Make Do and Bend

Thanks to my father’s eccentric views on store cupboard necessities and general tidiness, I can make a meal out of pretty much anything using a workspace barely big enough for a dinner plate.

He taught me to experiment with recipes and cuisines, while my mother taught me to cook from scratch. So all in all, I’m well set for making edible, if sometimes odd, meals out of whatever I’ve got to hand.

But – that’s not to say I always want to. 

Last Thursday was one of those days. In fact last Thursday was one of those days when I didn’t want to do anything at all. 

Feeling positive and upbeat in the coronavirus world seemed as impossible a task as putting ten people in a lift and telling them to socially distance themselves.

Things that pushed me over the edge:

  • Waiting for ages in the pharmacy
  • An irritating working day when the work laptop kept crashing
  • Knowing it would be the weekend before I could get on with editing my novel which had been in the process thereof forever
  • Missing my son who’s fifty miles away
  • Worrying about my sister and niece who are both in the nursing profession.

On Thursday, I just had enough of feeling positive. What I wanted to do was throw the work laptop out of the window and delete my novel. What I most didn’t want to do was make another wretched meal. What I really wanted to do was stomp to the hotel and order one instead. 

Only of course, the hotel and every other eating establishment in the country is shut for the duration. 

Perhaps I’d burnt out my cooking mojo over the previous seven days. I’d made some very inauthentic but tasty ‘pakoras’. I’d made some even less authentic but tasty ‘samosas’ (they were more sort of curried vegetable pasties really). I’d made some successful flatbreads despite having only half the right ingredients. I could argue that I’d had no imagination left to put into anything, but actually I’d just had enough.

I suggested we ordered an Indian take-away. My husband pulled a face. ‘What were we going to have if we don’t get a take-away?’ he said. 

‘Stir-fried pork and stir-fried whatever veg is in the bottom of the fridge and egg-fried rice,’ I said.

‘Yum,’ he said. ‘That sounds much nicer than take-away. We’ll have that.’

‘But it takes longer to prepare than it takes to cook and eat,’ I argued. ‘And there are always so many cooking utensils involved in stir-fries.’

I’ll cook it then,’ he said. 

The thought of that was even worse. Where I can use three utensils, he can use ten. Plus he puts enough extra chilli and soy-sauce in his stir-fries to fill the kitchen with high-blood-pressure-inducing toxic fumes.

In the end, I said I’d cook it after all and sent him off on his daily walk while I sliced the living daylights out of some rather limp vegetables until I felt marginally better.

These are peculiar times when the whole structure of the normal lives of most of the world’s population utterly changed more or less simultaneously (give or take some governments’ prompt responses to the situation or lack thereof). 

The skies are now clearer than they’ve been for decades, maybe in some parts of the world, for over a century. And yet none of us knows if at any time, we might catch somehow the virus, whether or not we’ll be badly affected and either way, whether we’ll unwittingly pass it on to someone else who might subsequently die. 

Not being able to eat out, not being able to buy a specific ingredient aren’t really very important in themselves, many people can’t usually – but they’re reminders that life is not normal, that hospital staff like my sister and niece have to dress up like spacemen to work, that there’s nowhere anyone can go to ‘get away from it all’, that no-one has the least idea when we’ll be back to normal or even what normal will look like when it’s all over.

Sometimes, all that is overwhelming. 

On Thursday, I felt overwhelmed and in the end I told myself that that was ok. I decided to give myself space to feel overwhelmed and then start afresh the next day. Which I did. Then, I spent the weekend getting to grips with my novel. 

I’m glad I didn’t delete it. I’m not quite so sure whether I’m glad I didn’t throw the work laptop out of the window.

Somewhat less overwhelmed today, I’m feeling more cheerful about making tonight’s dinner out of what’s available. It’s not as if we can’t get nice food, and enough of it. We just can’t get it as often or as easily as we could a month or so ago. 

I thought of those memes that refer to WWII rationing and remind us that things could be worse. Out of curiosity, I extracted my research copy of ‘The Victory Cookbook’ . Flicking through to see what sort of things were suggested to British housewives during the war, I found a recipe for Pilchard Layer Loaf which was apparently ‘new and very exciting’. It involves, basically, layers of bread and tinned pilchards with a sort of mustardy béchamel poured over and then baked in the oven. Well, I have bread, I have tinned mackerel, I have the makings of a mustardy béchamel…. Could I? Should I?

I also have some poultry, some rather wizened tomatoes, some garlic, some grapes and some olives. A sort of cacciatore I think, only perhaps with a little chilli to keep my husband happy.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all this, that’s ok. None of us have to feel upbeat all the time, including you dear reader. But this will be over one day and we have to hold on to that even if we can’t hold on to each other.

In the meantime though, I’m sort of hoping things’ll never be so bad that I try making Pilchard Layer Loaf. 

It sounds utterly disgusting.

 

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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.

10 Tips to help if you’re worried about coronavirus

 

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’

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

 

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.

Pruning

In my head, I could design a garden to make Capability Brown swoon. 

In reality, my gardening skills are worse than my housework skills. Nature fights back more than dust does, seeding things in the wrong places to thrive while I plant them in the right places to die. 

I reckon ivy, brambles and briar rose feature so much in song and story because they get everywhere. And as far as my garden is concerned, buddleia sprouts all over the place, regenerating like a Hydra the moment you cut a bit down.

Tidying up what we like to think of it as a wildlife haven isn’t my favourite activity. But my husband and I, having been busy for several weeks, realised we had to tackle some of it before the house disappeared behind greenery like Sleeping Beauty’s castle behind thorns. Brambles have assaulted my husband and briar rose has attacked me. Shame our tetanus jabs aren’t up to date.

In the wrong place, I found a purple flower which had somehow managed to grow on a plank of wood, a carpet of forget-me-nots and a mass of wild strawberries. Prettiness notwithstanding, I’ve pulled out and cut down everything bar the latter. If we don’t eat them, the birds will.

If I weren’t gardening I’d be editing, even though I feel like I’ve been doing nothing else for months. With three creative projects to complete this year (one now with beta readers so at least that one will get there), I feel rather weary. I miss writing anything original that isn’t work related. 

During editing, nothing has been salvaged like the strawberries. I’ve been pulling out the ‘forget-me-nots’ and pruning the ‘buddleia’. Do I need this character? No. Is this scene working? No. Slash. Chop.

I was fond of the things I’ve cut out and feel an odd sense of guilt telling them they don’t fit. Some will perhaps turn up in something else another time, some may never reappear anywhere. It’s rather depressing. 

At least it’s possible to prune fiction. Real life, no matter how much I’d like it to be, can’t be pruned. Things happen that no-one would believe in a novel and you can’t alter events to make a coherent narrative. That’s probably why paintings, music and stories are important – in them worlds have a pattern on a small, manageable scale, when any pattern in real life is on too large a scale for anyone to see. 

Anyway, pruning, tidying, editing – I’m always pleased at the end but the process itself is hard work and often painful. 

But the hope is that I may find unexpected strawberries in the garden, a lost ‘treasure’ doing housework and in my books create something people will enjoy. 

At least I needn’t put my edited characters through a shredder or on a compost heap. So at least none of them can attack me to get their own back. Because they’re not real. Are they? 

Are they? 

Gulp.

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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.