brown wooden desk
Blog, short stories

An Easter Surprise…

I had a lovely surprise this week. My short story The Real Maisey Day appears in The People’s Friend Easter Special (Edition No. 224).

Out Now!

I love writing for The People’s Friend as it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It was delivered to our house every week when I was little, and most of the recipes and a lot of the knitting patterns were tried out.

More recently, the magazine has been a welcome distraction on trips to hospital with my son. He’s been visiting consultants for multiple health concerns since he was eight years old. As he’s now taller than me (!), you’ll realise it’s been a long road.

While my son would get a comic from the hospital shop, I’d pick up a Friend. The tone of the magazine is optimistic and the stories, whether contemporary or historical, are always thoroughly enjoyable.

I like to think that reading my stories gives people an escape from their worries for a few minutes. It was what I needed during all those hospital visits, so it’s great to be able to give something back.

The Real Maisey Day is a story about friendship, and the very different truth that can lurk behind a public image. I’ve always been a sucker for self-help manuals, and I’ve tried many improving techniques over the years. They’ve all helped me to some extent. My favourite self-help guru is Jack Canfield. He looks so serene, and has a motivating quip for every situation.

My thanks to Mandy Dixon for this great illustration

I thought it would be fun to invent a self-help genius who is anything but perfect—someone who can inspire others, but behind the scenes is as lacking in confidence as everyone she helps to succeed.

Several kind people have contacted me to say they enjoyed The Real Maisey Day, and would like to read more stories about what happened next to the central characters.

I’d love to know what you think might happen to Emma, Daisy, Maisey Day, and of course Pablo, next!

Blog, Book Review

Review: “A Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England” by Dr Ian Mortimer

It’s Spring—yay! That means it’s time to start Spring Cleaning—boo!

I love to see Tottering Towers clean and shining, but I hate housework. It’s such a bore to be stuck inside when so much is going on outside. One way to make this solitary confinement with hard labour easier to bear is by listening to audio books.

“Words are often as important as experience, because words make experience last.”
William Morris

Listening while I work means my hands can be busy with what William Morris called mindless toil, while my brain relaxes with some fiction. Alternatively, my mind can be occupied with what the Wizard of Walthamstow would have called useful work—research.

This week, I’ve been listening to Dr Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. It’s a real eye-opener. Did you know that in 1557, there was an influenza pandemic which hit the world far harder than Covid has? We’ve all heard of Plague and the Black Death, but that strain of sixteenth-century flu was a real horror too. It is said to have killed 7% of the English population. Compare that to the quarter of one percent death rate in England so far in the Covid pandemic.

Of course, there have been 465 years of improvements in nutrition, living conditions, healthcare, and information technology since then. The even better news is that the Elizabethan flu pandemic, terrible though it was, burned itself out in under two years.

There’s lots of valuable information about life during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and interesting insights into the lives of beggars, aristocrats, and every level of society in between. One of these, the story of Thomas Appletree, shows the limitation of audiobooks. Their data isn’t stored in a searchable form. To make sure I’d got the details right in the story which follows, I had to resort to good old Google, as it was only in retrospect that I thought to include Tom’s story in this review. To paraphrase Omar Khayyam; the spoken word is heard, and having been heard vanishes forever. I didn’t want to rely on my memory alone.

One summer day in 1579, Thomas Appletree was fooling around in a boat on the Thames with some friends. He had a gun, and was showing off by firing it at random. It just so happened that Elizabeth I’s glass-sided barge was passing by. A stray shot from Tom’s gun hit its captain. Tom was caught, tried, found guilty of attempting to assassinate the Queen, and sentenced to hang. He pleaded his innocence all the way through, claiming that it was a complete accident, and he had no idea the Queen was near.

Right up until the second the noose was put around Tom’s neck, nobody would listen—but then a gentleman calmly stepped out of the crowd to hand over a Royal pardon. It turns out that Elizabeth knew all along Tom was no assassin, but thought he needed to be taught a lesson. Talk about a last-minute reprieve!

