clear light bulb placed on chalkboard
Blog, fiction

What Keeps You Awake at Night?

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%)
  • Unemployment (37%)
  • Poverty and Social inequality (31%)
  • Financial/political corruption (29%)
  • Crime and violence (24%)
Murder Most Foul…

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.

Fiction Provides a Form of Escape…

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?

Blog, Writing

Spring Has Sprung…

…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.

If these flowers poking through the fencing turn into cherries, deer as well as birds will be having a feast! Photo: ©Christina Hollis

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!

Boar damage
This is what two wild boar managed in one night, a couple of years ago. Photo: ©Christina Hollis
Bluebells dug up by boar
Wild boar regularly trash the wild bluebells like this. Photo:©Christina Hollis

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!

scenic view of night sky
Blog, Writing

A Few of Our Favourite Things…

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:

From the Royal British Legion Website at http://bit.ly/rblmemorial
  • Pub
  • 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…
  • Birdsong
  • Dark skies with no light pollution, perfect for romance under the stars
The view from my kitchen window. The ultimate in peace and quiet! ©Christina Hollis, 2019

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.

Blog, Writing

A Cosy Country Living

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…

Those were the days, my fiend—sorry, friend!

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…

Pic by Adam Trevor Designs, via Pixabay

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…

Photo by Mark Hulland, via Pixabay

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?

The sheep which originally gave this area its wealth are so big, they are known as Cotswold Lions! Pic via Pixabay.
Blog, gardening

If You Knew Yuzu…

…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.

My yuzu, fruiting in November 2019

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.

The same plant, this week. Look closely, and you can see the flower buds.

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?