Hello again! Apart from a few snatched minutes here and there, I’ve been offline for what feels like weeks. Every time it rains—and we’ve had showers all the time this summer—we lose out internet link.
We’ve had engineers out loads of times, they’ve been up every telegraph pole for miles around, and wonder of wonders we’ve even had refunds from our provider. Despite that, they’ve never managed to track down the fault. We had heavy rain last night and so…no internet. Everyone has agreed that water is getting into the system somewhere. The question is, where?
We’re more than a mile from the nearest junction box, so that means there’s any number of places where the rain could get in and disrupt the signal. The line of telegraph poles marches through the wood for most of that distance. Branches rubbing against the wires can’t help.
The good news is I’ve got a Plan B to make absolutely sure I can get online on Friday, 9th July because I’m giving a talk to the Society of Authors Monmouth Group on that day about Research for Writers.
I began my writing career by writing about my hobbies of growing plants and keeping animals. For a long time I wrote freelance articles for magazines such as The Lady, The Garden, and Nursery World. Then I moved onto writing historical romance, which wasn’t easy in the days before the internet. Readers are knowledgeable about their favourite eras, so there’s no such thing as a throwaway detail.
Researching the contemporary romances I wrote for Harlequin and The Wild Rose Press was all kinds of fun. It was the chance to relive all my best holiday experiences of staying in Italian castles or English historic houses.
When I was asked to write Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, I discovered the wonders of the Bristol Archive. There were so many fascinating stories to be found by trawling through the boxes of private and public papers. If it hadn’t been for my publishing deadline, I’d still be enjoying myself combing through parish records, and back copies of The Western Daily Press
I’ll be covering all these areas of research in more detail in my talk on Friday. You can find out more about it here. Tickets are free, although the Society of Authors is always pleased to receive donations!
Working from home has both good and bad points. There’s no commute, so in theory I can start work from the minute I open my eyes in the morning and carry on until I fall asleep at night. That’s a recipe for burnout, so I try and schedule some time out in the fresh air every day. Dog-walking takes up at least a couple of hours each day, and I love escaping out into the garden.
The trouble is that the rush of spring brings its own pressure with weeds springing up all over the place. They keep growing, and the writing deadlines keep coming. While I’m sat at my keyboard I’m aching to get outside. When I’m outside, I’m fretting about that I should be writing. It’s all pressure, even if I love the tasks I must do.
This week, it got even harder to concentrate on my novel as I found myself caught up in the ancient story of the Town Mouse and Country Mouse. A little creature almost hitched a ride with me into town, and got me thinking about a new project.
For the past few weeks rain has been falling on Tottering Towers in amounts rarely seen outside of arty Japanese films. I’m in the early stages of writing a new novel. Work went well while the weather was bad because I wasn’t tempted outside. Then the sun came out for the first time in what felt like years.
Much as I love the characters I’m creating, it’s hard to concentrate on fictional family feuds while real life is speeding up outside. I wanted to get out and do some gardening. When DD asked for some help in her own little plot, it was the perfect excuse to leave writing behind for a few hours. I couldn’t get there fast enough.
DD’s cottage in Tewkesbury is the cutest little house you’re ever likely to see. Today it would be called Brownfield Infill. When it was built in fifteen-hundred-and-something, a canny landlord called it a way to make money out of a tiny wedge of land between two rows of cottages. He (or she—the women of my family have a long history of land-grabbing, and I bet they aren’t unique) didn’t even have to go to the trouble of building a whole house. All they did was build a brick wall five metres wide, tied into the properties on either side, and high enough to reach the neighbours’ eaves. Topped off with a roof, the gap became a three-storey house for the price of a few hundred bricks, two exterior doors, and six window frames. Grand Designs, eat your heart out!
The only drawback is that DD’s property is wedge-shaped: each of the three floors is the equivalent of only one room wide. Its tiny garden is no more than the gap between the walls of her neighbours’ properties and narrows to nothing six metres beyond her back door. There’s no rear access, so everything needed in the garden, from patio furniture to compost, must be carried through the house.
The garden is so small there’s no point in paying for a green waste bin which would only be filled once or twice a year. There aren’t any flowerbeds as the whole area is covered in decking. Previous residents had left behind a collection of ceramic containers which were overflowing with rainwater after the recent storms. Carrying them through the house risked spills and slips, but I’ve got several 30 litre containers which once held industrial quantities of fruit juice. They have water-tight lids, so it would be easy to fill them in the garden the transport the water through the house without making any mess.
There are always odd jobs to be done so as well as the containers I decided to fetch my packed shuttle tray of tools from the greenhouse. As I picked it up, a mouse jumped out and shot into the dense cover of parsley and lettuces edging the path. When my heart had started up again, I investigated the tray. The mouse had made a cosy nest in one corner by shredding an empty seed packet. It must have been busy all night as I’d only sown the seeds the afternoon before. If it hadn’t escaped, I might have accidentally taken it to Tewkesbury!
Imagine being a mouse carried away from the glade and steep ridges of Tottering Towers and arriving in the middle of a town. The Roman poet Horace wrote about the speed, noise, and danger that terrified country mouse Rusticus when he visited the home of his sophisticated friend, town mouse Urbanus.
Mice are a terrible pest in my own garden, but they’d have difficulty getting into the enclosed space behind DD’s house. She’ll never need to worry about tulip bulbs and seeds being eaten before they’ve had a chance to grow. I’d like to think her tiny garden is a mouse-free zone, but they are tricky little devils.
Lockdown has inspired many people to take more interest in their surroundings, whether it’s making them more beautiful, or growing things to eat. DD hardly has the room to swing a Mus Urbanus, but she could still make use of the stepladder idea for displaying plants, as shown in the photo.
Window boxes are a good idea that work in the tiniest spaces, too. I grow all my lettuce and salad leaves in them, as slugs and snails make short work of any lush greens planted in the open garden. That’s the problem with gardening for wildlife—a lot of it prefers eating my fruit and vegetables to their usual diet of weed seeds and waste.
I used to write a regular column about gardening with children for Nursery World magazine. Thinking about growing things in small spaces made me wonder if Rusticus and Urbanus could become gardening mice. They could show children how to make the best of what they’ve got, whether in town or country.
As I drove home I was feeling quite friendly toward local yokel Rusticus mouse, who had made a nest in my tray. That feeling passed off when I checked the pots of seeds I’d planted the day before. While I was away, wretched Rusticus had dug up all the melon pips and eaten them!
Were you one of the 12.8 million people who watched the climax of the TV series Line of Duty the other day? Or do you prefer romance to crime? There’s a reason why these two genres are so popular, and it has a lot to do with the world situation.
A worldwide IPSO poll in March 2021 revealed that the top five worries were:
Corona virus (45%)
Poverty and Social inequality (31%)
Financial/political corruption (29%)
Crime and violence (24%)
The thread tying all these topics together is a feeling of being powerless. The roll-out of vaccination worldwide may reduce our chances of catching Corona, but it doesn’t help those families that have already been affected, and those who are still suffering. The virus has had knock-on effects on unemployment, poverty, and social inequality which can be expected to last for a long time.
If you can’t find a job, self-employment can provide a way out of poverty but being your own boss is hard, relentless work, with no guarantee of success. It also relies on the honesty of the financial and political systems, and your customers. There’s always someone who is keen to redistribute your wealth by way of theft or corruption. After struggling to earn your daily bread, it can be a fight keep hold of it.
These worries can make everyday life feel like a game of chance. Escaping with crime dramas or romance on TV, or within the pages of a book is the perfect antidote. Complicated motives are exposed, twists turned, crimes solved, partnerships forged, and unlike real life, we know all the loose ends will be neatly tied up— apart from the ones with hooks, left dangling to tempt us into watching the next series, or reading the next book!
The next time you can’t sleep for worrying about the ways of the world, try visiting a fictional version. Watching TV, or reading a good book won’t make the international news any less disturbing, but it will make your worries about it a little easier to bear.
How do you deal with the worries that keep you awake at night?
…and I’m finding it VERY hard to settle down to any writing work. April here in Gloucestershire was dry, bitterly cold, but mostly sunny. Although I’m working on a new book (you can find out more about that here and here), at this time the natural world has a powerful pull.
Wild cherries in the wood are hung with snow, as A.E.Housman put it, and here in the orchard the Morello cherry is an absolute picture. It’s about twenty feet high and almost as wide, and when I took this photograph it was humming with all kinds of bees and other insects.
It produces tonnes of fruit each year, but we’re lucky if we get to eat more than a few kilos. The tree is far too big to net properly, and the birds love those cherries as much as we do!
Morello cherries are too sour to eat raw, and we like them best cooked gently for a few minutes with sugar and a little water. This makes a delicious sauce to pour over warm chocolate brownies, or vanilla ice cream…or you can do as we do, and top a brownie with a scoop of ice cream, then drizzle warm cherry sauce over the whole lot. That’s a really indulgent treat!
Yesterday I went to check the greenhouse at 6am and disturbed a sounder of eighteen boar and their piglets, who were grubbing about in the wood which lies on the other side of our boundary fence. They scampered away through the trees, leaving behind ploughed earth where yesterday there had been a carpet of bluebells.
It’s such a shame the boar are so destructive as now there are few free-roaming sheep to eat the local wildflowers, orchids, ladies’ smock, primroses and cowslips were beginning to seed themselves around. They won’t survive for long with the concentration of boar we have here now. The medieval wild boar only had piglets once a year. The creatures running wild in the forest now are hybrids, which have been developed to breed all year round. With no natural predators, their number have exploded.
That’s why my garden is surrounded by a good fence, with barbed wire buried at the base to stop the pigs heaving up the wire and posts to get in. It means I can grow all sorts of things without worrying about finding the place trashed at regular intervals.
The heroine of my current work in progress loves growing plants and when her family hits hard times has to find a way to turn her hobby into a business. I’m off to the greenhouse now to do some detailed research. Well, that’s my excuse!
Last week I told you about how I was trying to create a fictional English village as the setting for my next book. Lots of readers contacted me, either here or on social media and gave me ideas for features to include in the perfect fictional English village. The things mentioned most often were:
Church (which surprised me, as rural congregations have dwindled over recent years)
Somewhere to sit and watch the world go by (preferably with ducks to feed!)
War memorial (another surprise, although the popularity of soldier silhouettes probably explains it)
Lots of people suggested things other than buildings that went to create a village atmosphere. As a writer, I found those ideas equally useful. The things that cropped up most often were:
Local characters – there’s at least one in every village, ready to give you the gossip, or a long-range weather forecast
Peace and quiet, interrupted only by…
Dark skies with no light pollution, perfect for romance under the stars
and two of my favourite benefits of country living,
A little local shop
Friendly locals (rather than the more unusual characters)
We have great examples of both right here in the middle of our village. Pip’s shop really is open all hours, and shuts only twice a year: on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. It’s within walking distance so you don’t need to bother with the car, and it’s saved my bacon (and milk, and tea bags, and coffee!) any number of times when there’s been a last minute call for school cookery ingredients or bits for science project.
Pre-Covid, our village shop was a meeting place as much a shop. It was somewhere you could find out all the local news even quicker than it featured on Facebook! All that changed with social distancing and face masks.
It’s very sad. I hope things can get back to something close to normal soon.
I wrote here about planning my next book, which is going to be set in my adopted home county of Gloucestershire. For the sake of the plot I’m not setting it in one identifiable place, but instead I’m picking buildings, shops, and settings from several of my favourite villages to create somewhere that plenty of things can happen to my fictional family.
Here is St. Endec’s church, where the grandfather of two of my main characters is a member of the band of bellringers.
It’s actually a photograph of St Giles, Maisemore, taken from the lime avenue which I think was planted as part of celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 (I’m sure somebody will put me right on that if I’ve mis-remembered!). This lane makes a sweet-smelling stroll during the summer. With Maisemore apiaries only half a mile away as the bee flies, the place is buzzing during June and July!
Here’s the local pub my characters use…
Although this picture is of the Red Lion in Avebury, the pub in my book is called the Bear and Ragged Staff (or “The Bear “for short). When I was young and single, the Red Lion was about half-way between where I lived, and the home of the man I thought was my Mr Right. When I discovered how Wrong he was, I dropped him like a red-hot bar meal and have never been back. That’s a shame, because it used to be a great place for an assignation!
Here’s the village duck-pond, which is actually part of the mill in Lower Slaughter…
The Cotswolds was only an hour’s drive from where I was born in Somerset, but the countryside and cottages are completely different in character. As I child I thought the villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter must have been the site of terrible battles but the truth was much closer to my soggy Somerset home than I realised. The Slaughters are named after the old English words “slough” or “slothre”, which means muddy.
My heroine’s sister lives in one of these cottages in Arlington Row, Bibury…
Like many beautiful Cotswold settings, these cottages have appeared on all sorts of chocolate boxes, calendars, and postcards. That complicated roof-line and all those hundreds of little roof tiles give this row another claim to fame. If you have a British passport, it’s one of the (hopefully) impossible-to-forge watermarks inside.
I’ve squirrelled away all these photographs in the images file of my in the Scrivener database I talked about here, but I’m still looking for things to include in my identikit Cotswold setting. Can you help me pack my fictional village with all the right things?
When you think about the countryside, what says “England” to you?
…like I know yuzu, you’d know why its fruit is so expensive to buy!
I love reading, cooking, and gardening. To read about an exotic ingredient, and then manage to grow it makes me super happy.
My sister must be Nigel Slater’s greatest fan. A few years ago, Sis gave me his book The Christmas Chronicles. It’s an amazing combination of anecdotes and recipes both esoteric and more down to earth. I’ve been growing citrus fruit for quite a while and have cracked the best method for growing basil, so when I read the details of Slater’s Lemon, Orange and Basil Ice I was quick to try it out.
The recipe mixes basil-infused milk and cream with sugar syrup, and the juice of mixed citrus fruit to emulate Nigel Slater’s favourite citrus fruit, the yuzu.
I’d never heard of yuzu before reading The Christmas Chronicles. The Lemon, Orange and Basil Ice recipe was easy and good, although I couldn’t help wondering how much better it would have been if I’d used fresh yuzu juice.
As Nigel Slater says in his book, the fruit is hard to find. I tracked some down in a big, upmarket supermarket but, in common with a lot of imported fruit the yuzu they had on sale had been picked too early. They were hard, and the skin was completely free of that enticing spicy fragrance I’d been told to expect. Not only that, but it was many times more expensive than organic citrus fruit. I wasn’t going to make do with something second-rate, so I left the wrinkly relics where they were and decided to grow my own.
My favourite online nursery is The Citrus Centre. They had yuzu plants for sale, but at a price that made me think more than twice. I don’t smoke, rarely drink alcohol, and haven’t been away on holiday for years (because I don’t want to leave the animals in the care of anyone else) and lots of people spend small fortunes on all those things and end up with not much to show for it. If I had a yuzu tree, my reasoning went, I’d have the challenge of growing it, a greenhouse-full of orange blossom fragrance in spring, and the pleasure (I hoped) of using the resulting fruit in autumn and winter.
I took the plunge, but when the yuzu arrived I saw straight away why the fruit is so expensive. The bushes ought to come with a health warning! They are covered in very sharp spines, each one is five or six centimetres long. It’s like keeping an ever-expanding bundle of barbed wire in the greenhouse.
The workers who pick these fruit for the supermarkets deserve danger money!
