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.

Book Bereavement

I’m suffering book bereavement.

There’s probably an equivalent for artists and musicians and it hurts.

Book bereavement is when a piece of writing is complete, leaving a gap in your life you don’t know how to fill. (Readers can feel much the same when a good book ends.)

In my case, I’ve just finished writing a novel and I’m missing my main characters so much I don’t know how to stop thinking about them. It’s a really odd sensation to have about people who, let’s be honest *whispers* don’t really exist at all. The thing is, they feel real to me. 

This sensation may be intensified by the fact that I took last week off work purely to write and wrote nearly 36,000 words. Fundamentally, except for a few hours spent eating and having to live in the real world, I was imagining, dreaming, writing and living in my novel for nine days and nights.

For those of you who’ve stuck with me so far: who are these people who are still hovering about and what’s their story?

The main character is Margaret Demeray, the younger sister of Katherine from the Caster & Fleet series.

Liz Hedgecock and I decided we’d do spin-offs which we would write singly, rather than as a collaboration and I chose to see what happened to Margaret when she grew up. (You’ll have to wait and see what Liz comes up with.)

The book is set in 1910. 

I picked the year partly because the fashions – with the possible exception of hats – were lovely (which is perhaps not very rational) and partly because it was a kind of tipping point historically. King Edward VII has just died, the women’s suffrage movement is gaining momentum, the old monarchies and empires of Europe, including Britain’s, are quietly sabre-rattling as they struggle for dominance.

Margaret is thirty-six, the age when a woman is supposed to be in her prime. (I can’t really remember because at that age I had baby well under two and was expecting a second.)

Margaret’s life is much more interesting. She is medically qualified and working in a teaching hospital. She has been asked to speak at a scientific symposium, the only woman to do so. She has great women-friends, equally determined not to be overshadowed by men, and has maintained her independence. But somehow she has also become engaged to a man so hung-up, he appears to find kissing her a chore. Perhaps if he were a little more passionate, she wouldn’t keep putting off the wedding. But as it is…

Then a stranger asks about the nameless subject of Margaret’s most recent post-mortem and her world turns upside down.

Obviously, the first draft being hot off the fingertips so to speak, it’s too close to read through and see what works, what doesn’t and which loose ends are still flapping. And it doesn’t have a name either. 

Oh well, I’m sure my subconscious will tell me at 4 a.m. or during a business meeting sometime soon. 

Today I’m back at my day job (the one that pays the bills) where there is regrettably very little scope for creativity, unless you count obtaining statistics and then turning them into a pretty graph. So perhaps to distract myself from having left my main characters wondering what they’re supposed to do next, I did a bit of number-crunching of my own.

My husband and I have recently started counting steps and we have been making ourselves do a circuit of our town pretty much every day to reach our 10k. 

So I’ve created a graph to show how many words I wrote each day last week against how many steps I walked. On the basis that statistics are supposed to prove something, these seem to prove nothing except it is possible to write words and do exercise, even if your husband has to drag you out of the house and put up with your mind being somewhere else entirely as you walk. (For the record, it rained all day on Friday 8th, he wasn’t home till late and it was more appealing to stick at writing rather than waste time walking round town getting drenched. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.)

For anyone who actually cares about the words side of it, an average under 4,000 words a day may not seem a lot given that I was writing for around 8 hours a day and I’ve been known to write 1,500 on an hour and half train journey. Every writer has their own way of doing things. Some people write to a strict plan, some to no plan at all; some pour everything out and worry about it afterwards, some do a bit of editing as they go along. 

I start with an outline, some idea of who’s who, what they’re up to and where they’ll end up, but let the rest fall in place as it comes to me – which as I said above sometimes occurs at 4 a.m or in the middle of a business meeting. My process last week was: get up, review the previous day’s writing, tweak it, often move it about or hold it back, and then crack on with the next part. I think there was one day I did more tweaking than writing.

For now as I write this, I must put Margaret, her friends and her enemies firmly to one side, because it’s lunchtime and I’m going to do some steps. 