Image by jo-B

That is only one of a huge number of stories contained in this book. Every chapter is packed with fascinating facts. The music of Tallis and Byrd is so popular now that it’s hard to believe they apparently lost money hand over fist when they first started publishing it. However, this makes more sense when you learn that each piece of sixteenth-century sheet music only contained one part: for a single voice, a viol, or whatever. That meant no musician or singer knew what any other performer would be doing during a performance, so it’s a wonder anyone could a) afford to buy enough copies, or b) manage to organise a performance of something like Tallis’s Spem in Alium, which is written for forty voices.

I particularly liked the illustrations of Elizabethan low-life, with its colourful terms. I couldn’t help wondering whether anyone would really say; “Watch out! That woman’s a demander of glimmer!” rather than “Watch out! She’s a con artist!” (or worse). A second term highlighted another disadvantage of audio books. Despite rewinding and listening twice, I still couldn’t tell whether a horse thief would be called “a prigger of prancers” or “a pricker of prancers”. That’s a criticism of my ears rather than the narrator, actor Mike Grady, by the way.

If you only know Mr Grady’s work from Citizen Smith or Last of the Summer Wine, you’re in for a treat. From direct readings of primary sources to author Dr Mortimer’s own witty asides, he brings everything to life. His narration ranges from sombre to playful, as required.

Image by FotografieLink on Pixabay

Going back to that colourful term for a horse thief, they always say “write the book you want to read, but can’t find”. Listening to this book made me wonder if poor William Shakespeare was driven to write drama because the curriculum at Stratford Grammar was sadly lacking in excitement. I bet Cicero never threatened to “tickle the catastrophe” of any “cream-faced loon”!

I recommend this book as a fascinating read (or listen), and an absorbing introduction to this period in our history. I’ll definitely check out more of Dr Mortimer’s work.

If I go on to use any of this information in my work, I’ll need to get a real, “dead-tree” version of The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England in order to go back to the sources quoted.

Queen Elizabeth I— Pic by WikiImages

That touches on something which applies to all non-fiction books, whether audio or actual. If you are researching a subject, always cross check every fact with other reference works. Use the sources cited, where possible (and practical) track right back to primary sources, and look for work on the same subject by other authors.

No matter how learned and talented a researcher might be, each one brings their own prejudices to a subject. When you’re writing non-fiction, it’s vital to watch out for any unconscious bias.

If you only write fiction, you might think absolute historical accuracy isn’t important. Not so! There’s always at least one reader who knows exactly how much your hero should tip an ostler in 1589, for example. You don’t want anybody in your audience to think your drop-dead gorgeous aristocrat is either mean as dirt, or a reckless spendthrift, so look up the going rate—and double-check.

Reading (or listening) widely will give you the best chance of creating a story world based on a foundation of generally accepted truths, rather than a one-sided imaginary version which might disappoint or annoy your readers.

Spending time with books is always enjoyable, anyway!

black twist pen on notebook
Blog, books, Spring

The Story So Far…

Signs of spring are everywhere

We’re now nearly a week into March. The days are getting longer, and signs of spring are everywhere. I’m taking a week off from writing to do some spring cleaning, as we’ve had the builders in at Tottering Towers. Paul and his team have worked wonders, so I’ve got no excuse. Everything has to be sparkling clean before it goes back into our newly-refurbished space.

The trouble is, housework is a never-ending task. I love to see everything clean and tidy, but in an old house with an active family and pets, it never stays that way for long. It’s very dispiriting.

I wrote here about how I’m following Antony Johnston’s methods for creating an organised workspace, and developing efficient working methods. It’s going quite well. Since the 3rd of January I’ve submitted five new pieces of work. I’ve also managed to keep my accounts up to date, and maintain my journal.

I’ve also managed to enjoy some books, although most of that has been done through Audible. Audio books are my secret weapon when it comes to getting the housework done. I put on a book, and lose myself in that. The time flies by!

Right now, during the day I’m absorbing Dr Ian Mortimer’s A Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. It’s absolutely fascinating. Did you know that until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the hour as a measure of time didn’t exist in the form we know it today? During the winter time, hours (as measured out by the chimes of church bells) were twice the length of hours in summertime, as there was calculated to be only half as much light.