The yuzu is a typical citrus, with green, glossy leaves and waxy white flowers which are rich with a sweet, heavy perfume. In 2019, my yuzu fruited for the first time. The juice is like a tangy cross between a mandarin and a lemon, and the grated zest is a great addition to cakes.
Over the winter of 2020/2021 it lost every one of its leaves all at once, during a cold, snowy spell. One day it looked fine, but the next morning it was a network of bare branches and wicked thorns, surrounded by a carpet of fallen leaves. It was such a sudden shedding I assumed the tree must be dead.
Nothing happened for three or four months, then at the beginning of this week I saw the first signs of life. A few tiny tufts of green at the tip of each branch. The next day saw a record-breaking high temperature for early April, with lots of sunshine. The yuzu took advantage of it. Within thirty six hours of seeing those first shoots, the plant looked like this—complete with flower buds!
Orange blossom was a traditional flower for brides’ bouquets. The new book I’m planning at the moment will feature both weddings, orange blossom, and greenhouses, so every morning when I walk into my big Dutch light glasshouse, I’m breathing in research!
The picture of a mandarin—one of the yuzu’s parents—in the heading is by Beverly Buckley via Pixabay, by the way.
What’s the most exotic thing you’ve grown, or used in cooking?
I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but until I sold my first book I earned money by writing non-fiction articles and producing photographs for magazines such as The Lady and The Garden. Among other things, I wrote monthly gardening tips, and pieces on how to keep poultry and pigs.
Once I began to get articles commissioned on a regular basis, I could afford to go back to writing fiction. At first I wrote short stories, as they fitted in well with my non-fiction writing schedule.
I love listening to the radio, so trying to produce some radio drama was an obvious move. During my first year as a full-time writer I was shortlisted for the BBC Young Writers’ Competition with an historical drama, but found writing stories and novels much easier than producing a script!
How I came to be published in book form for the first time is a saga in itself. One morning on Woman’s Hour, a writer was interviewed about her new historical novel. It sounded like a great read, but in those days OH and I were poverty-stricken newly-weds. Unable to justify buying a hardback book, I ordered it from the local library.
I can still remember how indignant I felt when I read the opening sentence, which went something like this…
The beautiful heroine looked down from her vantage point on the top of Toghill at workmen busily building Bath’s Royal Crescent….
That was written by someone looking at a map, not a view. I was born only a few miles from Toghill. For anyone to see Bath, let alone pick out workmen on the Royal Crescent, they would need to be about twenty metres tall and blessed with the eyesight of a hawk! There is a great view from the top of Toghill, but it is in the direction of Bristol, not Bath. On a clear day, you can see the Severn estuary. The city of Bath is not far behind you, it’s true, but because of the lie of the land the city is invisible until you travel several kilometres south east from the top of Toghill.
I decided then and there it would be a poor show if I couldn’t write something a bit better than that. Taking the script I’d written for the BBC, I reworked it into an historical novel. This was in the days before the internet, so all my research had to be done during trips to Gloucester library.
During my many visits, I used the library’s copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook to find a possible publisher for my book. That was disappointing. Only one of the publishers would accept work direct from writers. All the others dealt only with agents.
The single publisher that would accept unagented manuscripts was Harlequin, under their Masquerade imprint. Just before Christmas one year I sent off the first three chapters and a synopsis, as requested in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. In January I got a lovely letter asking me for the rest of the story. I sent it off straight away, together with return postage (as Snail Mail was the only way in those days).
I didn’t sit back to wait. I kept busy, creating and submitting more articles and photographs on gardening, which is how I fill my time when I’m not writing. At the beginning of May I opened the letter every writer dreams of getting—Knight’s Pawn had been accepted for publication!
The first thing I did was to check out the most impressive-sounding literary agents in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I wrote to them, saying I’d landed a contract to write historical novels for Harlequin Mills and Boon. I got a reply from one of the biggest agents in the country almost by return, inviting me up to a meeting at their headquarters in London.
I was shown into a plush office where I was given tea and cake by a lovely guy who said it was his first week in the job. He sweet-talked me into agreeing to become his client, and said he’d get a contract couriered to me as soon as it had been drawn up.
I was so excited, I spent the journey home from London working on the first draft of another book. A week passed, then ten days, but no contract arrived. I was climbing the walls with excitement until the awful day two weeks after my trip when a slim white envelope arrived.
It was an apology dictated by the head of the firm. It was their policy not to take on clients who wrote historical fiction for Mills and Boon, the letter said. The Harlequin contracts were pretty much “boilerplate”— that is, there was little if any room for an agent to negotiate different terms. The man who interviewed me hadn’t been fully aware of the circumstances, the letter said, and so with regret they didn’t feel able to offer me a contract after all.
It was tough, discovering I was that new agent’s first big mistake, but this cautionary tale just goes to show that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.
That was years ago and I never did find an agent, but it doesn’t seem to have done my career much harm. I may have missed some opportunities and I’d love someone to take control of my writing calendar, but I’ve always had plenty of work, and I get to keep 100% of my pre-tax profits. If I had an agent, I’d lose 15% of it, in their commission!
What’s been the biggest excitement in your writing life?
This week, I’m using one of my own short stories as a real-life example of all the steps—from motivation to publication—that have appeared in this series.
In 2018 I took my seventeen-year-old-son to a university open day and ended up signing on for a Masters course myself. There had to be a story in that experience. To answer the question Why Write? posed in Part One of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity, I wanted to satisfy my creative instinct, capture my experience of going back into education as a mature student, and do it in a way that would entertain others.
Readers like to relate to characters, and giving the people in my story everyday worries would make them convincing. Part Ten of my series included the top concerns of people today, two of which are ageing, and work-related worries. That pair of posers certainly kept me awake while I was trying to decide whether or not to sign up for university. I worried that I was too old, and that my poor school record (I left at sixteen) might mean I couldn’t keep up with the other students.
Projecting my fears onto a fictional character and making sure she overcame them might persuade others to become mature students, too.
In real life, it turned out that I was worrying about nothing. There were people of allages on my course. One of them had children older than me! I survived all the coursework and assessments, and emerged at the end of two years with lots more life experience, and a distinction.
My short story project was always going to be an optimistic piece, so The People’s Friend was the obvious choice when it came to finding my audience, as discussed in Part Three of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity. That magazine’s combination of upbeat fiction and articles, crafting, cooking, and beautiful illustrations has kept it popular for generations. The People’s Friend has exacting standards but provides lots of information to help potential writers— see here for details.
Parts Four and Five of my series centred on inspiration, and using your own experiences as a starting point. I decided my short story would be built around a woman wondering whether she was up for a huge challenge. Every other day, I face a struggle of my own like that. I’m built for comfort rather than speed, but I force myself to use a treadmill for the good of my health. I may not be fast, but I keep going! In contrast, one of our friends is a workaholic. His doctor is always telling him to diet, stop smoking, and take up exercise. He’s never got around to doing any of that, although he did try walking rugby…once!
Those two contrasting real-life people gave me the basis of my central fictional characters. I then needed a theme for my story. Waving my last “baby” off to university was hard, but it led directly to me having a great time there myself. That idea of turning a bittersweet experience into an advantage was something I wanted to share. It proves that life doesn’t end when your children move on. Finding something which keeps your brain active, gets you out of the house, and involves meeting other people can help fill the gap in your life.
Part Six of my series dealt with turning thoughts into a manuscript. As I was only going to be writing a short story rather than a novel, I didn’t use Scrivener for this project. I used the prose template I have on my computer, which automatically creates manuscripts in 12-point Times New Roman, double spaced, with wide margins, and numbered pages.
I typed my notes straight onto my computer, saving my work regularly both as a document and onto a thumb drive. I named my file Restart_Short_Story, as that working title plays on the heroine’s aim of restarting her life. It also suggests a change in her relationship with her husband, and gives a nod toward running, which is central to the plot. The word Restart formed the header on every page of my manuscript, keeping me focussed on those core themes.
Some of Restart was written during sourdough-making sessions. My recipe requires the dough to be worked four times, with a ten minute break between each burst of kneading. The kitchen timer would go off just when I’d got into the swing of writing a scene. That meant I couldn’t wait to get back to it (once I’d scraped the dough off my fingers). Two more important writing tips: never get flour on your keyboard—and the best time to end a writing session is when it’s going really well. That way, you’ll be raring to go next time you start work.
Gradually my story Restart took shape. I kept Part Nine‘s Four C’s of Creative Writing (Character, Contrast, Charisma, and Conflict) in mind as I worked. Quiet housewife and mother Sue is a foil for her boisterous, workaholic husband Malcolm. He can be annoying, but his charisma is balanced with charm. Sue is keen to pick up the ambition she abandoned when they had a family. I made use of contrast in my writing as well as in my characters, so there’s internal monologue as well as dialogue, and the settings vary between a car interior, and out in the fresh air.
As well as my central middle-aged couple, an elderly lady, and a teenager also appear giving contrasts in age, too. I wrote the story in the first person, from heroine Sue’s point of view as—while this story is complete fiction, and this couple definitely aren’t me and OH— her hopes and worries were based on my hopes and worries. I really did write this story from my heart!
The internal conflict which is vital to keep readers hooked is introduced right at the start of the story. Sue secretly wants to investigate the university course but she is afraid she is too old, and keeps quiet. She knows Malcolm will laugh at her dream, because he never takes anything seriously. Malcolm has an inner conflict of his own. He hides his worries about what will happen now they’re rattling around in their family home alone by covering it with humour.
Once I had those characters and their hidden concerns in place, I added some external conflict to add excitement. Sue and Malcolm witness a mugging. She chases the thief and catches him, which convinces her she’s fitter and more determined than she thought. Malcolm’s pride and confidence in Sue’s ability is obvious, and by the end of the story they have reaffirmed their love for each other. Sue decides to sign up for university, while Malcolm is going to look again at his attitude to work, and his health.
In Part Two of this series I wrote about finding people to support you in your writing ambitions. I usually use workshop sessions organised by the Marcher chapter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, although the first outing for this short story was a university workshop. A well-run workshop is a brilliant way to improve a piece of work. You can learn a lot by helping other writers, too.
A good workshop is one where only constructive criticism is allowed. As novelist Joanna Maitland puts it, offer three stars and a wish. That is, aim to give three pieces of praise before you make a suggestion for improvement. It’s a classic example of do-as-you-would-be-done-by!
When I had finished the workshop revisions, I went back and checked the length required byThe People’s Friend. Restart would fit nicely into one of their 2,000-word slots, so during the editing process I made sure the word count didn’t go over that figure. When I was happy with the result I saved it onto a thumb drive again, then sent a copy by email to my beta reader. I copied myself in on the email, so I had an insurance copy safe in my inbox.
Once the story was returned to me and I had made the revisions suggested by my reader, I added a front page which set out the working title Restart, my name, the word count, and had my full contact details at the bottom. I copied those, and pasted them onto the last page of my manuscript. After adding the word END and the word count below the final paragraph of my story, I sent it off to The People’s Friend.
Every publisher receives thousands of submissions every year, so waiting for them to respond can be frustrating. Keep writing while you wait. It makes the time pass much more quickly, and means you’ll have more pieces to submit.
Although I called my story and computer file Restart, I never assumed that would be the title of the published work. They are almost always changed for publication, and Restart duly became Catch Me If You Can. There are a number of reasons why publishers change titles. They may have already used that one in the past, their house style may require titles that consist of more than one word, or it has to be a certain length to suit the layout of the typeset page, for example.
That’s the story of my story, from initial ideas about Restart, right through to its submission and eventual publication as Catch Me If You Can. Like everything worth waiting for, success in creative writing takes time but every second is a pleasure, and it’s an amazing feeling to see your name in print.
I’m taking a short break from blogging about writing to get my PhD schedule sorted out. If there’s anything you’d like me to cover in this blog in future, or if you’d like to read Catch Me If You Can, contact me and I’ll see what I can do.
The art of being a creative writer is to identify a need in your audience, and then fill it. If the weather’s terrible, then some readers will be crying out for escape in the form of a sun-drenched romance. If they are going through a bad patch in their lives, then a novel in which the protagonist triumphs over similar circumstances will help give them hope for the future.
Most of us read for pleasure, and to leave everyday life behind for a while. You can show your readers that an improvement in circumstances, character growth and change is possible by the way you design your story. As well as a satisfying read, you’ll also give them a subtle boost to their spirits.
While every writer should aim to satisfy reader expectation, don’t forget that writers have needs, too! Make sure you’re writing what you want to write, but tailor it to your readership. That way both sides will get what they want. You’ll enjoy the experience of writing, and your audience will experience a great read.
Identifying what your audience spends time thinking about is a good way to kick-start your imagination. In Part Nine of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity, we saw that conflict is vital within a book . One of the common causes of inner conflict can be summed up in an exchange that everyone in England has several times each week—in fact, it’s often a daily occurence:
“Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine. How are you?” “I’m fine, too!”
Many people have turned this ritual into a verbal tic. You ask the question, and respond in approved fashion because that is what is expected. Generations of English people have been brought up to say I’m fine, because it’s easier to repeat that old lie than it is to say I’m having a terrible time out loud.
Armed with the information that everyone is worried and needs help to see they are not the only ones, you then need to decide what is likely to be the most popular way to torture your central characters.
There are several ways to discover themes relevant to readers. The most obvious is to burgle your own life and experiences. The theme of many of my books and short stories get out of a rut by setting a goal and working toward it. I’m keen to promote this idea as it’s worked so well for me in real life. I came from very humble beginnings, left school at sixteen with hardly any qualifications, then had a series of dead-end jobs until I met my husband. He believed in me, encouraged me to follow my dream as a writer, and supported me until my career took off.
If you were born into the life of the idle rich and, unlike me, you’ve led a blameless life since childhood, there are still plenty of places to research popular concerns. The problem pages of magazines and agony aunts in newspapers used to be a rich seam of inspiration, but like the rest of us these have largely migrated online.
Mumsnet and Quora are both great places to look for inspiration, but never forget two golden rules of Creative Writing: DON’T plagiarise by copying the juicy details word for word, and DON’T use the names of real people. You must also bear in mind that not everything you read online is legal, decent, honest, or truthful, to use the Advertising Standards Authority’s motto. Not everyone tells the truth online. Whether you are research for a book, a good lesson for life is whenever you read anything bear in mind the famous ABC of criminal investigation: Accept nothing, Believe nobody, and Check everything!
You can also use a general search engine. I googled “what do people worry about?” and this site helpfully lists the top twenty concerns (pre-Covid).
The worries quoted there can be broken down into seven broad groups. Six of these (getting old, money worries, health, work, emotional problems, and family strife) involve individuals worrying about things that affect them directly. Only one of the Top Twenty worries was concerned with the wider world. That was nervousness about the level of crime in the respondents’ local area, and it was right at the bottom of the list.
This is why internal conflict is such a powerful force in Creative Writing. If you ever worry about whether you’re projecting the right image to other people, relax—the chances are they are far too busy worrying about what you’re thinking about them. Use your experience of this feeling of uncertainty, which is almost universal, to bring conflicts within your characters to life.
To engage your readers you need to write about characters they can relate to, and give those characters easily recognisable problems. Deciding what to inflict on your fictional cast is part of the fun of creative writing.
Next time, I’ll be using the ten parts of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity to illustrate the path from motivation to submission, and eventual publication. Follow this blog to make sure you don’t miss it!