Only 7,353 more to do. Sigh. I’d rather be writing.

 

 

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

Charming Gowns:www.designrush.com

Graph: my own with dodgy stats

Cat: www.pixabay.com

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…

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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.

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.

The Nameless Manuscript

Someone was shaking me awake.

‘Train terminates here, miss,’ said the guard.

Finding myself slumped against the grimy train window, I blinked, stood up and made my way off the train. Still half asleep, I wobbled on the step and the guard helped me down as if I were an old lady or worse: tipsy.

Alone on the platform, I ran my hand across my eyes and grimaced at the soot left on my gloves.

At the barrier, the ticket collector looked askance and outside the station, the taxi man hesitated when I gave Harriet’s address, taking me in from top to toe as if ascertaining whether I could afford the fare.

‘My word,’ said Harriet, when I finally arrived at her flat, ‘did they make you travel in the coal tender?’

‘Do I look that bad?’ I looked into the mirror over her fireplace. My clothes were crumpled from the sleep and my hat askew, hitching my curls up on one side and flattening them on the other. Soot striped my eyes as if I had applied war paint.

‘I hope whatever you were doing was good copy,’ said Harriet, after I’d tidied myself up. ‘Could you put it in “Blueprint for Thingummy”?’

She nodded at my satchel, where my just-finished manuscript hid, its pages huddled within the string, tied up as a sacrifice for the publisher who’d agreed to look at it. I imagined it whimpering with the fear of being read and laughed at. I only had until tomorrow to think of a proper title.

‘Apart from the fact that it’s finished – I think – I’m not sure how I could get time-travel into it. “Blueprint” is supposed to be a murder mystery.’

‘Time-travel?’

‘It’s what happened to me on the train.’

‘I knew it,’ said Harriet, ‘trying to be an author is sending you mad. You need to stop writing and get a proper job before you get overwhelmed by delusion. And you need a stiff drink. Whatever really happened is obviously too traumatic to be solved with a cup of tea.’

‘Anything can be solved by a cup of tea.’

‘Really – you’d rather tea to a whisky and soda?’ She poured out a generous measure and waggled it at me.

‘Well maybe not tea the way you make it.’ I took the proffered glass and sat back. ‘Seriously, I really did travel in time.’

‘You were dreaming, but tell me anyway. Which era did you go visit? I always wanted to go back to Medieval times.’

‘It wasn’t back. It was forward.’

‘Robots I guess. Rocket ships.’

‘No, it wasn’t like that at all. I was on a train.’

‘Well yes. You were on a train, fast asleep.’

‘I fell asleep almost as soon as I got on and then I woke up a few minutes later. I found myself sitting at a table and all the seats were orange.’

‘Orange?’

‘And the windows were quite clean. Apart from a few rain streaks, I could see out clearly. There was no soot.’

‘That’s because it was all over your face instead.’

‘No listen, I saw the power station at Battersea.’

‘Who can see that from the train in November? The radio said there was a real pea-souper in London today.’

‘There was. Or rather there was before I fell asleep. But when I woke, the skies were completely clear. No fog, no smoke.’

‘The power station…’

‘Just a shell. With scaffolding. Everything looked both familiar and unfamiliar. I thought I saw a fisherman on the river.’

‘What could you fish out of the Thames?’

‘I dread to think. There were skyscrapers on the horizon.’

‘Like the Empire State? In London?’

‘They weren’t anything like the Empire State. I can’t even describe them.’

‘I thought you were a writer. Isn’t it your job to describe things?’

I closed my eyes and tried to remember those edifices glinting in the autumn sun. ‘They were strange shapes. One looked like a pencil with a jagged top.’

‘It was a dream.’

‘And the people in the carriage. They were different.’

‘Silver suits, ray-guns?’

‘No. They wore pretty much what we wear only not so smart. Some had suits but not many. No hats apart from two men with peaked ones a bit like schoolboys wear.’

‘Baseball caps?’