In the evenings I’m reading a “real” book: Raymond Blanc’s The Lost Orchard. This is Raymond’s personal exploration of fruit, and his experience of growing and using many different varieties. Much as I love listening to stories during the day, there’s nothing like reading a few pages of this in bed at night before settling down to dream of tarte Maman Blanc, or apple pie…

What would we do without books?

mother and daughter reading book with interest in bed
Blog, books

A Word in Your Ear…

I love reading, but I don’t get much time to sit down and lose myself in a book. If I’m not writing, I’m either working in the garden or cooking. Then there’s the pesky housework, running errands, and appointments, which eat into my reading time. For all those moments, I turn to my mobile.

I use my phone continuously when I’m not working, although I make no more than a dozen calls a year. The rest of the time I’m using my mobile to listen to documentaries, drama, or audio books.

My smartphone might be the latest technology, but it is part of an ancient tradition. This twenty-first century device answers a demand that echoes across millenia.

Tell me a story!

We still have to watch out for them here! (Pic via Pixabay).

For centuries we’ve enjoyed the feel, the fragrance, and the experience of reading books. Those are only recent pleasures in the history of storytelling. Thousands of years ago, communication between our distant ancestors would have been limited to “That’s mine!”, “Go away!” or “Look out—wild boar!”.

The genius who first thought to turn news of a grisly border dispute into an adventure story, or created a saga out of the search for new hunting grounds kept audiences spellbound around the campfire.

When these stories began to be written down, the tradition of oral storytelling faded into the background but never disappeared completely. The intimacy between speaker and audience is entirely different from the solitary pleasure of reading. In a family like mine, where one or more members have literacy problems, listening to stories is also an enjoyable way to learn.

…so after the Nazis tortured me and threw me over a cliff…(Pic via Pixabay)

When I was growing up, we lived with my grandparents. Both my grandfather and father were bookworms. There was neither money nor space for books in our house. Instead, we had the Daily Express and the Bristol Evening Post delivered daily, and both Dad and Grampy were active members of the local library. The Reader’s Digest arrived every month, until—as the old joke went—we were forced to move house to give them the slip.

My grandfather had been a career soldier. That meant he knew how to pick his battles. My grandmother was very house-proud, so to avoid getting underfoot while our home was being cleaned from top to bottom every day, Grampy would retreat into my playpen and read to me.

I assume he began with all the children’s classics. By the time of my earliest memories he had moved on to much more exotic fare. Two stories I remember from well before I started school were James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. After hearing how noisy toddlers were dealt with on the Native American trail, and how sardine-loving Asmodeus ended up being the “cat” in “catapult”, it’s no wonder I was a quiet child.

On my first day at primary school I was excited to hear there would be storytime every afternoon. The worthy exploits of Ant and Bee came as a terrible anticlimax!

I did enjoy some stories aimed at children. Dad read daily instalments of The Adventures of Rupert Bear to me from the newspaper at bedtime every night. Each Christmas my presents included the annuals of both Rupert, and Carl Giles’s cartoons. The GIles book must have been my father’s gift to himself for having to read all those hours and hours of Rupert to me during the rest of the year.

“Daddy! You’ve turned over two pages! And don’t forget to read the lines under the pictures as well, not just the story!”

It’s a wonder I survived.

My mother was a ferocious businesswoman who could calculate any sum, percentage, or yield in her head with amazing speed. In contrast, her reading skills were poor. In order to spot local opportunities she relied on my father reading to her from the newspaper. Once, someone she was keen to impress lent her a copy of Elephant Bill by Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Williams. It was the only time I ever saw her with a book in her hands. She struggled with it for a few minutes, then told me to read the book and tell her the story. An audio version would have been perfect in that situation. By the way, if you can get your hands on a copy of Elephant Bill , it’s a great read.

I wrote here abou beginning Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser. I’ve finished listening to the twenty-hour long audiobook now, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. If only my teachers at school had combined the talents of Fraser and the Audible version’s narrator Eleanor Bron, I would have managed better than a grade “D” in history!