The four C’s of creative writing are Character, Charisma, Contrast, and Conflict—so here’s what you need to know about them…
Every human being on this planet is the sum of all their past experiences. From princes to paupers and everyone in between, the way they were treated as a child, their birth position in their family, education, health, work (or lack of it) and every other life experience comes together to create a unique person. We’re all works in progress!
Your past is what makes you, you. It’s the same with fictional characters. To make the life they live between the pages of your book feel real, give each of them a past. The very best characters capture the imagination of readers so well, it feels as though they will have a life beyond the end of the story.
Kate Walker provides a great template for developing your characters in her 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance. I adapt her idea by adding some questions of my own about background and circumstances each time I start a new writing project. This creates a database for every new fictional character, tailored to the story I’m writing.
Some of the most interesting questions to ask yourself about your characters concern their childhood. The position of children within their family is a fascinating subject, and important. The upbringing of an only child will be very different from the life of a youngster who is the middle one of three (potentially bossed around by the eldest child, and invisible if their younger sibling needs attention). And what about twins? How much of their character depends on nature, and how much on nurture? Perhaps their mother saw one as “good” and the other as “attention seeking”. The treatment you get as a child has a lasting effect.
I’ve never been a believer in horoscopes but when the poet Paul Groves gave me a book on Zodiac Types, I had to admit that there were eerie similarities between my own character, and those of my birth sign. After that, I compared the personality types of all my family members and friends with the book. It scored more hits than misses, so I’ve used it ever since to help me create characters. Whether or not astrology actually affects our day-to-day life, the way this book lists linked traits of personality, body type, suggestions for ideal careers (or jobs to avoid!) and other details provides exactly the sort of information to kick-start anyone’s imagination.
Whether they are heroes or villains, the best fictional characters have charisma. This is much more than simple charm. It’s almost indefinable, but it’s obvious when you see it, or read about a character who has it.
Charisma is a combination of confidence and determination, together with an ability to communicate, and inspire. Charismatic people aren’t always “nice”. Some of the most charismatic people in real life aren’t liked by everyone. Eva Perón and Donald Trump are both examples of charisma in action, but that doesn’t mean you’d automatically vote for either of them.
In fiction, Pride and Prejudice’s Fitzwilliam Darcy is charismatic: George Wickham is charming. Darcy gets the job done: Wickham basks in admiring glances. The best type of fictional hero combines drive and determination with charm and intelligence. Create characters your readers can recognise, then tune their individual facets up or down to make them either more or less heroic, depending on the part they will play in your story.
Keep contrast in mind whenever you are writing. If all your characters think, speak, dress and act in similar ways, it will be difficult for the reader to see them as individuals.
Use different types of setting—interiors, exteriors, town, and country, to add variety to your work and keep your audience interested. Use the weather as shorthand, but avoid slipping into cliché.
Shakespeare set the standard for using weather—imagine how different the opening scene of Macbeth would be if he met the witches on a sun-warmed beach at midsummer! Play with the idea of weather setting the scene by turning the idea around— contrast the furious revelations that end a marriage with the beautiful peace of a summer evening, to highlight how poignant relationships can be. Alternatively, have your lovers brought together by a thunderstorm rather than being torn apart. That idea worked beautifully for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the Isn’t is a lovely day? routine in the film Top Hat.
Within your story, vary the length of your scenes and chapters. Contrast is also useful in pacing your story. Follow some languid scene-setting with lines of punchy dialogue, or let a violent incident result in a tender love scene, for example when Jack slips away in Titanic.
Once you’ve created a great character, give them something to kick against. In the memorable image first used by an anonymous nineteenth-century theatre critic, you need to chase your protagonist(s) up a tree, then throw rocks at them. There’s a time and place for introspective fiction, but at times of stress or boredom most people don’t want to read about Jo Dull from Beigeville. They’ll grab an Ian Fleming, ready to follow James Bond across oceans to exotic locations.
If your hero chases villains around the world leaving a trail of destruction behind them, that’s what is known as external conflict. Plenty of successful books and films rely on little more than that, but including an element of internal conflict adds depth to both characters and storyline.
External conflict is the sort you see in news bulletins (or Bond films)—war, natural disasters, accidents, fights, financial panics, and so on. Internal conflict is the struggle within a character to reconcile their opposing emotions. They may feel inadequate while trying to live up to the expectations of others, or struggle with the contrast between their public image and private reality.
Internal conflict is the engine driving your character to act in the way they do—guilt, shame, fear, and secret love are some good starting points.
This isn’t the place to discuss the contrast between our contemporary liberal values and the moral strictures of Victorian England, but Holman Hunt’s painting The Awakening Conscienceis the perfect example of inner conflict. The painting is packed with the popular imagery of its time and repays careful study, but here’s a quick 101—this unmarried couple are living outside of society (like Lydia and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice). He has been playing the sentimental tune Oft in the Stilly Night. The lyrics of that popular Victorian song are chock-full of longing for the past, and memories of friends and family who have been lost.
She leaps to her feet in a torment of inner conflict: the life of a mistress at this time was shameful and short. It almost always ended with pregnancy, a sexually-transmitted disease, a descent into prostitution, or a combination of all three. Brought up at a time when everything not permitted was forbidden, this woman’s childhood would have been spent listening to Sunday sermons about wickedness, and veiled hints about the fate of adulterous relationships (don’t get me started on A.L. Egg’s Past and Present, Numbers 1, 2, and 3 or we’ll be here all day!) Her family will either have disowned her when she ran away, or she has been too ashamed to make contact.
Holman Hunt has caught her Will I ever see my family again? moment of inner conflict. Should she stay, or should she go? As with all the best internal conflicts, there’s no easy answer. Should this woman continue her life of present comfort with its almost guaranteed future pain, or abandon it in favour of possible humiliation and rejection if she tries to be reconciled with her family?
To return to the work of Jane Austen: think how much shorter and less captivating Pride and Prejudice would be if the first time George Wickham’s name was mentioned Darcy announced, “He’s a rogue who should be horsewhipped!”. Wickham would be cut from polite society in an instant — end of story.
Instead, Darcy struggles with concealing what he knows about the man. Despite his charisma, Darcy has already been shown to be a judgemental stuffed shirt. If he exposes Wickham as a shallow rogue and compulsive gambler who tried to elope with Georgiana Darcy, he would seem bitter, vengeful, and as big a snob as Mr Collins. More importantly, it would wreck the good name of Darcy’s sister.
The four C’s of Creative Writing will help you put in place the scaffolding that a great story needs. Next time I’ll be writing about how writers can help readers find solutions to problems in their own lives by examining popular themes in their work.
In this series we’ve talked about imagination, capturing it, and then turning your ideas into words. Putting all that together to create a novel takes patience and concentration. I’m about to start a new writing project, so this week I’ll show you how the hints and tips I’ve shared come together in real life.
Last week, Jean Fullerton of the Romantic Novelists’ Association hosted a panel about writing sagas. I’ve written stand-alone historical novels (you can discover my other books here), and was curious to find out more about sagas. I’d never thought of writing one myself— until I listened to Jean and her panel of best-selling authors.
I learned that sagas have changed in recent years and no longer have to be enormous tomes covering decades. The word count for individual sagas within a series can be as low as 80k—or as long as it takes you to tell that segment of the story. Sagas today don’t have to be all clogs, shawls and trouble at t’mill, either. Readers particularly enjoy novels set in Victorian times, but they also love Second World War stories.
The more I listened to the RNA panel, the more I felt like writing about a time of uniforms, silk stockings, and air-raids.
While I was researching Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, I came across lots of fascinating real-life accounts of life in the city during the Second World War. I only had room for a fraction of them in the published book. For example, a bomb blasted this heavy iron tram rail high into the air and sent it flying toward the famous church of St Mary Redcliffe. It just missed the houses of Colston Parade, and buried itself to half its length (it would have been about six feet long) in the church grounds. Imagine the carnage if it had landed on the houses…
The rail was left where it fell, and a commemorative stone set beside it.
After looking again at the notes I have on file about life in Bristol during the twentieth century, I’ve decided to incorporate some of them into a saga.
One of the many things that going to university as a mature student taught me is that it’s not only important to make lots of notes—you need to be able to find the right bit of that research instantly, before inspiration vanishes.
This is where Scrivener comes in really handy. I talked about it in Part Six, and opening this new project is a way to show it in action. Here’s a screenshot of my first moves this week on Scrivener (to see a larger version, right click on the image):
As soon as I start work on documents within each folder, the appropriate card you can see in the main part of the screenshot will begin to fill with text. The beauty of using this system is that if, for example, I decide one book will cover the period from August 1939 to January 1941 all I need to do is point and drag all the relevant documents into the 1939 folder, and rename it Sept 1939-Jan 1941.
Below the list of dated folders on the left, you’ll see my list of characters. That’s where I’ll file all the details about them such as their age, position in the family, appearance, mannerisms, and anything else that comes to mind. None of this will appear in my finished manuscript—it’s simply a way of keeping all my ideas, research in one place rather than having my notes scattered aorund the house in any number of individual devices and notebooks.
This isn’t to suggest that the lives of my characters Wilf, Mary, their son Arthur, and daughter Sally are in any way based on Gandalf, Mother Teresa, Dean Martin, or Isadora Duncan! All I’m doing is collecting some visual cues for a patriarch, matriarch, party animal, and a free spirit. These will create an instant reminder for me…although I can’t help wondering who would come out on top if Gandalf and Isadora Duncan were involved in a “domestic”!
I’m not a planner, but would rather write “into the mist” as author Joanna Maitland puts it. However, because I’m setting a story in a defined period of history I’ll need to keep tabs on what is happening elsewhere. Writing about my characters munching steak at a time of rationing, or playing floodlit tennis during the blackout is not on.
I started my research for Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol by opening a spreadsheet with the columns representing the one hundred years covered by the book. I then used rows to represent International events, National events and Local events. I filled it in accordingly so that for any year I could see what was going on generally, and see which events might affect Bristol and its women. As you can see below, I’ve done a similar spreadsheet for SAGA_WW2_NURSERY.
At this early stage I’ve filled in only the basic details of major international and national events that might affect my characters, using nothing more than good old Google. If in the future I decide to refer to any of those incidents in my novel, I will do more extensive research but for now all I need is a flavour of Autumn 1939.
The Local Events row will involve much more detailed research from the moment I start writing, to help me keep my story true to time and place. I haven’t even begun to think about that yet! I have, though, included an extra row at the bottom of the spreadsheet for details obtained from the Met Office archive about the weather.
Including small details like that will help create a believable setting for my story. After all, what’s the first topic of conversation when any English people meet?
Next time, I’ll be looking in more detail at how to create characters. Sign up to follow this blog below, so you don’t miss Part Nine!
Whether you are going to self-publish your writing, or send it to an industry professional, at some stage your work needs to be set out in a way that makes it easy to read.
If you create a dedicated template on your computer at the beginning of your writing career, it’ll save a lot of time. Just open a new document from that template, and start typing. All the details you’ve stored such as margin and type size, page numbering and font will be applied automatically.
Very few firms request submissions to be made as a paper copy, but as I explained in Part Six, submitting your work in .doc or .docx form is almost universal so start by opening a document in Word. If you don’t use a Windows computer, you can find out more about Word documents here.
Any typed submissions need to be on A4 size paper in portrait orientation. Set up the document on your computer in the same way, and you can be sure it will print properly should you need to run off a paper copy.
Set a good margin all the way round the page— I use 2.5cms—by moving the tabs on the rulers set at the top and left hand side of the blank page. Editors often print out pages of text to read while away from their computers, and this allows them room to add comments.
You’ll need two near-identical templates, one for manuscripts, and one for synopses. This is because, while all the other details remain the same, manuscripts are traditionally double spaced (again, to allow room for written revisions) and synopses are single-spaced.
Set up the line spacing on each template to “2” and “1” respectively, but always check before submitting whether the firm you are contacting is happy with those settings. Some have different requirements. The information will be included in their guidelines for submission so check and be ready to change your spacings if necessary. CNTRL A will highlight a complete block of text, so you can alter the look of your whole document in seconds.
Next, set headers and footers. On my computer this is done by clicking on “Insert” then choosing “Headers and Footers”. I put my name, and the title of my piece in a header, and use a footer for the page number. This means every page of work can be easily traced back to its original document, and its position within the manuscript. That’s important in case an editor prints out only part of your work, as mentioned above
I always use Times New Roman font, 12-point size for both headers and text. You’re not obliged to use Times New Roman, but along with Arial it’s one of the industry’s preferred fonts as it’s easy to read and universally recognised. Steer clear of anything else. If your work uses an unusual font which isn’t installed on your recipients system, a document that looks perfect on your screen might be unreadable when opened on their computer.
Always use black type. It’s easier to read, and looks professional.
Before submission, your work will need a title page which includes your name, contact details, and the word count. Once I’ve set one up, I copy and paste it to act as an end page, too. Then the reader won’t have to scroll right back to the beginning of the document to find my email address. It’s all there on the last page, ready for them to dash off a congratulatory message (I hope!) the second they’ve finished reading.
Once you have created a blank document with wide margins, an acceptable font and print size, set the spacing, and included placeholders for the heading, hit File >Save As, and then select “Template” from the drop down menu and give it a descriptive name such as Prose or Synopsis. Then all you need to do is select whichever option you need, each time you open a new document.
When your work is finished and you’re ready to submit, go through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook to find somewhere suitable to send it. Even if you rely on the latest edition, personnel in the publishing industry regularly take on different roles, or change firms. Approaching the right person in the right company and giving them their correct title shows you’ve done your research. Cross-check all details with the company’s website, which will give you the most up-to-date information, and precise details about the form in which your work should be submitted.
Make sure you send exactly what is required, and if you are asked to send a printed copy, don’t forget to include return postage. Publishing professionals receive hundreds of submissions each week. They don’t have the time or money to waste on printing out address labels, and calculating individual postage rates. If your work doesn’t appeal to them, it will be shredded unless you include an envelope with your name and address on it, and enough stamps to cover return of your work.
Next time, I’ll be giving details of what agents and publishers are looking for in a submission. Sign up below to make sure you can read Part Eight of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity as soon as it is published!
In Part Four, I talked about always keeping a notebook with you to capture your thoughts. That’s perfect when you’re writing a journal and don’t expect to show anyone else your work. If you have ambitions to see your name in print, then you’ll need to organise your thoughts into manuscript form. At the very least you’ll need to turn your notes into a computer file. Not many agents and publishers insist on typed scripts these days, but once you’ve created a document on your word processor you can turn it into any form requested.
Handwritten manuscripts aren’t acceptable to the publishing industry. Whether you intend to self-publish your work or approach agents with a view to conventional publication it’ll save you a lot of work if, right from the start, you get into the habit of creating a computer document from your notes, set out in such a way that it’s ready for submission.
I’ll be looking at how to set out your work in more detail in Part Seven, but the most important thing at this point is that you need a computer capable of creating Word documents, which is the format usually required by the publishing industry. If you have a Windows PC but don’t already have Word (usually as part of Microsoft Office) and you don’t want to pay the subscription for it, then there are free Windows packages such as LibreOffice that can save their files in Word format. I use a Mac (that’s because I rely on my brilliant husband, a systems analyst, for all things technical. If anything goes wrong, he can fix it!) and this comes with Apple Pages which in theory also can save in Word format but in practice not perfectly. I would recommend getting hold of Office for Apple if you can; if you’re a student you may be able to access Word for free via your educational establishment, or get a reduced rate when subscribing.