I paused, remembering staring at them, wondering whether to be affronted at the sight of men indoors who had not removed their hats. I tried to recall what a baseball player wore.

‘Maybe.’

‘So they were all scruffy, dirty?’

‘No. That’s the strange thing. They were all dressed so casually and yet they were all so clean. Apart from their shoes. Hardly anyone had polished their shoes.’

I recalled the shiny hair, the smell of laundry soap, scent; the clear skin and eyes. There had been no odour of tobacco or coal or sweat. There was a strange smell which I couldn’t place and I wondered if it came from the orange seats which were made from something like rayon or from the structure of the carriage interior itself which appeared to be made of pale Bakelite. It was not unpleasant, just odd.

‘Some of the women wore a lot of cosmetic and others none. And no-one smoked.’

‘No-one?’

‘I know. I felt a bit rattled. I was afraid I might smell and must look peculiar with my hat and red suit and shiny shoes and brown satchel. But no-one paid me any attention till I got my cigarettes out.’

‘What did they do?’

‘They frowned and tutted and one of them nodded at the window. I thought he meant I should open it or something. Then I saw a sign. It was a sort of black sketch of a smoking cigarette with a red line through it. So I put my cigarettes away and said sorry.’

‘And then…’

‘I was ignored again. They were all staring at things – oblong bits of Bakelite – all sizes. There were flat folding typewriters. People were typing away, though I couldn’t see where the paper went. Others were looking at silent movies on tiny screens – I don’t know where the projectors were and they had wires stuck in their ears. And some were reading or writing by tapping on the glass with their fingers. Oh I can’t explain.’

‘I’m telling you. You’ve been working on that novel too hard. It’s worn out your brain. Typing without paper, writing with fingers…’

‘And then the train stopped at Vauxhall (which looked very strange) and one of the girls at my table left her oblong thing behind. I stood up to try and call her, but she’d had to walk down a long aisle and I couldn’t see her. I heard a whistle and some beeping and then the train started up. I fell back in my seat and bumped my head. Next thing I knew, I was being woken up by the guard down here.’

‘My dear,’ said Harriet, pouring me another whisky, ‘you’ve been watching too many scary movies.’

‘It wasn’t a dream. It was all real.’

Harriet stubbed out her cigarette and nodded towards my satchel. ‘OK. If you say so. Are you going to show me your masterpiece or not? I want to be able to say I handled it just before the publisher snapped it up.’

Unbuckling the straps. I pulled out the manuscript, and with it came the girl’s oblong Bakelite thing. It was about eight inches by five, flat, glass on one side and dull black on the other, like a picture frame without a picture. When I touched it, a sunset appeared and when I pressed a button, the image was replaced with a grid of numbers and the words ‘enter passcode’. Just to see what happened, I touched out the first number which came to mind: the year, 1932.

The numbers disappeared and words replaced them…including my name.

I read aloud, ‘“In the early thirties, my great-grandmother had a strange experience on the train out of London. She was on the way to her publisher with the manuscript we now know as the best-selling masterpiece of classic detective fiction called…”’

The glass went black but for a whirring circle and some incomprehensible words. Then they too disappeared and nothing happened when I pressed the button.

I shook the object to see if it would do anything else. It didn’t.

Harriet lit a new cigarette.

I sighed and contemplated the depleted whisky bottle.

It had been a very strange day and no matter what the oblong thing said, I still had to decide a name for my novel.

As if reading my mind, Harriet said ‘Maybe your book will turn out to be a best-selling masterpiece, but I think you should stick to the title “Blueprint for Thingummy”. I can’t imagine any kind of world in which “Battery drained, shutting down” has any kind of meaning at all. Can you?”

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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

(This story started as a prompt on a Facebook page to write 750 words including “Blue-print”, “delusion” and “fisherman”. I started writing it on a train journey and was having so much fun I doubled the word limit! – I did post an edited version though…)

The Tale of a Tale

By 2009, I had sort of given up on any ideas of writing. What with work and young children and the aftermath of a stressful house/job/school move from Gloucestershire to Dorset, there just wasn’t time.

