallel lines that would never actually meet.

He had many schemes: 

  1. we’d move to a fancy house by the sea; 
  2. I’d have lots of fashionable clothes; 
  3. I’d go to a posh school (akin to the ‘Chalet School’ where everyone was extremely nice to each other and they had lots of adventures); 
  4. we’d go on holiday to a French gîte (a new trend at the time); 
  5. he’d buy a brand new fancy car like one on ‘Top Gear’. (At the time, I should point out, ’Top Gear’ featured cars affordable by ordinary people.)

What I actually got was: 

  1. the dark house we already had, which was possibly haunted (or at least the cat and I thought a corner of my bedroom was); 
  2. hand-me-downs from various richer cousins; 
  3. the school I was already at where I was bullied and the main adventure was hiding from them; 
  4. Maybe a crumbling holiday let in Britain, one of which had a hole in the ceiling from which I was fairly sure a massive spider peeked when I was in bed 
  5. a car which was pretty much a tin-can held together with duct tape. And I really mean mostly held together provided you factored in several pit-stops on a long journey to patch it up again.

Sometimes Dad did get frustrated when life didn’t go to plan but generally he simply ignored things going awry and everyone else got frustrated instead (mainly with Dad).

I’m not even going to pretend I’m like him in this respect. While my glass is probably half-full in general, I find plans going to pieces overwhelmingly stressful until I get to the point when I give myself a shake, which is sort of where I am at the moment.

One of my friends posted an image today – many are available – which is about what is or out of your control. In brief:

  • In my control are my thoughts, my words, my deeds, my reactions. 
  • Out of my control is pretty much everything else. 

It made me feel a bit better because it made me reflect on what I can and can’t do and what I should or shouldn’t let get to me.

When asking me about writing on top of working full-time and having a family and all the other stuff, people often ask ‘how do you manage?’ and usually I just answer ‘it’s difficult but I fit it all in somehow’. The second half of this year, I have to be honest, the answer is more realistically ‘I’m not managing’. 

Don’t read this as a complaint. I’m overjoyed with all that I have, including good health, an interesting (if sometime exasperating) job, a lovely family and all the other stuff even though this year has been stressful on most of those fronts for one reason or another. 

Creativity whether cooking, photography, painting, sewing or more usually writing generally keeps me sane and lets me channel something else for a bit to reboot my energy. 

In the second half of this year however, work plans haven’t gone to plan and since this impacts on my time and energy for creativity, I’m in a bit of a vortex of frustration.

With work, obviously one of the things that keeps me going is that it pays the bills but I’m also fortunate to be working towards a worthwhile goal in a great team with people I consider to be good friends.

Writing of course, I could stop at any time. Only I don’t want to largely because I know I’d be utterly miserable without it – even the difficult aspects of it (e.g. when something won’t come out right, or editing chapters is like wrangling thirty cats into a cat-carrier built for one). 

I can’t do anything about some of the things that have gone awry with work – they are well and truly out of my control. I can’t therefore do much about the lack of time I have at the moment. I can simply make the best use of the time I do have and focussing on what I can do, rather than fretting about what I can’t is a great release. 

Something that keeps me going rather than giving up is knowing I’m not alone. 

I have a number of writer friends. Some I’ve known for years, some for a short while. Some I’ve never even met in person and will probably never meet. But at one point or another, each of them has found their writing targets going to pot. Illness has meant one took longer than she’d have liked to finish her project. Another is struggling with ‘blocks’ of various kinds – perhaps caused by doubts in their (considerable abilities) put in their minds by other people. Another, like me, thought they’d have ‘finished’ something by now but reviewing and revising has taken much longer than they thought. Another finds they can’t find an audience for a book which is just as good if not better than many that sell in the thousands. 

It’s hard not to get discouraged and feel out of control but I’ve been encouraged by others who understood when things are a struggle. Just a few words here and there have helped immensely. 

So just in case you need it too, whatever the thing is that you’re facing at the moment – try to focus on what you can do and how you react and have a virtual hug from me.

 

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.