Once you’re up and running with a system that will produce your work in Word form, you’ll need to transfer your notes onto it. There are various speech recognition computer programs such as Dragon Dictate , which I mentioned in Part Four. These are a way of reading your work into words, rather than typing them and are available in both Mac and PC versions. I don’t use them myself, although lots of people find they work very well.
If you have a scanner then you could get hold of a package to convert scanned documents to text but none are 100% perfect, especially with handwriting, so you’d still have to check every word in the file it creates.
When I was working on Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, I typed most of my ideas and notes straight into a Neo. This was essentially a computer that ran a built-in, basic word processing package and automatically saved as you typed. You typed, it saved your work, and that’s it. Sadly, the Neo isn’t made anymore. That’s probably because of the very feature that made it so valuable to me—its lack of internet connectivity—which meant I couldn’t waste writing time by surfing the net, looking at adverts, and buying online. All you could do with a Neo was type and then upload your file onto a conventional computer.
Much as I love writing, the temptation to surf the internet as a break from puzzling over a tricky scene is irresistible. I wouldn’t be without my Neo, so if you (or someone you know) has the technical skill to maintain one of these little treasures and you happen to see a second-hand one for sale, snap it up. It puts an end to online time-wasting!
While I always send my finished work off as a document created in Word, if I’m working on a long article in several sections or novel, I use a package called Scrivener to help me. It stores all the notes and images I’ve gathered in the same place as I create my text. Each new project has its own file, which Scrivener calls (handily enough) a Project. This is described as a digital ring-binder. There’s somewhere to store everything you need to create your book.
I took some of the photographs which illustrate Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, and stored them within my Struggle Project. There was also a file for the intricate timeline I developed which consisted of three strands: international events, national events, and local events. There was no need to lose that brilliant idea I jotted down on the back of a receipt while out and about somewhere—I’d take a snap, then upload it into the relevant .scriv file on my computer.
I opened a new chapter for each topic I wanted to cover (education, work, daily life, etc) gave it a snappy title such as Fun and Games or Firebrands and Fixers, and set to work. I could view my work in all sorts of ways, a scene at a time, or the whole document as a rolling scroll, for example. Creating the project within Scrivener was half the fun! Click on the badge above to find out more.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know that technology is definitely not my friend, but Scrivener is so user friendly I managed to install it myself, and the tutorial and video included with the package are straightforward. There are loads more videos on YouTube, both by Scrivener’s creators Literature and Latte and by keen users of the system, so whatever your question, somebody has it covered. If, like me, you learn more easily from books, I highly recommend Gwen Hernandez’s Scrivener for Dummies. There is a slightly more recent version available on Amazon, but I have this edition and haven’t bothered getting the newer one as I like Gwen’s style. Both her book, and her online tips are really helpful.
One of the great features about Scrivener is that if you want to self-publish your work, with a couple of clicks it will turn your manuscript into a format that can be uploaded straight into your chosen publishing platform. That means you can do almost all of the work of producing your book yourself, although to make your book the best it can possibly be you should still employ professionals to edit it. Creating your cover is another job that should also be left to a professional, unless you are completely confident with not only your artistic skills, but in your ability to design something that works well at thumbnail size. Those two talents don’t always go together!
No piece on using computers would be complete without a reminder to save your work, and save it often. You can set your computer to save automatically—mine does it every thirty minutes. Don’t just rely on that, though, in case your computer goes wrong and you can’t access any of your work. Save it in at least two other places. I use flash drives (dongles), and email. I don’t bother with cloud storage systems such as Dropbox, but that’s only because I have quite enough passwords to remember already!
I have one flash drive for each day of the week, and plug the appropriate one into my computer each morning. I can then save my work to it each time I take a tea break, or when I stop for lunch. In the event of some technological disaster, at most I’ll only have lost a couple of hours’ work. My other six flash drives hold the week’s previous drafts of my work, so I can always go back and rescue anything I may have changed, and then had second thoughts about.
At the end of each day I email the latest version of the document I’m working on to myself, as well as saving it to flash drive. That way, everything is covered.
Next time, I’ll be talking about how to layout your manuscript, so sign up below to follow my blog and you’ll be sure to see it the minute it’s published.
Now you’ve found your inspiration, you can set to work. Get ready to shine a light on all those subjects that have been waiting for your unique voice to bring them to life.
I’ve found that clearing my diary and desk before beginning a new project works like magic. Without the shadow of appointments or deadlines, or distractions such as my towering To Be Read pile and accounts waiting to be updated, I can sit down with a clear conscience and start writing.
Let the smell of the furniture polish and screen wipes you use when making that clean sweep act as stimulants, but don’t allow procrastination to lock you into an endless loop of housekeeping. There’s a limit to the number of times pencils can be sharpened before they disappear!
Only you can fully understand the motivation behind your need to write. Writing for pleasure, profit, or posterity are all equally valid reasons. I know many of you are using writing to help you through the anxiety of illness and lockdown. Hard though your accounts may be to write, they will fascinate future generations and offer insights into the ability of human beings to adapt to any situation.
Regardless of your reason for starting to write, it should always be a pleasure. If you write from the heart, your enthusiasm will shine through. It doesn’t matter if nobody else ever sees what you’ve written. Translating your thoughts into words, seeing them on a page or screen and then refining them is an achievement in itself. Millions of people think about doing it, but only a small number actually settle down and put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).
While I’m lucky enough to earn most of my living from writing, I have always looked on any payment I receive as a bonus. I enjoy writing so much I’d do it for nothing—and that happens more often than you’d think! I’ve been involved in projects that started well but somehow never gelled, others where I’ve loved every minute and poured my heart and soul into the work, and yet it wasn’t picked up by a publisher. Most frustrating of all, I’ve had a novel accepted by an independent publisher which—so far— has never managed to get as far as publication.
Writing is always worth the trouble, although your work is unlikely to be snapped up for a six-figure advance. In these days of shrinking budgets and growing costs, getting paid any money at all before your book has been on sale for several months is rare. Payments may continue to trickle in for years afterwards, but to begin with you’ll become richer in writing experience than in hard cash.
That experience will help you to help yourself, and others. In good weather, our house is a lovely twenty-minute stroll through the woods from the nearest main road. A few years ago, we were completely marooned by snow for several weeks. Collecting our deliveries and groceries meant a tiring half-hour trudge through drifts almost up to the tops of our boots, before hauling our goods home on a sled. That was fun the first few times, but the novelty soon wore off.
During that season of snowstorms the electricity was cut off quite often. The weight of snow kept bringing down branches onto the power lines running through the wood. As many people in this rural area were in the same predicament, we often had to wait for a long time before we were reconnected to the power supply.
Although our isolation then was nothing compared to the current crisis, keeping a journal about our day-to-day life kept me busy by giving me something to focus on. Looking back on the entries I made then is fascinating. It reminds me to double check our supplies of candles and torch batteries. Not to mention Calor gas, staples like flour, yeast, and the one thing I can’t live without—tea!
You don’t need to live in interesting times to create something that will fascinate future generations. The Mass Observation Archive, which is held as part of the University of Sussex’s Special Collections, originally started in 1937 as a national life-writing project. Submissions from a cross-section of British people supplied accounts of lives that now exist only between the covers of history books. The difference is, contributions to the Mass Observation Archive have been written by people like you and me, rather than professors of politics and economics.
The most well-known example of a contributor to the MOA is probably Nella Last, whose journal entries have been published as Nella Last’s War, and were adapted by Victoria Wood to create the TV drama Housewife, 49. Nella’s life is a world away from how we live now. Things are bound to change in the future—why not leave a record of your own life for posterity? Imagine giving your grandchildren, and their grandchildren, a written example to follow (not to mention an endless source of material for school projects!). Start writing today. Your family, as well as future historians, will thank you for it.
Next time I’ll be talking about the ways your ideas can be turned into a manuscript that’s ready for submission. Make sure you sign up below, so you can read Part Six the minute it’s published.
Part Four: Inspiration—Find It, Catch It, File It!
Whenever I get to the end of a talk and ask if anybody has any questions, I can guarantee that where do you get your ideas from? will crop up. That’s easy to answer—anywhere, and everywhere. As journalist and author Nora (‘When Harry Met Sally’) Ephron’s mother told her, everything is copy.
When I worked as an office junior, my bus ride to and from central Bristol each day was a Pandora’s box of half-heard conversations, and scenes glimpsed in passing. The tricky part is turning all that raw information into something useful. To do that, you need to capture and store it in a way that can be easily traced. That last step can be the most difficult one of all.
A lot of us have to make do with daily walks instead of road and rail journeys at the moment, but everything we see and hear while we’re outside provides some great starting points. If you can’t get out, books, magazines, TV and radio can all provide inspiration. Imagine what the characters in your favourite novel were doing immediately before they appeared in the published story, or after they left it. George MacDonald Fraser did this memorably with the Flashman Series. These books gave the bully from Tom Brown’s School Days another lease of life as an anti-hero.
Don’t trap yourself within the cage of fan fiction—let your mind wander to new settings, and invent new names for your characters. All you are looking for is a launch pad for your thoughts—you don’t want to be accused of plagiarism.
Browse Quora to see what ordinary people are asking the hive mind. Give one of those popular questions to your characters, and see if they can solve it. If lots of people are interested in the question, they’ll be interested in your fictional solution to it, too.
Writing competitions often give prompts, which can get your creative thoughts moving. Writing magazines are a good source of these competitions. Once you’ve been inspired by the topic and completed your entry, check the rules to see if you can submit it to other competitions while you’re waiting for the result. If there are no restrictions, you’ll have a piece of work all ready for submission to competitions such as The Bridport Prize and The Bath Short Story Award, which don’t specify a theme.
I always keep a notebook and pencil to hand. They are stashed all around the house, and even in the glove compartment of the car! That way, if inspiration strikes when I’m in bed, watching TV, or stuck in a car park waiting for somebody, I can start writing on the spot.
I can’t walk into a stationery store without buying a new notebook. I have them in all shapes, sizes and colours but this red Moleskine is my current favourite as it was a Christmas present from my daughter. She knows I love to keep one of these in my bag to channel my inner Hemingway while I’m on the move, and all my other general Moleskine notebooks have been black. They aren’t too easy to find in my huge, black-lined mathom-hole of a bag, but this one is very easy to spot!
The open notebook in the photo is the one I use for non-fiction projects. It’s divided up in a similar way to the Cornell note-taking system, and turned out to be perfect for my university work. There’s space at the top for an overview of the subject, margins for headings and then space for notes. Unlike my manyPukka Pads, the pages of this particular Moleskine are numbered, so I can fill in the index at the front easily (if I remember!).
You can use your phone to make recordings of your ideas as they happen, or use a dictaphone. I’ve tried both, as well as Dragon Dictate for transposing my thoughts directly onto the computer, but I gave up on all those methods quite quickly. I much prefer the process of writing on paper, with a pencil.
The advantage when you make notes on your phone is that you can snap a quick photo at the same time. That will act as a visual reminder of the geography of a setting, the texture of fabrics, or a particular colour scheme.
If you take photos of people, get their permission first. According to Avon and Somerset Police there’s no law in the UK against taking photos in a public place—even photos of other people’s children, strange though it may seem—but many people don’t like it. Respect their feelings.
Get the landowner’s permission before taking photos. Photographing people anywhere they might reasonably expect to be private, such as inside their house or garden, is very likely to breach privacy laws.
Make sure you give each of your pictures a unique, meaningful title when you upload them. That will make it easy to find them again. I have a main folder on my computer for Photos. This is subdivided according to general subject such as food, plants, animals, birds. Each subject is then further divided into cake, flowers, poultry, Alex, for example.
Each photo then gets a unique identifier, so the latest one I took for Instant Lift has been given the name Catkins_Home_12012021. This means I can search for it according to subject, location, or date. If I’m short on inspiration or I’ve been commissioned to write something on a particular subject, I can then go to the top level folders and browse all the content for ideas.
I use a similar system for each writing project I begin. Everything from initial ideas to character descriptions and timelines are stored in a single folder with an obvious title, such as Thriller. I then add the date I started it, so it becomes Thriller_Jan 2021. Within that main folder, the individual documents are called Characters_Thriller_Jan 2021, and so on. That way I can find things easily, and I know how long a project takes from beginning to end.
Next time I’ll be exploring some of the ways writing can help your family, your mind, and even your bank balance. Sign up below to follow my blog, so you can read it the minute it’s published!
Finding your audience and giving them what they want to read is a big part of becoming an author.
The most important member of your writing audience is you. Never forget that, because if you’ve enjoyed creating a piece and you’re happy with the result then you’ll have satisfied 100% of your audience. Your enthusiasm will shine through your work, too. As the old saying goes, if you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life—but if you want to get published, you’ll need to keep a wider target audience in mind.
Some authors create detailed profiles of their ideal reader, right down to their likely politics. Others write for themselves, then submit their work to publishers of the things they read for pleasure. That’s how I began my professional writing career. The first article I sold was to The Garden magazine, which is the monthly journal of the Royal Horticultural Society. I’d already been a member for long enough to absorb their house style, and had a detailed knowledge of the kind of article—its subject matter, length, and approach, for example—they would be likely to accept.
When I was making my living by writing articles for magazines, it helped that I could supply my own photographs. I could offer a complete package, the publication’s production team didn’t have to worry about sourcing illustrations and I was paid for each picture. That meant everyone was happy!
There aren’t as many opportunities to sell short stories to magazines as there used to be, but those which accept submissions offer detailed guidelines so make sure you follow them. You would be amazed how many people miss out this vital step. Do your research by reading plenty of back copies to get a taste of what the editor is looking for. Don’t send a story about a serial killer to The People’s Friend, for example.
Visit any publication’s webpage and you’ll find a link to their guidelines for submission. It’s usually right at the bottom of the page, close to “contact us”. Study them, and you’ll be able to make sure your work won’t be rejected because it’s unsuitable.
When it comes to non-fiction, there are more opportunities to see your name in print. Letters to the editor, or short, accurate articles written from personal experience make useful fillers for magazines and newspapers. This is where my memories of how things were done before the Internet Age will find a home. Again, study the publications which might accept your work for several weeks before submitting.
Editors love to see something similar to, but different from, the things they already publish. They’re looking for new angles and new voices on topics that are already popular with their readers, so give them what they want. Whatever you write, make sure it has a snappy title. Why did King George V Say ‘Bu**er Bognor’? is more likely to get a second glance than What I Did On My Holidayin West Sussex (I’ll leave you to argue what His Majesty did or didn’t say on his deathbed!).
If you want to write novellas, full-length novels, or non-fiction books, luck and fashion are almost as important as literary brilliance. You can improve your chance of acceptance by finding out exactly what type of book literary agents and publishers are looking for by studying a reference book such as the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2021.
If you haven’t found your writing tribe yet, you’ll find the Writers’ and Artists Yearbook invaluable. It’s packed full of information, with details of writing competitions, magazines, newspapers, literary agents, and publishers but make sure you use an up-to-date copy as contact details within the publishing industry change frequently.
Once you’ve made sure you aren’t sending your novel to a professional who doesn’t accept fiction, or your autobiography to a firm that only deals with poetry, whether your work is accepted doesn’t only depend on how well-written it is. An editor might enjoy your work without feeling the surge of endless enthusiasm needed to see your project through the months of editing and promotion needed to produce, and then sell, it.