My father however, couldn’t stop making up stories. Every few months, he’d ask me to read a new novel, in which unlikely people had unlikely adventures in futuristic worlds. They were always good fun, although Dad’s feelings towards editing was much the same as his feelings towards decluttering (unnatural and diabolical).

One day, I said ‘why don’t you write about yourself or someone like yourself?’ and he said ‘because it’s boring. If you think you could make up a story about an old fogey in a wheelchair, be my guest.’

Dad was not your archetypal old fogey really. By this time, he had chronic arthritis but it didn’t stop him. If he thought a building wasn’t sufficiently adapted for wheelchair users, he would very politely explain this at length to the owner or anyone handy. On one occasion he visited in a café in my local (Georgian) town and finding the step awkward and the doorway narrow, popped out to get an Argos catalogue to show a café proprietor what ramps were available at a reasonable sum. The café closed down a few months later. I don’t think there’s a connection. He rushed around in either a scooter or electric wheelchair, regardless of anyone else’s feet or the suitability of the pavement. If he couldn’t be doing with the pavement, he’d drive down the middle of the road instead. One day Dad drove his wheelchair round a blind corner in the middle of Weymouth at four miles an hour with me and my sister running behind, shrieking at him to slow down. On another occasion, he lowered himself out of the wheelchair onto the pavement in order to take a ‘really good photograph’ of passing cars. My mother had to explain to concerned passers-by that he hadn’t collapsed and was technically quite well. I realised then that my father would embarrass all of us for as long as he could and I might as well accept it.

So there was the challenge: write about an old fogey in a wheelchair.

I still don’t know where the idea came from, but the whole story, just as unlikely as any of his, popped into my head as I was in the supermarket and I came straight home and wrote it on the computer in the freezing cold front room. It was called ‘Coffee at Tiffany’s’.

Shortly afterwards I wrote a second story: ‘Katie is a Cat’. This was inspired from the rainy day when I crossed Westminster Bridge and saw on the other side of the road two people, one of whom was in a wheelchair. So far so normal. However, they also had a cat in a basket on the wall behind them. Trust me, that’s not usual for central London at rush-hour.

A few years passed and Dad became very ill. I decided to write another ‘old fogey’ story for his birthday, but it just wouldn’t quite come. By June 2012, Dad was in hospital undergoing tests, totally exhausted but still writing. I dug out the ‘old fogey’ story and tried again. It would be a Father’s Day present. But I couldn’t find the happiness I needed to write something silly and put it back to one side. My sister and I arranged a photograph of all four grandchildren instead but he never saw that either. Dad died two days before Father’s Day.

Well, more years passed and Mum kept saying how much she’d liked those two silly stories and I remembered the others which I’d started and not finished. And I recalled the little bits of writing I’d done as a sort of outlet for grief. And I remembered all the fun we’d had with Dad when we were children. Then I realised Mum’s 80th birthday was coming up.

It took me months and a lot of secrecy. It took a lot of asking Mum odd questions about things which happened a long time ago (without telling her why), digging out old photographs, writing on trains, getting exasperated, feeling emotional.

When I decided to illustrate the book, I asked Mum, as if from idle curiosity, whether she had any of Dad’s drawings. She dug out a story Dad had written for my sister which I’d thought was long lost. There was his sketch from all those years ago, of a startled squirrel pegging out her washing, being confronted by an eagle. As you do. Fortunately it was the typed version, as no-one could read Dad’s handwriting. Even Dad.

Somehow, pulling all these elements together, I wrote a book. The parts based on real events proved to be harder to write than any of the fantasy sequences. Life is not narrative, with a beginning, middle and logical conclusion. In the end, I stopped bothering trying to make it accurate and just started having fun instead.

And finally, with a few days to spare, I had a proof copy to give to Mum for her 80th birthday as a total surprise.

And now the book is published for sale.

‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’ is a celebration of my father: hero, eccentric, adventurer and story-teller to the end.