I found only slight disadvantages to the audiobook version. Some of the phrases in French weren’t provided with a translation. That was annoying, as it pulled me out of the story. Had I been reading a physical book, I could have tapped the words straight into Google translate. With the audio version, no sooner had they been spoken than they disappeared into the air.

That was only a small irritation, as was Antonia Fraser’s constant overuse of the word nevertheless. If I had been reading a physical book I probably wouldn’t have noticed. However, Eleanor Bron must have tired of reading the word early on. She often gave a slight but significant pause before saying it yet again (three times in as many sentences, in one particularly annoying example).

The spoken word has a strength which can’t be contained within the covers of a book. Hearing a text get the human treatment can help with understanding. Listening allows people to enjoy the experience of reading when it isn’t possible to hold a book, or see the text. On the other hand, there’s a particular pleasure in opening the cover of a book and turning pages, inhaling its individual perfume, and enjoying the words at your own pace. Audiobooks will never replace that.

Which do you prefer—a book in your hand, or a word in your ear?

graphing paper with text
Blog, Writing

Resolutions—Broken, or Kept?

We’re now seven weeks into 2022, so the New Year isn’t so new any more. I don’t know about you, but my resolutions are already pretty dog-eared. “I will stop snacking between tea and bed” was the first one to go, closely followed by Tech Sabbath.

sweet macaroons and pink carnations placed on table
Photo by Valeria Boltneva on Pexels.com

My willpower is non-existent when it comes to dipping into the biscuit tin before bedtime. The obvious answer is not to make or buy cake and biscuits. The problem is, I keep telling myself it’s not fair to deprive the rest of the family when I’m the only one with no willpower.

I have a great set of dog-walking waterproofs which fitted perfectly before lockdown, but I can now barely fasten them up. That is a powerful incentive to sit on my hands each evening, but will it be enough? I’ve decided to definitely give up snacking for Lent so pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (1st March) will be my last foodie treat until Easter. I hope…

For better or worse I get my news from the BBC World Service, or Radio Four. I don’t need to trawl the internet. But then, there’s always some cute cat video, or “celebrity” gossip popping up online that the BBC is far too sensible to cover. That’s why a Tech Sabbath (switching off my computer at 5pm one day per week and not switching it back on again for twenty-four hours) is very hard for me to achieve. I really need to know about all the local houses for sale, even if I’ve got no intention of ever leaving Tottering Towers!

One resolution I have managed to keep is to write every day. My target is a thousand words, and so far I’ve managed to complete several short stories already this year. I’ve also tried writing Flash Fiction for the first time. I’ve been helped to achieve all this by the methods set out in The Organised Writer by Antony Johnston. You can find out more about that book here.

If you’ve signed up for the Romantic Novelists’ Association‘s New Writers’ Scheme this year, you’ll know the deadline is 31st July. It makes life a lot easier for Janet Gover, the scheme’s co-ordinator, if you don’t leave it to the last minute to submit your manuscript.

open white notebook near pencil and eyeglasses beside laptop computer on white surface
Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels.com

As a Reader for the New Writers’ Scheme, I’m keen that everyone’s entries are submitted in plenty of time. It’s lovely to read new stories and discover fresh voices, so please try and have your work ready for submission long before the end of July. You’ll need to spend plenty of time editing to make sure your work is as good as it can be, so the polishing process should start in early summer.

The minimum word count needed for the New Writers’ Scheme is 10,000 words. That may seem a lot, but if you were to start with a blank page this morning and write only a hundred words per day for the next fifteen weeks, you’d have a first draft of at least 10,500 words by 4th June. Then you could spend a whole month editing your work, and STILL make Janet smile by getting your entry in well before the closing date!

Francis Close Hall,
University of Gloucestershire

When I started university as a very mature student (you can read about that here) my daughter gave me an invaluable tip about deadlines: make a diary note well in advance. Try and get everything done by that date. Then you’ll never get caught out. If your work is finished early, great. If you hit a snag, you’ll still have plenty of time to put it right.

If you want some motivation, I’ve got some advice for kick-starting your next writing project here.