Competition is so great for the limited number of publishing slots available, my advice is to write the book of your heart—a project that you would work on for free. Throw all your enthusiasm into it and that will show in the quality of your writing. If you are completely committed to your project, your conviction will see you through the submission process until you are successful, no matter how long it takes.
I’ll be covering book submissions in more detail in future parts of Writing for Pleasure, Profit and Posterity, so make sure you subscribe to my blog using the form below. That way, you won’t miss a thing!
Writing competitions give you an important incentive to get a piece written and polished before the closing date. Use an easily readable font and type-size—Times New Roman, 12-point is a good one if the competition doesn’t have a specific requirement.
Make sure you study the rules. You don’t want to be disqualified because your work is too long, or you’ve missed the closing date. When I became a mature student at the University of Gloucestershire, my daughter (an alumna of the University of Reading) gave me a handy tip regarding assignment deadlines which works well for writing competitions, too. Put a note on your phone or calendar for a week BEFORE the closing date. Finish your piece by then and you’ll still have a whole seven days to refine it, instead of cramming all your checks and edits into the last frantic hours before the deadline. During my recent university career I had reason to thank my daughter lots of times for that suggestion!
Comb through the small print before submitting anything to make sure that by entering, you aren’t signing away your rights to send the same piece to other competitions.
In Part Two of this series, I suggested that you should find a writing community to support you. Whether you belong to one of the big writing associations or a smaller local one, they will be able to give you lots of information about which publications are buying work, and news of competitions.
There are also lots of Facebook groups which can help. Just key “writing groups” into the search box. As with all online content it pays to be cautious, so make sure you’re a good fit with other members. There are always some people who like to take charge and they can be intimidating when you’re just starting out. Whether you join a virtual writing group or a real one, don’t be afraid to leave if you’re not finding the help and support you need.
Part Four will cover where to find inspiration for your writing, and how to capture it. To read the next episode of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity as soon as it’s published, subscribe to my blog using the form below.
Writers are always being asked the questionwhere do you get your ideas? The simple answer to that is anywhere and everywhere, but that’s not much to go on when you’re starting out as a writer.
Later in Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity I’ll be looking at capturing inspiration and the best way to organise your notes, but today I want to focus on the importance of finding your writing community. That’s your support group of cheerleaders, mentors, and others you’ll need in your quest to become a writer. They’ll help you formulate your ideas, brainstorm your projects, and provide you with inspiration.
Don’t worry if you don’t know any writers yet. I didn’t know anybody when I started out, but once I made the commitment to become a full-time writer, I was soon getting advice from all quarters. The writing community is supportive of newbies, and is keen to pass on the tips and wrinkles they’ve learned over the years.
You need people who will support you, but won’t be shy about offering constructive criticism when needed. While it’s lovely to have the backing of your immediate family (my career as a successful writer relies on tons of support from my husband and our children, for which I’m very grateful) don’t be tempted to show them your first efforts. If your family is like my tribe, they won’t want to hurt your feelings. Should your relations be less than supportive of your dreams, you might not like what they have to say.
The obvious first place to start is with a writing professional, such as the tutor of a good local (or online) creative writing course. You should expect to pay for their advice by enrolling, which is how I found my first writing mentor, the award-winning poet Paul Groves. Paul was running classes in creative writing at a local college. We became friends after I joined the course, and he has been giving me advice and support ever since.
In a future edition of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity I’ll be covering courses in detail and how to choose a good one, so make sure you subscribe by putting your email address in the box below. Don’t worry, I won’t ever pass on your details, or send out spam.
Courses and workshops are vital to help you improve your writing, and they are a great source of inspiration. Students can bounce ideas off each other, and a good tutor will provide details of opportunities for writers such as competitions. Most writing competitions specify a theme. Like mortal danger, the idea of finishing a piece before the closing date is a great cure for writers’ block!
If you are serious about becoming a professional author, the Society of Authors offers loads of benefits such as workshops, training, and a contract vetting service. They also have an extensive branch network with lots of social events in non-Covid times, and plenty of online meet-ups during lockdowns.
If you already know what you want to write, it’s worth joining a specialist association. I belong to the Romantic Novelists’ Association. The RNA and its members have helped me every step of the way. I was a published author before I discovered them, and wish I’d known about their New Writers’ Scheme when I was first starting out. It gives unpublished writers the chance to have their work critiqued by professionals (including me), and each year the RNA presents the Joan Hessayon Award to the best debut novel. In 2020, this was won by Melissa Oliver’s historical novel, The Rebel Heiress and the Knight.
It was through my links with the Romantic Novelists’ Association that I came to write my first non-fiction book, Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol. You can find out more about Struggle and Suffrage in Bristolhere. Pen and Sword Books were planning a series about women’s lives during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in major towns and cities around the United Kingdom. They had authors for all of the intended books except for Plymouth, Bristol, and Bath. The news was posted on the RNA site, and as I was born only a few miles from Bristol, I submitted a proposal for the book and won the contract.
There’ll be more about research for writers, and how to write proposals in future editions of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity, so subscribe to my blog by using the form below to make sure you don’t miss anything!
Writing for pleasure is cheap and satisfying. Anybody can do it once they’ve learned to form letters into words, and it can be turned to all sorts of uses from novel writing to memoir. That makes it the perfect hobby—but writing can do much more than that.
There have been times in my life when I’ve really had to struggle to get out of bed—when I was suffering from postnatal depression, physical health problems such as arthritis or migraine, or even when there was something as simple as a maths test on my horizon.
During every kind of crisis in my life, writing—along with the right kind of professional help—comes to my rescue. Capturing my thoughts gives me something outside of myself to focus on. Once I can see the problem in words, I can focus on it and find a solution.
During lockdown, we’ve all been forced into our own company, possibly for the first time in our lives. It feels strange to be cut loose from the daily routine of commuting, the school run, office politics, and having a good old gossip with friends.
Working from home surrounded only by our closest family (if we’re lucky enough to have them) feels strange at first. It takes some getting used to but it’s actually closer to how people are supposed to live, rather than the nine-to-five grind which gives us so little time to see our partners or children.
Think back to creation stories. Adam and Eve, Lucy, the little group from Laetoli and Australia’s people of the Dreamtime didn’t have tick-boxes, timetables, or clocks. Life was hard for them and let’s face it, often horrible as they discovered which foods were good to eat, which would get them thrown out of Paradise, which animals to chase, and which animals were likely to chase them.
What all those early people did have was each other, open spaces, and stories. Lockdown has made us realise how much we rely on interacting with our friends and family. Lack of space indoors means this can’t always be on our own terms. That’s why it’s such a relief when we can get outside for a change of scene, and take some exercise.
The human race needs the company of its own kind, and to feel fresh air and sunlight on its skin. If those needs can’t be satisfied, the next best thing is to read about someone else experiencing them. That’s why people will always want stories.
If you can satisfy their desire to escape from their own life for a little while by reading about someone else’s experiences, whether fictional or real, then your writing will also be profitable. You’ll have satisfied your creative instinct, and made your readers happy. You may even make some money.
Writing is a great way for everyone on the planet to make their voices heard. You can learn to formulate your arguments into a protest piece, or an email to your member of parliament or other political representative. Writing will also preserve your unique voice for posterity. Life has changed enormously over the past few years. It’s hard to remember how we survived before sat navs, iPhones, and Airbnb for example, so write down your memories. Future generations will love them!
Memoirs by people such as Winifred Foley and Laurie Lee give us glimpses of a life before the Internet Age. Future generations will be fascinated to read about the early years of the twenty-first century, so why not make a start now, by capturing all the strange things we used to do such as smoking in public, or buying paper copies of maps?
Without a doubt, the best thing that’s happened to me over the past few years is going from school dropout to university student. I got the chance to meet all sorts of people, and do things I’d never dreamed of doing—such as becoming managing director of a project to create Heritage, an anthology of new writing.
Goodbye, 2020, you won’t be missed. The past twelve months have been so bad for everyone, I’ve decided to do what I can to stop the rot. Voltaire is supposed to have said that although life’s a shipwreck, we can at least sing in the lifeboats—so I want to get as many people on board my lifeboat as possible, to try and raise everyone’s spirits
Never give up hope. The winter days are short and gloomy here in the UK right now, but we’ve got nine minutes more daylight today than we had on 21st December because the sun is setting a little bit later each day (check here if you don’t believe me!). And while the pandemic is raging everywhere, the fight back against Covid is gathering speed.
Back in the 1990s, I was right at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Our house was mortgaged, interest rates were above 10%, my husband’s job was in danger, and I was living in the deep shadow of postnatal depression. The day I realised we had less than £2 to spend on food for the week, it was the exact opposite of all my Christmases coming at once.
We survived, but it wasn’t easy—so this year my blog will be dedicated to sharing the tips and wrinkles that have helped me through disaster, debt and depression. The world turns right round in twenty-four hours, and sunrise always follows sunset. Good times are bound to be around the corner—a lucky break, a chance encounter, a medical breakthrough—so hang on, and have faith in yourself. You can do it, because you are stronger than you know.
My blog focuses on writing, gardening, and cooking, as these are the things that have helped me through bad times and given me ways to celebrate good times.
Next week I’m starting a new series here. It’s called Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity, so make sure you catch Part One by popping your email address in the “Subscribe” box below!
2020 has been quite a year. I’m really looking forward to January 1st, as I’m convinced 2021 is going to be a whole lot better than the twelve months that have just gone by.
To kick off the New Year, I’ll be starting a new series on writing. During my studies at the University of Gloucestershire, I discovered that getting my feelings down in words really helped my mental health. Like everyone else I hate lockdown, and writing helps me process negative feelings.
Expressing yourself in words is useful in another way, too. In the future when social distancing is a distant memory, records of how we coped during the pandemic will help future generations deal with whatever life throws at them. In the same way we look back with fascination on the stories of people who lived through the Second World War, post-Covid readers and researchers will be glad we took the time to write down the details of our daily life.
My new series will give you the confidence to write whatever you like— whether it’s for pleasure, posterity or profit—so if there’s anything about the art and craft of creative writing you’d like to see covered, post a comment below
Thank you to everyone who put in a bid for a signed copy of Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol during the Children in Read part of the charity fundraiser. Children in Read raised an amazing amount of money — over £21,000!
The winning bid for my book came from a village only a few miles across the fields from where I was born in Somerset, which made me quite homesick.
If you’d like to read an extract from Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, just click on the image entitled My Current Release at the top right of this page. Pick up your own paperback or kindle version — and it would make the perfect present for anyone who loves the city of Bristol.
The very generous winner will be receiving their signed copy of Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol as soon as I can harness Alex to a dog-sled and slither down our frosty valley to the local post office. Good job I’m only joking about the sled—the idea of being towed at high speed through the forest undergrowth in search of a meaty treat behind our confirmed scavenger is terrifying!
It’s minus 2 outside at the moment, and since I broke my ankle a few years ago I’m as nervous as a kitten on slippery ground. I only leave the house to walk Alex, feed the hens and wild birds, and check the greenhouses. The rest of the time I enjoy the glorious sight of the Gloucestershire countryside locked in frost through the window.
The grass has become needles of ice, and a white lacework of cobwebs is draped along the hedges and gates. Luckily I’ve got the fruit trees clustered around the greenhouse heater. The photo shows what happened a couple of years ago when the greenhouse was unheated.
Thank you again to everyone who took part in Children in Need
Until the 1940s, home cooks used either fresh “bakers” yeast or home-made “sourdough” starters to make their bread rise. Then some genius discovered how to produce bakers yeast on an industrial scale, and packaged it in such a way that it could be stored in the kitchen for months on end.
After the Second World War, improved manufacturing, packaging and transport systems made it easy to buy fresh bread of a standardised quality from shops. The only people left baking bread at home were those worried by what additives this Chorleywood Process of bread-making might do to their health.
I bought my first bread-making machine as a treat for myself when our last baby was born. It got me really interested in all types of bread-making. Since then, bread, rolls, buns, naans, pizza bases —you name it, I make it. The only bread we buy now is for the family’s weekly Friday night treat of bacon-and-egg sandwiches. To get the full, wicked experience, those have to be made with ready-made white sliced bread. Healthy eating takes a back seat at the end of a busy week!
Then came the Coronavirus lockdown. Within a week or two, I couldn’t buy yeast locally. That didn’t mean it had disappeared entirely. I saw some offered online at a cost of £15 for a packet that, pre-virus, would have cost only about a pound! There was no way I was going to support a profiteer. Instead, I made my own raising agent.
You can read about how I did that here. I had to start the process before I ran out of packet yeast, as it takes a few days to build up enough for baking. Five days after making a simple paste with nothing but flour and water, the resulting yeast culture had expanded enough for me to make my first loaf of bread.
In the same way making your own starter takes time, baking with it needs patience. That’s why sourdough loaves and other artisan breads are so expensive! Andrew Whitley’s book Bread Mattersis a fascinating read, and it sparked my interest in speciality bread-making. Over the years I’ve adapted his recipes and timings until I settled on the following method. It turns out a good, light loaf every time.
A few hours before you start, fill a jug with half a litre of cold water and put it aside, covered. Letting the water stand allows the chlorine within it to dissipate. If you forget to do this ahead of time—as I sometimes do!—use cool, boiled water from the kettle.
Last thing at night, measure out a big ladleful of bread-making starter (see here for details) into a large mixing bowl with 50g of wholemeal bread-making flour and 150g of strong white bread-making flour. Add enough aired water from the jug to make a stiffish dough. Cover the bowl and put it in the fridge overnight.
Next morning, mix together in a separate bowl 100g wholemeal flour, 300g strong white bread flour, a heaped teaspoon of salt, and 300ml water. Andrew Whitley says knead this mixture vigorously for between eight to ten minutes, but I cheat by measuring everything into my food mixer and leaving it to run at a medium speed until the dough is stretchy (about five minutes).
I’ve found I get better results when bread-making if I go by the feel and stretchiness of the dough rather than by strict measurements and timings. Different flours absorb different amounts of water. Once you’ve followed a recipe a couple of times, you get a feel for what works well.
Add a couple of big ladles of your sourdough starter, and knead (or mix by machine) for a few more minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. At this point it should be quite sticky, but be careful not to make it too wet or it won’t rise well.
Moisten a clean kitchen work-surface with a little water, put the dough on it and invert a clean bowl over the top (I wash out the mixer bowl, and use that). Leave for about an hour, during which time the natural yeasts work their magic and the dough will rise. At this point Andrew Whitley holds a plastic dough scraper in each hand and gently stretches the mixture first one way, then the other, folding the dough in on itself to retain the air while exploiting its elastic properties to gently trap as much air as possible. If you don’t have a pair of dough-scrapers, you can use a plastic spatula or the tips of your fingers. That’s how I started. The thing is to be gentle rather than forceful—you want to stretch, not squash.
I rise my dough in linen-lined baskets, until the mark made by my finger in the surface takes only a few seconds to disappear, then turn the risen loaves out onto a flat tray for baking. The dough can just as easily be put into a greased baking tin, left to rise and then put straight into the oven to be baked. Either way, I give the lined basket or tin a really thick coating of flour to stop the dough drying out while rising, or sticking to the tin when cooked.
Rising takes between 3-5 hours. The dough is ready to cook when it takes a second or so to spring back after you poke it with a floury finger. If the dough has been put to rise in a basket, it will need to be tipped out onto a baking tray for cooking. This has to be done very carefully, or the air you’ve worked so hard to incorporate will escape and the dough will deflate like a Christmas balloon on January 6th.