Part memory, part fantasy, it’s the story of an eccentric father with hero-worshipping little daughters and the adventures he has in his imagination when those girls turn into boring middle-aged women who need to lighten up.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Dad, ‘everything will be fine.’

And do you know what Dad? Somehow it is.

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

Click here to buy ‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’

Memories

 

 

 

Getting to know me

I have been talking to myself for years, so I may as well do a Q & A while I’m doing it!

So, Paula – is writing all you do?

I sometimes wish it was. I sometimes feel as if my primary role is laundress, chief cook and bottle washer and completer of forms for school. I work full time for the civil service (I vowed I would never do this, when I listened to my civil servant mother quoting form numbers over dinner. But here I am veteran of 28 years working for the same organisation after applying for an interim job till the dream one came up. And I can still remember form numbers, though the ones I can remember are irrelevant in my current role.) Apart from this I am married (to someone I met in the office who was also waiting in vain for the dream job) with a son at university and a daughter in her penultimate year at school.

What was your dream job then?

Writer. But I had no idea how to make it work and at the end of the day, had bills to pay. I felt very dissatisfied for a long time, till I just decided to write anyway. The good thing about this was that by that time I had a bit of life experience to put into what I wrote. Husband’s dream job involves not having one but sailing all day instead. I prefer dry land, or at least being moored within swimming distance of it.

When do you write?

Whenever I can find the time. This doesn’t always coincide with inspiration though. If I have the time but not the inclination,  I try to make myself write something, anything, just to keep the creative muscles working. Sometimes this has led to new insights into something I was stuck on. I often write on trains and hope no one is reading over my shoulder. They often are though. Once someone made me scream out loud by commenting from the seat behind and the other day someone started a conversation about notebooks. Just to add though, I was sketching at that point, not writing.

What do you write?

Someone asked me this the other day and I never know how to answer. I write mainly fiction. There may be more or less realism, more or less fantasy, more or less humour. I am finalising two things and working on another. They are all completely different.

How?

Well (1)  I’m formatting a book which I’m hoping to publish in October. It’s a celebration of an eccentric father and is based on real people and some real events but there is also a fantastical element which sneaks in from time to time.  Watch this space…. (2) I’m finalising a short story for a charity anthology. It’s set in an alternative universe, where in a sort of Victorian London, dragons are a source of potential power and potential threat…. (3) I’m on 2nd/3rd draft of a thriller which has no mystical element whatsoever.

How real are your characters to you?

Let’s put it this way, I cried actual tears when someone died, even though I’d made her up and could have written an alternative scene. It’s very hard to explain. I feel the frustration of the main character in the thriller as her opportunities are taken one by one. I wish I had one of the dragons in the short story because he makes me laugh. On the other hand, when writing the one based on real life, I found it hard to describe myself and my sister as children without turning us into a fictional characters. In the end, it’s pretty much what I did and had great fun making my sister naughtier even than she was.

What surprises you about writing?

The way the characters take over and the way themes change. You realise a story which you planned as a love story between persons A and B is actually a story of friendship between persons B and C. It’s wonderful how supportive authors are of each other, rather than competitors. I’m a member of several groups and all anyone wants is for others to do well. Also, it’s quite satisfying killing people off in a story (unless it makes you cry). My husband is disappointed that I’ve even murdered a boat but you know. Had to be done.

Why Downes?

Downes is my maiden name. Always thought I’d write under it but am keeping it for books I’ve planned to write for children.

What are you doing right now?

Right now I’m sitting in a cafe on my lunch break writing this. Am in Croydon, which I visit for work once a week. I can’t wait to get back to Dorset later. I also can’t wait to get home to take my new shoes off. My feet are killing me.

What do you wish people knew about you?

I’m very shy but have learned to cover it up in a veneer of confidence which doesn’t exist. One day I decided to take control of the shyness instead of the other way around. The downside is that people don’t realise when you’re struggling with life.

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It doesn’t have to be “Never”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why?’

‘No idea.’

‘I’ll pour you some wine.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t give up.

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

Feeling Failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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