The oven needs to be really hot to begin with— 220 degrees C or equivalent— to make the dough expand vigorously before the yeast is killed by the heat. After ten minutes at that temperature reduce the heat to around 200 degrees C, and bake for about another 30 minutes until the loaf is firm and golden.
How are you managing for bread and other staples at this time?
How are you weathering this awful crisis? I’m a loner by nature and thought I’d be able to cope well with being in isolation. After all, I’ve worked from home with no near neighbours for years, but it isn’t quite working out as I’d hoped.
There’s a big difference between not needing to leave the house, and not being allowed to leave it. Even if we weren’t restricted to one walk for necessary exercise each day, there’s nowhere to go.
Comfort eating is my big problem. I’ve wrenched my knee so running on my treadmill is off my agenda for a while. Instead of doing between 12-15k steps per day I’m down to about 7k. That means I dare not make any cake, so it’s healthy food only!
I love cooking, but while we’re in lock-down and with no more supermarket deliveries, I’ve got to make the best of what we’ve got in the house. Apparently Jamie Oliver was on TV telling people they didn’t need to panic about not being able to buy bread. He supplied a recipe which needed only three ingredient: yeast, flour and water.
That’s fine in theory, but most people are finding that two of his three ingredients are impossible to get. The supermarkets around here haven’t been able to supply either yeast or bread-making flour for weeks.
I’ve made bread for years, both by hand and machine, so I always have a good supply of ingredients. Unfortunately, as I refused to panic-buy at the start of this crisis, my stocks are getting low. At a pinch, ordinary flour can be used to make bread but you’ll still need yeast. That’s why I’m creating a new batch of sourdough starter today, so that when I’ve used the last of our dried yeast I can still make bread.
Sourdough starter begins as a mixture of flour and water. Wild yeasts naturally present in the atmosphere colonise this, and turn it into a culture. Once this mixture has been fed and nurtured for a few days, a ladleful of it can be used in place of commercial dried yeast.
Loaves made using sourdough starter have the distinctive appearance and tangy taste of those expensive artisan breads on sale in bakeries, but they are really easy to make. All you need is patience, as it takes a few days for the wild yeasts to multiply enough to provide sufficient raising agent. You can buy sachets of sourdough starter, but to be honest what starts off as “San Francisco’s Finest” (or whatever) is soon colonised by your own local yeasts and becomes unique to your kitchen.
Here’s my recipe for a sourdough starter. You’ll need:
• A jug of boiled water, left to stand (covered) overnight at room temperature in order to get rid of the chlorine. • Strong (breadmaking) wholemeal flour, preferably organic)
Weigh 40g of flour into a food-grade plastic container (I use a 2.6litre, square-bottomed Lock and Lock box). Add 40 ml of water, and beat as hard as you can to incorporate plenty of air. I use the whisk on the right, which I got from Bakery Bits. Then cover with a lid, or a piece of beeswax wrap, and leave in a warm place for 24 hours. Mine sits on the kitchen counter.
When that time’s up, add a further 40g of flour and another 40ml of water to your original mixture. Beat again, then cover and store as before.
Day Three: Your starter may already be bubbling. Alternatively, it may have some greyish liquid on top. Don’t worry—either way, add a further 40g of wholemeal flour but this time only 20ml of the de-chlorinated, room-temperature water, so your mixture doesn’t get too sloppy. Whisk again, cover, and keep the mixture warm.
The next day, you have a choice. If you want to make genuine wholemeal starter, add a further 120g wholemeal flour. If you want a lighter starter (which I use for my bread), add 120g strong white (bread-making) flour instead of wholemeal. Either way, add 100ml water as before, and repeat the whisking.
After a further twenty-four hours in a warm place, your sourdough should be bubbly and smell pleasantly fruity. From now on, the aim is to maintain the starter by feeding it each morning.
Feed your sourdough by adding 100g of strong white bread flour (or 75g white and 25g wholemeal) and 100ml of room-temperature water that has been dechlorinated overnight. Obviously, your mixture will grow, so to avoid being overwhelmed you periodically “discard” a ladleful of your starter by either making bread with it, adding it to pancake or waffle mixture to make them fluffy, donating some starter to a friend, or freezing it in case you lose your original starter. It saves you having to start the process all over again.
Making a sourdough starter is quite a long-drawn out process, but it only takes a few minutes each day. It’s worth giving it a try, and once you’ve tasted good home-made sourdough bread, you’ll be hooked!
When the local branch of the Society of Authors met in Monmouth this week, somebody asked me which I liked more—writing, or gardening.I had to confess I couldn’t decide!
I’ve loved doing both since I was old enough to copy plant names onto seed labels with a grease pencil. When the weather is cold and miserable, as it is while Storm Chiara is rolling around the house, there’s no contest. All I want to do is curl up by the fire with paper and pencil, or sit in my nice warm office with tea, cake and a deadline to meet.
The trouble starts when February rains ease and the sun slides out onto a blue sky only lightly smeared with clouds. Then I want to drop everything, get outside and start getting the garden (and myself) into shape for spring.
Before I started writing romance, I used to write gardening columns for magazines. That combined my two loves perfectly. I always had an excuse to get out and about. If I wasn’t looking for inspiration, I was taking photographs to illustrate my work.
This has been a really mild winter so far. Although it’s too early to tempt fate by looking forward to making more apricot jam, the flowers are already beginning to open on the fruit trees in my greenhouse.
That’s a real sign of spring! It won’t be long before we’re looking out for beach reads. Here’s one for your list—the three-book collection With Love From Florence. My contemporary romance The Italian’s Blushing Gardener is teamed with Scarlet Wilson’s His Lost-and-Found Bride and Heidi Rice’s Unfinished Business with the Duke to create a big, bold celebration of love.
I spent one of my best holidays ever in a little hideaway in the countryside not far from Florence. What’s your favourite holiday destination? Post a comment below to be in with a chance to win a copy of With Love From Florence. The winner will be chosen at random on 28th February, so let me know where you love to spend your holidays!
The short, dark days of January are enough to make anyone feel rough. It always seems such a long month, too. The bills for Christmas fun always arrive before January’s payday can bail out the bank account!
Here are five cheap ways to take your mind off the misery…
Anything that gets you out of your chair is a good thing—even housework, with all that bending and stretching. If you’ve got a dog, you’ve always got a good excuse to go out for a walk and when the weather’s bright and clear, there’s nothing like it. When my joints are working properly I run several kilometres before breakfast on alternate days, but to be honest that does require some investment. To prevent injury good running shoes are vital, and if you’ve got a bust, a properly-fitted sports bra. Neither comes cheap but both will last a long time if you look after them.
I meditate for twenty minutes each morning, as recommended by Jack Canfield in his Success Principles. I learned how to meditate by using Headspace, which has a great selection of short courses, tutorials and animations. That started me off, but now I’ve established a routine it’s just a case of settling down somewhere I won’t be disturbed and taking a few deep breaths…
Feed the Birds
Watching birds is as restful as an aquarium, and a lot cheaper. The special foods from firms such as Haiths or CJWildlife provide the ideal things to feed, but if you’re careful you can do it for free by putting out household scraps. No meat (which might contain diseases which, while not affecting humans, could infect the wildlife you’re trying to attract) or white bread, as it’s about as good for birds as it is for us! A sprinkling of wholemeal breadcrumbs, cooked brown rice, chopped apple or grated cheese is okay. When my children were small they used to “help” make fat cakes by mixing dried fruit and cooked potato into melted lard (obviously, I was in charge of the hot stuff!). Once set, the mixture can be turned out onto the bird-table, like a cake. Make sure you put out clean water, too, for the birds to drink and bathe in. They need to do that even in winter, to keep their feathers in peak condition.
Look Out for Signs of Spring
This is one of the best tonics of all. When the sun came out today after a long run of miserable, dark, wet days I discovered polyanthus, a sheet of snowdrops, some hellebores and catkins all on display. Just getting outside felt good, and finding flowers (okay, maybe catkins aren’t strictly flowers!) made the spring seem a little bit closer. I wish you could smell this winter honeysuckle, which grows not far from my kitchen window. No wonder its Latin name is Lonicera Fragrantissima! Pollinators love it, too. On sunny days you can hear the hum of bees from metres away.
When I was a child, my father taught me the names of the stars and constellations he had learned in the days when he lived right out in the sticks, with no electric light. Light pollution makes the number of things in the sky visible to the naked eye far fewer than it was in Dad’s day, but it’s still a wonderfully relaxing thing to go outside on a clear, cold night, look up and wonder what was happening here on earth all those thousands of years ago when light left those distant objects. Much closer to home, the flashing green and red lights of aircraft passing overhead makes me wonder where they’re heading, and whether anybody up there us looking down on me, looking up at them!
What’s your favourite way of beating the January blues?
It’s official—Heritage: New Writing VIII, the 2019 collection of new writing by students, alumni and friends of the University of Gloucestershire—is now available on Amazon. Packed full of short stories, poetry and illustrations, Heritage is the perfect Christmas present for bookworms, and anyone who loves the county of Gloucestershire. Click on the box below to make sure you get your copy—stocks are limited, so buy yours now!
We had so many submissions of quality that we couldn’t squeeze them all in, but with two hundred pages containing fifty-eight pieces of quality work, Heritage represents stunning value for money at only £8.99. As joint managing director (together with Chris Davies) of the anthology project I’m not allowed to have favourites—that’s a good thing, as it would be impossible to choose—although as a writer I felt every word Joyce Grant wrote in her piece The Urge!
I’m really proud to have been part of the Heritage production team. You can find out who we are, and how we all worked together to create the 2019 anthology, here.
Last night was the launch Heritage: New Writing VIII, the University of Gloucestershire’s latest anthology of poetry and prose. Held in the stunning surroundings of Francis Close Hall’s Chapel, a huge audience listened to extracts from the book.
The launch of Heritage was held in November to coincide with the university’s graduation ceremony, which was held the day before. This meant that graduates travelling from overseas could make the most of their trip—their presentation on Thursday before Friday’s evening of fiction and fun (and a weekend at leisure in Cheltenham, as they say).
This anthology was made possible by generous funding by the Creative Writing Department of the university, and kept on track by self-styled (for anthology-creating purposes only!) Capitalist Pig Dr. Mike Johnstone.
At the heart of the Heritage project was its content. We appealed to students, alumni and anyone who has worked at, or for, the university now or in the past. Around a hundred and fifty submissions arrived from all over the world. The standard was so high, choosing which to include was almost impossible. Luckily our team of editors, Carlie Chabot, Rich Kemp, Carole May, Hayley Saunders and Maria Stadnicka was up to the task and did a great job. Those contributors whose work couldn’t be included have the satisfaction of knowing they were in good company. The standard of writing was extremely high. That means there are plenty of writers linked to the University of Gloucestershire with something ready to submit when the 2020 anthology opens for business, in a few months’ time.
The artwork and design of the whole Heritageproject was worked on by Sam de Weerd, Hayley Porri, Hayley Saunders, Shannon Storm (who also produced the promotional material), and Jacob Luke while Chris Davies, Sam, Carole, Hayley Porri, Shannon, and Ross Turner handled the marketing. The copy editing was down to Jacob Luke and Ross, while I did the proof reading and Rich acted as consultant to the whole project.
My co-managing director, Chris Davies, made a magnificent compère last night. He kept the evening running smoothly, and the audience loved him. As well as working with the Art and Design team and creating the cover of Heritage, Shannon created a stunning visual presentation to accompany the readings. She also gave a great vote of thanks at the end to the tutors who have made such an impression on us all.
It was a wonderful evening, and paperback copies of Heritage: New Writing VIIIsold well. The anthology will be available on Amazon soon—I’ll let you know when it goes live.
Heritage will make a great Christmas present, so get your orders in as soon as you can!
I love watching washing dance on a clothesline, like it’s doing in the photo above (by Jill Wellington, via Pixabay). There hasn’t been much chance of that this week. The weather forecast said showery. That turned out to mean torrential downpours lasting for hours, with burst of sunshine. The dry spells tempted me to peg everything out, but they never lasted. Then it was a mad dash to pull everything off the line and get it back into the house.
My latest university project involves the effects on women’s lives of automation during the twentieth century. I’m collecting memories of washing-day from the times before everyone had an automatic machine.
It was the late nineteen-nineties before I bought a washing machine. I’d been using the handy service wash system at my local launderette. I could drop the dirty clothes off in the morning, and pick it up all clean, dry and neatly folded on my way home from work.
That was lovely, although loading and unloading our own washing machine is hardly a chore. It’s not as though we have to scrub each item individually, before rinsing and wringing as in days of yore. I also get a lot of pleasure from watching a line full of washing dance in the sunshine. Getting a load of wet washing dry when it’s raining is a lot less enjoyable!
I haven’t been online much lately as I’ve been busy sorting out my modules for the next semester. This time last year I’d finished my first week at university as a mature student, and couldn’t wait to start the next one! All the worries I had about going back into education after so many years working alone evaporated during my first lecture. I’ve had so much fun over the past twelve months, I’d recommend university to everyone!
When I decided to study for Gloucestershire University’s MA in Creative and Critical Writing, I decided to put my writing career on hold. I’m only a part-time student, but that takes up an amazing amount of my time. Beyond blogging, the only writing I do these days is for assignments and assessments. I’m so glad I’m not trying to write for publication at the same time!
There’s a lot of background reading to be done for each module. I’m a slow reader. That doesn’t help—neither does the fact I need some time to call my own. There’s my family to enjoy, pets to look after, wild birds to feed and a garden to wrangle.
This week I’ve also been getting ready to speak at the Bristol and Avon Family History Society’s annual fair about my latest release, Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol. Their fair is being held at the British Aerospace Welfare Association in Filton. That’s not far from Rolls-Royce Aero, where I worked for a while. It’ll be great to go back after so long away, but I’ve heard that the buildings where I was based have been knocked down, and the site redeveloped.
That’s a shame, but maybe some of the people I used to work with at Development Accounts (Dev Accs) or the Technical Publications (Tech Pubs) library (or even Sun Life Assurance?) are still around? If so, why not drop in to BAWA this Saturday, 28th September. The Family History Society are really friendly and helpful. If you’ve ever thought about trying to trace your family tree, The Bristol and Avon Family History Fair would be a good place to start. It runs from 10am to 4pm, and I’m on at 10:30am.
I hope you’ve had a great summer. September is a lovely month here in the country. The days are still long enough to enjoy any good weather. The nesting season is over, so the garden and wood is full of youngsters finding their way about. Some of them are still at the fluff-ball stage. It’s cute to watch the new generation of blue tits and long tailed tits discovering how to use the bird-feeders.
Every year there’s one big baby who refuses to grow up. Buzzards nest in our wood, and from August onwards their latest brood are turfed out to make their own way in the world. There’s always one who hangs around its parents’ territory. It shrieks to be fed from first light until dusk. The cries ease off once it has learned to find food for itself. Some of them aren’t too quick on the uptake, so the racket can persist for weeks.
It’ll be back to university for me soon. I’ve got two induction sessions next week. After that, I’ll be doing two modules before Christmas, my final two after Christmas and rounding off the 2019/2020 academic year by submitting my dissertation.
I can’t wait to get started. I’ve already bought a season ticket for the Dean Heritage Centre. It’s packed with artefacts and records that can help me in my work on the way small advances in technology had huge effects on the lives of ordinary people during the twentieth century.
There’s one last holiday treat before I start running round the education track between lectures, workshops, archive and library. The York Chapter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association are holding their annual afternoon tea this Saturday. This started as a local event but they now kindly extend invitations to lovers of York. This year I’m taking my husband Martyn as my guest, to show him the city. Fingers crossed for good weather—it bucketed down with rain last time I went!
I’ve written before about trying out Paul McKenna’s I Can Make You Thin. I’ve been listening to its self-hypnosis CD to help me lose weight. It has been working almost too well. The CD runs for about half an hour, and is so relaxing I usually drop off to sleep.
The subliminal message must be sinking in, as I feel more positive about reaching my goal. I want to weigh 9 stone 12lb (that’s 138lb, or around 63kg) by the time the new university term begins. That’s on 23rd September—only six weeks from now!
I’ve lost six pounds already, but I still have nearly twelve pounds to go. Losing 2lb per week will be tough. I love my food. If I can stick to eating smaller portions than usual that will be fine. I’m working on the basis that there’s no such thing as a forbidden food, only forbidden amounts. Doing plenty of exercise to make sure I expend more calories than I take on board should help shift the extra weight.
The problem with that is I already spend a couple of hours each day walking Alex. Add on the forty minutes of running I do on the treadmill every other day, and that’s quite a chunk of my working week accounted for already. I still have to fit in doing the washing, cooking—not to mention eating and sleeping—as well as earning my living.
Good food is one of my hobbies. Writing is supposed to be my job, although as I scribble in my spare time, it’s a hobby too. Writing as a career has one big downside— I’m constantly searching for opportunities. Research and promotion take big bites out of my working time, too.
I’m already racking up between 12,000 and 17,000 steps each day on my pedometer. Much more legwork, and I’ll have to be resoled (I already have a spare tyre, thanks!). I decided to use a combination of the CD and the mindfulness and meditation app Headspace to double my chances of achieving my weight-loss goal.
After trying it out for a while (you can read about that here) I took the plunge and subscribed. That costs around £72 per year. It is a lot of money, but that fact acted on me as an incentive. I want to lose pounds in weight, not waste pounds in money! I’ve meditated with Headspace at least once a day for several weeks. It’s helpful that the app has varying lengths of meditation. If I can’t manage a twenty-minute session, I can squeeze in five-or-ten minutes, instead. There are also short animations and films, which are fun to watch as well as informative.
When I’m trying to plan projects for my next year at university it’s tempting to spend hours each day sitting in front of my computer. That will lead to me putting on more weight, rather than taking it off.
To give myself an added incentive. I’ve booked my hotel and train tickets ready for the York chapter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s afternoon tea in September. I’ll need to have reached my target weight before sitting down to a wonderful spread like the one we had last year (the picture shows only one of several cake-stands delivered to our table!).
The McKenna CD at night gives me a good night’s sleep. Headspace’s Mindful Eating sessions in the morning is a lovely way to ease myself into each day. You’re talked through a ten-to twenty-minute session (you choose the length) of relaxation. It has encouraged me to think about my relationship with food. That may sound snowflakey, but as it seems to be working I’m not too bothered about that.
Any spare time I have now involves either losing myself in a fantasy inspired by Paul McKenna’s improving talks where losing my excess weight sees me beat my personal best time for running a mile. If I’m not doing that, I’m planning meals so I never become desperate enough to snack on something sugary.
It’s made me think hard about whether I actually want to eat something, or whether I’m simply bored (answer: get working instead!), feel in need of a treat (get out into the garden, away from the cake tins!) or thirsty. That last reason, suggested by Headspace, surprised me. To test it, the next time I had the urge to eat I drank a cup of tea instead. It worked. From now on, there’ll be more tea, and less food. More tea can also mean more exercise. While the kettle boils, I’ve got time to fit in a few lunges and squats!
Looking back on my long and loving relationship with food reminded me of those endless, school holidays in summer. When it was too hot to work in the garden I’d take a book and hide in the shade of our big old Bramley apple tree. Its branches swung so close to the ground I could climb out of sight without much effort. I would lose myself in something like The Once and Future King or The Goshawk (both by T.H.White). Mealtimes were feasts of home-grown new potatoes, carrots, peas, beans or cabbage, with lamb chops, sausages, or bacon and egg on top. At this time of year, there were big bowls of stewed blackberry and apple with custard for pudding. It was all delicious, and we had to sit to the table until it was all finished. That was never a problem for me—but in those days I was still growing upwards, rather than outwards!
What’s your best memory of those long summer holidays?
I had two bits of good news today which I just had to share. First, The Bristol and Avon Family History Society gave my current non-fiction release, Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, a great review. Here’s a taste of it, courtesy of my publisher, Pen and Sword Books…
‘This book is meticulously researched & contains extensive reference notes, bibliography & a detailed index… An excellent contribution to the history of Bristol’s women.’ (Bristol & Avon Family History Society)
My second piece of good news is that Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol is now available as an ebook. You can download it by clicking here, or on the advert at the top left of this page. If you’d prefer the paperback edition (at the special offer price of only £10.55) you can buy that here.
Sitting around, eating too much cake and not taking any exercise wasn’t doing me any good at all. I started using music to nibble (!) away at the problem, as you can find out here.
The second reason I couldn’t lose weight was outrageous. Over the centuries and around the world, people have killed over a “problem” like mine. Eating when I wasn’t hungry was a luxury that not many people can afford. My weight wasn’t anybody else’s problem. I had nobody but myself to blame. If I wanted to shift those extra pounds, I’d have to take responsibility for doing it.
I began by eating smaller portions. This was tricky. The truth is, I hate being hungry. When I was a child, there wasn’t much money to spare. Our household operated on the army principle that you got just enough food. The idea was that you always got up from the table thinking you could eat more. Blow that for a lark, I thought when I left home. Food—both cooking it and eating it—has been one of my hobbies ever since.
Using a smaller plate restricted my intake. There simply isn’t enough room for a big meal. That didn’t help with the food I was eating after my last meal of the day, though. Sitting in front of the idiot lantern was a time for eating straight out of the bag, tube or box.
It took a personal development course offered by the University of Gloucestershire (you can find out more about that here) to persuade me to change my habits. One of the group exercises involved brainstorming our personal problems. My team gave me some great ideas for low-calorie TV snacks. For instance, an apple sliced very thinly takes a long time to eat. It has fewer than 100 calories. Contrast that with the 300 calories or so in the amount of Pringles I could shift in half that time!
It was a start. Then I remembered how shy, retiring me found the confidence to apply for a place at university in the first place. I used Instant Confidence by Paul McKenna—and it worked. You can read my review of that here. There was clearly a link between the success of that self-hypnosis system and my lack of willpower over food. That should make McKenna’s I Can Make You Thin the perfect weapon in my weight-loss campaign. Its subtitle; Love Food, Lose Weight appealed to me, too.
I sent off for it and set aside half an hour each evening to listen. My heart sank with the opening words. It was a warning not to listen to this “eyes-closed process” while driving or operating machinery. I had no complaints about that—only the ridiculous way it was delivered. It was read out by an American man who must earn his living announcing programmes such as Are aliens living among us? or Was this teenager eaten by Bigfoot? on cable TV. He bellowed it with such excitement, it made me want to switch off.
Luckily, I didn’t. Paul McKenna’s I Can Make You Thin follows the same pattern as his Confidence CD. McKenna lulls you into a state of relaxation which makes you sensitive to his suggestions for regulating your appetite, and improving your lifestyle. I’d like to tell you what those suggestions are, but McKenna has such a restful voice I can’t remember what he said. As I soon began to lose a little weight without consciously dieting, his system may well be working. It’s going to take time, though—and my weight loss could be due to replacing those starchy evening snacks with fruit.
The big advantage of I Can Make You Thin are that it takes absolutely no effort at all. You just lie there, and let Paul McKenna’s voice wash over you. It’s lovely—which is my only problem with it. Every time I’ve tried it, I’ve fallen asleep. That’s fine, but then I wake up a few hours later in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. If that happens, how can my brain take in the information? The only way to tell is to see if I keep on losing weight.
That’s right, this week it’s everyone else’s fault but mine!
I wrote here about one way I tried to lose weight. Running is brilliant at keeping my weight under control, but that’s all. Exercise alone couldn’t shift my excess poundage. To put it bluntly, I was living an eleven-stone life in a 5’4” body. That was never going to work. I needed to find some way to whittle away at the—ahem—curves I’d spent years building while I sat in in front of a computer, writing.
I had to face the fact that my increasing chubbiness was a problem manufactured (in all senses of the word) by first-world living. I’m lucky enough to be able to choose my own food from a whole range of possibilities. As I said last time, I prefer to eat homegrown, organic food which I cook from fresh—but even virtue signalling has a drawback. It’s portion control. When it comes to food, restraint isn’t my strong point.
It’s an age thing. Anyone under the age of about forty will think what I’m about to write is fiction, but I can assure you every word is true.
Until I was eleven, I lived with my maternal grandparents. Everyone of that generation lived through the Hungry Thirties, and wartime rationing. We had neither fridge, nor freezer. The food was good, but economical—roast on Sunday, the cold remains on Monday with potatoes and veg, soups from the bones on Wednesday, bacon and egg on Thursday, and fish on Friday. Portions were small. You never got pudding until you’d finished your first course, and you never left the table until you’d eaten all your pudding. Chips were a real rarity, as my grandmother had been a professional cook. She never cut corners. They were blanched in hot fat in small batches, then cooked a second time before serving. The beef dripping had to be brought back up to temperature in between each batch. It took forever!
Nobody grazed. There were set mealtimes, no snacking, and no such thing as McDonalds in the UK back then. If the local shops didn’t sell it, then we didn’t eat it. We sat to the table together, and nobody got up until everyone had finished their meal. The same rules applied at my schools, with the addition of Grace before meals. This was normal. My friends all lived similarly regulated lives.
And then, like millions of other people in the late 1970s, I went abroad for the first time—and discovered Carrefour. It was like walking into heaven. I’d never been in a supermarket before. There was only a greengrocer, butcher, baker, newsagent, grocers, and fishmonger in our village. That soon changed.
By the time I married and left home, I could load my trolley with convenience food and ingredients from all over the world, at any time of year, and at most times of the day or night. George Bernard Shaw saw marriage as the maximum of temptation combined with maximum of opportunity. That quote now applies to eating. For me, as a writer working from home, this freedom of choice has been disastrous. As we live some way from town, my kitchen cupboards are always well-stocked. I can’t afford to run out of something while I’m cooking. This means every minute of every day I’m face with maximum opportunity to over-eat.
I have tried to resist. I’ve vowed to eat only home-made cake. The thought of having to get out the tins, prepare them, make the mixture, cook it then wait for the resulting cake to cool down usually kills my craving in seconds.
Then at Christmas, someone fancied a custard slice. That’s one (among many) of my favourite cakes. My recipe, however, makes 16.
I thought I could eat one, and let my family eat the rest of my share.
I was wrong.
And then there is pizza. We all love the stuff. I make it once a week, for the whole family. Then it dawned on me that the amount of pizza dough each of us was eating in one sitting was the equivalent of a quarter of a loaf of bread! And that was before I’d added an ocean of home-made tomato sauce, half a ton of sliced vegetables and topped it all off with grated cheese. Oh, yes. Plenty of grated cheese…
One day on a whim I bought ready-made pizzas from the supermarket. They are about the same size as the ones I make, but only have a fraction of the topping. Yet according to the boxes, they contained almost 800 calories each!
Until that day, I couldn’t understand why I was doing so much exercise but not losing weight. Now I knew. A daily diet of organic oatmeal and fresh fruit, with a wholemeal sandwich or jacket potato for lunch, and pizza for tea might be healthy —but not in the quantities I was eating them.
There’s worse to come. Once the TV goes on at teatime, it’s the perfect excuse to sit down for the rest of the evening. Once I tried to cut down on what I was eating, I realised that food is in shot on TV almost all the time. If it isn’t being advertised directly, then people in adverts and programmes are meeting over coffee, making meals, or sitting in pubs.
“Did somebody say J*** E**?” Yes, but it’s usually far more subtle than that. It’s subliminal advertising to the weak-willed, like me. For instance, I’m a career tea-drinker. Show me someone with a cup, and I want one too. And as McVitie’s used to say about their digestive biscuits, “A drink’s too wet without one.”
I used to make biscuits, but they were too much of a temptation. I switched to muesli. It’s far healthier…but dried fruit and nuts are loaded with calories.
Luckily, the weather over the past few weeks has been too good to waste in front of the TV. This has meant I’ve been doing lots of gardening. I’ve slipped in an extra dog-walking session each day, too. My step-count target has gone up from 10k per day to 12k, and I usually beat it by a long way. Portion control has been even more useful. I’ve cut down on the amount of pizza topping I apply, and keep in mind that huge evening calorie-load when I’m deciding what to eat earlier in the day. Thanks to my team on the Sprint sessions, when I do get the urge to snack I cut an apple into the thinnest slices I can. This gives a satisfying crunch, while taking ages to eat. Add a teaspoonful of peanut butter, and it keeps me busy until bedtime.
The good news is, reducing the amount of time I spend in front of the TV (and snacking), together with portion control has shaved two pounds off my weight in the past week.
Unfortunately, I know my body. It will soon get used to those tactics. My weight loss will stop, and may even go into reverse. There’s only so much time in the day I can devote to exercise, after all. If I try to cut down my portion sizes too much, then a sneaky inner voice will say ; “You didn’t have much for lunch. You can afford to put a bit more on your dinner plate…”
I have a tactic to beat backsliding. It is hypnotism. Paul McKenna’s Instant Confidence worked a treat for me, as I wrote here. Could his I Can Make You Thin live up to its title? I’ll let you know how I get on!
One of the many reasons I became a writer was because it involves a lot of sitting around. To a chubby child who was always last to be picked for sports teams at school, it sounded like the perfect career. It has turned out to be my dream job, but the biggest advantage I saw in writing as a child is actually one big drawback.
Once I left school and began life behind a different sort of desk, I started piling on the weight. “If I eat a 200g bar of chocolate, I put on a kilo of weight. Anything that goes into my mouth heads straight for my hips, and stays there. It must be genetic, Doctor!” I wailed.
“Rubbish!” he snapped back, for this was in the days before fat-shaming was A Thing, “I know your family. Keep them away from cake and they’re built like whippets. And don’t bother saying you’ve got a slow metabolism. The bigger you are, the faster it has to work.”
I was given all sorts of tests. The only thing wrong with me was a marginally under-active thyroid gland. I was prescribed tablets. I started taking them, and sat back expecting the weight to fall off. It didn’t. The clue, although I didn’t spot it at the time, was in those two slender words, “sat back”.
I didn’t think my weight problem could be my fault. A lot of people expand because of poor nutrition, but I knew that couldn’t be the case for me. I’ve always grown as much of my family’s food as possible, and to make sure we all get our “five-a-day”. I cook meals from fresh ingredients almost all the time, conveniently forgetting that organic doesn’t mean “non-fattening”. I love food almost as much as I love writing, and that’s the problem. If I’m idle, tired, bored or unhappy, I eat. Like the workhouse boys in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! I love that full-up feeling.
The only way to enjoy that, and not become spherical is to use more calories than I take in. I bought a cheap pedometer, and started walking 10,000 steps per day. That was easy when the children were at our local village primary school. I was walking a minimum of two miles per day each working week during term time (and avoiding all the school-gate squabbles over car parking).
Then I was struck down with a bad reaction to an insect bite. I went from walking miles each day to barely being able to hobble as far as the garden gate.
My husband bought me a treadmill to help my recovery. Slowly, I built back up to being able to reach my target of 10k per day again. Then DD borrowed Running Made Easy by Susie Whalley and Lisa Jackson from the library. After reading only a few pages over her shoulder, I sent off for my own copy. I’d never run before without a ferocious PE teacher snapping at my heels, but I wanted that book. It had charts to fill in and boxes to tick, and I can never resist a progress chart!
I worked through the book, then discovered the NHS’s Couch to 5K programme. Working on my treadmill because I was afraid of falling on the uneven forest tracks, I went right through the programme. I now exercise for half an hour, every other day. My sessions are made up of five minutes walking, twenty minutes running at a speed that leaves me just about able to hold a conversation—as long as it’s simple!—then a five-minute cool down walk.
If I’m honest I find running both a chore and a bore, although the high I get when I finish a run is fantastic. The trouble is, I have to do it all over again, forty-seven and a half hours later. I run as soon as I wake up, before I can think of an excuse not to do it. I can’t write while I run, so that’s annoying. I find even thinking about work difficult while I’m running. Having the radio on full blast so I can hear it over the sound of the extractor fan and my pounding feet is not an option at 5.30am. I had to wait until I got an i-phone before I discovered a way of bringing some fun to running. I made a playlist specially for my sessions on the treadmill. It definitely speeds things up.
Here it is…
Lawrence of Arabia(Main Theme) by Maurice Jarre —This is loud, evocative, and perfect for my warm-up as the march section is just over 5kph—my walking speed!
The Trap (Main Theme) by Ron Goodwin—For as Dr Sheldon Cooper said, “What is life without whimsey?”
Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash—When I saw Walking the Line, my joints were so painful I could only sit and watch other people moving, and that definitely tortured me!
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Main Theme) by John Williams—this was playing on the radio one day when Number One Son walked in and saw me flagging during my run. “Just pretend you’re being chased by a big boulder, Mum,'” he said.
Spitfire Prelude and Fugue by William Walton—I used to work for Rolls-Royce Aero, in Filton. The staff there had seen it all, and done most of it, too, but at the distinctive sound of a display Spitfire coming in for a service they’d all drop everything, and rush to the windows to watch it.
The Great Escape (Main Theme) by Elmer Bernstein. When I first put my playlist together, this was the final track. The title says it all! Unfortunately, this collection turned out to be a couple of minutes too short when I tried it out. I needed one more track. The Magnificent Seven was too long, but
The Dambusters March by The Central Band of the RAF is exactly the right length to complete my sessions. The speed matches the last part of my run and cool-down, then during the last moments I walk down the drive to our front gates and do my stretches. Perfect!
While I haven’t actually lost any weight through running, as long as I keep doing it regularly it stops me putting any more on. Which is progress, of a sort.
Next time: The Second Reason Why I Couldn’t Lose Weight…
After diagnosing us all with raging Imposter Syndrome and then trying out the cure, I’m returning to another subject covered on Sprint, the women students’ empowerment course provided in June by the University of Gloucestershire—stress busting. Making time for yourself is important whatever your age or gender .
Hobbies, especially sport, are a great way to either relax or burn off tension. But what if you need something more reflective? What if you can’t, or don’t want to, go out and about in search of “Me-Time”?
Scroll back through my blogs and you’ll see we live in the middle of an ancient Gloucestershire wood. Sometimes it feels like we’re in one of those old black-and-white Western films. Tottering Towers is our Conestoga Wagon, circled not by furious landowners but by noisy boar and deer! It can be pretty stressful when the deer eat my plants and the piggies plough the footpaths. Days here are peaceful compared with the city. That doesn’t mean they are any less stressful.
Power cuts and the broadband going into trickle mode cranks up the tension. I’m studying for my Masters, my husband works from home several days each week, and our children are still living with us here. We all get on really well, but this is not a large house.
OH’s work also includes frequent conference calls. I prefer to work in silence, beyond birdsong and the occasional Noisli track. And there’s the problem. Much as I love my husband, his deep, booming voice can be heard for some distance through the house.
Several women I met on the Sprint course suggested meditation could help my stress levels. They introduced me to the Headspace app. I was sceptical about something which sounded so intangible, but this app appealed to me from the start. On their webpage Headspace makes a thing about being …committed to advancing the field of mindfulness meditation through clinically-validated research on our product. That sounded good to me.
I got my first smartphone only a few days before starting the Sprint course. I loaded the app straight away and started using it. I found it attractive, and easy to use. There’s a free introductory course of meditation sessions which takes you through the basics. You can also sample short sessions of between one and three minutes to give you a flavour of the many things with which meditation can help, from anger management to attitudes to food (I’m working through that one myself at the moment).
You can use a certain amount of Headspace content for free but to get the most benefit from it you can subscribe. You can pay either by the month, or annually. Like many subscriptions it will renew automatically until you stop it. If you subscribe to Headspace, take care to make a diary note a week or so before your renewal date. Then you’ll have time to decide if you want to cancel it, before you’re charged.
I love Headspace. There are meditations in differing lengths to help with all sorts of situations. It teaches useful skills in a restful delivery style, with meditation sessions of varying lengths to suit the time you have available. There are mini videos, animations with cute graphics, and lots more.
I enjoyed the free introductory course and some taster sessions so much, I signed up for a paid subscription. This gives you access to tons more content: courses for anger management, sleep problems, stress, and ways to become more comfortable inside your own skin. These are all delivered in handy, bite-sized sessions.
The best thing of all is that the Mindful Eating course seems to be making a difference to me, although I’ve only been doing it for a couple of weeks.
I’d love to say I’ve gone right off cake and crisps, but that isn’t how meditation works. It guides you towards eating more mindfully. You are persuaded to consider how and why you’re eating. This can help to stop you not noticing that you’ve been continuously picking at food while watching the television (one of my worst sins).
Headspace explains that it’s important to set aside time to eat without any distractions from phones or screens.
Pausing for a few seconds before starting to eat, considering each mouthful in silence, and pausing for a few seconds at the end of the meal makes a real difference to the enjoyment I get from meals.
It felt weird for the first few days—like being back at school dinners. We always said Grace at my secondary school, and there was a strict “no talking” rule at mealtimes. We sat at tables of eight, and nobody was allowed to get up before everyone on their table had finished eating and all the plates and cutlery were stacked. I’d like to see teachers try that these days!
I wrote here about a course provided by the University of Gloucestershire to boost the self-esteem of women post-graduates. Every one of us who attended the course learned we suffered from so-called Imposter Syndrome to a greater or lesser degree.
Imposter Syndrome is where you live in fear of being discovered as a fraud. For example, you believe you can only have been given your job or promotion through luck, because your face happened to fit, or the boss felt generous that day. It surprised us all to find out how common this feeling is. That’s because to sufferers, it’s a guilty secret. If nobody ever lets on to experiencing this, how will any of us discover that we aren’t alone in the way we feel?
There was a resource table available during the course. It was full of articles and books about successful women, their career tips and research. There was also plenty of information about improving self-confidence and getting that dream job. The Imposter Cure by Dr Jessamy Hibberd was on the table, and it proved a popular choice.
I can never resist a self-help book. My favourite is The Success Principles by Jack Canfield. It’s the book that persuaded me to start writing again, when I had run out of inspiration and was feeling really fed up. The Success Principles put me back on the road to, well, success!
After flicking through The Imposter Cure , I ordered it straight away. The book didn’t disappoint me. Dr Hibberd is a fellow stationery fan. Anything that includes the instruction buy yourself a notebook to use alongside this book sounds good to me. That sentence on its own promised three enjoyable experiences. I had the fun of selecting a new notebook, using it, and then checking my progress against my notes afterwards.
This book is in three sections: Understanding Imposter Syndrome, Why You Are Not An Imposter, and How To Say Goodbye To The Imposter For Good! Part One reassures the reader they are not alone, and explains how and why Imposter Syndrome takes hold. Your definition of competence has an impact on what you expect of yourself, says Dr Hibberd.
She then goes on to outline the five accepted patterns of perfection which torture us all. These are; The Perfectionist, The Natural Genius, The Soloist, The Expert, and the Superwoman/man. Most people have problems under combinations of more than one of those headings. It was fascinating trying to decide which nagging perfectionist had its claws in me. Actually, I have one perched on each shoulder! I’m a combination of Soloist (unless I’ve achieved something completely on my own, it doesn’t “count”) and Superwoman (multi-tasking to exhaustion because I can’t bear to delegate).
This is a chatty, informative book. The text was easy to read, and included plenty of real-life case studies, flow charts, bullet points and chapter summaries. I found it useful, and learned strategies to disarm the symptoms of my own Imposter Syndrome.
The most important thing is to remember that everyone feels insecure and uncertain at times. Study your own reasons for thinking you’re an imposter, one by one. Dr Hibberd has a cure for them all. For example it wasn’t “only luck” that got you that dream job. Luck might have played a small part, but think: you did the work to get the relevant qualifications and experience, sent in the application form, and turned up for the interview. Hundreds of others never got that far. You then went on to be the best candidate on the day. That’s not simply luck. It’s a winning combination of determination, forward planning, ability and charm.
Earlier on I said this book opened with a suggestion which gave me three enjoyable experiences. There was another one waiting for me at the end. I had the satisfaction of discovering thatThe Imposter Curereally did help me stop being so self-critical. I would recommend this book to anyone who has ever felt insecure. And remember, as Dr Hibberd states on Page 253:
There’s a reason you haven’t been found out so far: there is nothing to find out.
Have you ever found a self-help book that worked for you?
I spent some time last month in the company of a group of dynamic and forward-thinking women. It was a fascinating, uplifting experience—but it proved to me that nearly all of us is hiding a toxic secret.
Although we delegates were drawn from different walks of life and stages in our careers, we had lots of different things in common. Some of us found it hard to accept compliments. Only one of us could manage to say no to taking on too much work. Most of us said we would go out of our way to avoid conflict, and confessed to wasting too much time on our phones.
Over four days, post-graduate women on a personal development course offered by the University of Gloucestershire were shown techniques for coping with life and the workplace.
There was one thing that every single person in the room—guest speakers included— admitted to suffering at least once in their lives. It’s called Imposter Syndrome.
People with Imposter Syndrome can’t accept that they’ve succeeded on their own merits. They’re convinced it must all be down to luck, or that they are frauds. Convinced they’ll be exposed sooner or later, people with Imposter Syndrome can’t enjoy their achievements. They are always worried someone is going to “find them out”.
Life shouldn’t be like that. Once you realise almost everyone feels the same way you do, it’s a great relief. A little bit of shock and awe when you achieve something is natural. Just make sure you learn to accept that some things in life are down to your talent and hard work, rather than luck.
You were the best candidate who was called for that interview. Somebody spotted something special in your application form. Then on the day you proved you were the best person for the job!
Your book was accepted by a publisher, not because they were feeling sorry for you but because they thought people would love to read it. Everyone in business wants to make a return on their investment. You must have earned that contract!
You can shake off Imposter Syndrome, but it takes work. Try listing five of your achievements. Here are my five: I learned to swim, I learned to ride a bike and drive a car, I’ve sold nearly three million books, and I was accepted onto a post-graduate course last year despite leaving school at 16 (a long time ago), without so much as an A-level.
Not everybody wants to be a writer, or go to university as a mature student, but most people learn to swim, ride and drive. Those are all great and useful achievements. The important thing about them (and many others) is that no-one can do them for you. There may be a dash of luck involved on the day, but 99% of your success in those skills will have been down to your hard work.
Fight back against Imposter Syndrome right now. Post a comment on here about something you’ve done that has made you feel really proud of yourself!
This has been quite a year for me. I was not looking forward to my son’s last university open-day of the season on June 29th 2018. I was due to spend the day as his taxi service, sitting around for hours while he tried out sample lectures at the University of Gloucestershire.
Twenty-four hours later I was studying the university’s prospectus myself, and wondering if they’d accept me as an undergraduate on the basis of my handful of mismatched O-levels, and a portfolio of written work. Twelve months later, and I’m looking into topics for my Phd.
Things happened so fast after I discovered UoG accepted mature students that I’ve hardly had time to catch my breath. I’m lucky that my hobby of writing is also my full-time job. The idea of doing a degree in Creative and Critical Writing as part of my continuing personal development really appealed to me.
The first piece of good news was that the usual minimum requirement of a degree at 2:1 level or above was waived for mature students. Then I found myself fast-tracked. I had an interview, where it was explained that my publishing history suggested I’d be better off going straight onto the Masters course, rather than doing a first degree. The list of modules looked so interesting I agreed straight away.
It was only on my way home from the interview that I started to worry. I hated the idea of being the oldest student in the place (it turned out I wasn’t—not by about three decades!).
I hadn’t driven in a city rush-hour since I became self-employed, back in the nineteen-nineties. Going back to that would be scary (I got used to it).
The university car park is small. It’s always a case of squeeze in where you can, and I wasn’t a confident parker (Last week, I had to take my son for one of his regular check-ups at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. The car park was packed and we were heading a procession of cars looking for a space. Suddenly I spotted one, flung the car into reverse and squeezed in with inches to spare. Son No. 1 was impressed. “It’s something else I learned at University!” I told him).
One of my regular lectures didn’t finish until 9:15pm. An hour’s drive home through wintry, pitch-black country lanes really didn’t appeal to me (I got used to that, too).
Somehow, I managed to enjoy my first year of lectures, workshops and assignments at university—and a whole lot more. That surprised me. Part of the reason I became a writer was because I like my own company. Going from an almost silent working life behind a keyboard to the full-on excitement of a campus was nerve-racking. The first time I spoke up in a lecture was scary, but as I had to attend two workshop sessions every week, it soon became second nature.
The more I did, the more I wanted to do. I’ve been interviewed about my job in front of a class of undergraduates, talked to a class of forty first-year students, taken a women’s empowerment course and completed a business start-up weekend. All that gave me the confidence to sign up for extra curricular activities, too. I haven’t been a party person since I got married, but I’ve been to two social events in this past month!
I’ve got an amazing amount out of signing up as a mature student. I’d recommend it to anybody. It’s given me a whole new lease of life. Why don’t you investigate what’s available in your area? If there’s nothing on offer, try the University of the Third Age, or even the Open University. Blended learning, which is the term given to a mix of online activities, face-to-face lectures and tutorials make learning much more fun than it was when I was a teenager.
I’ve enjoyed all the things I’ve tried, especially the business start-up weekend. That was particularly useful. It’s made me wonder about setting up my own small business. That’s going to take a lot of thought and organisation, so follow this blog and sign up for my newsletter here to find out what happens!
Each year students on the MA course at the University of Gloucestershire create an anthology of the university’s best new writing. The search for new stars has just been launched! The only restriction on authors is that they should be either present or past students of the University of Gloucestershire. Here’s the call for submissions—please pass the word on to any qualifying writers you may know…
Heritage. What does it mean to you? Family, identity, history… or something more?
The 2019 UOG Creative Writing Anthology – Heritage: New Writing VIII – is inviting submissions from Monday 4th February to Friday 8th March 2019. Prose, poetry and creative non-fiction pieces on the theme of ‘Heritage’ will be considered from all students and alumni of the University of Gloucestershire.