person in white long sleeve shirt using macbook pro
Blog, Writing process

Internet Chaos

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.

purple leaf
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

My first published book

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!

Blog, gardening

Of Mice and Melon Seeds…

Tewkesbury Abbey by Robert Arden, via Pixabay

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.

Morello Cherry Blossom ©Christina Hollis 2021

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.

Mind your step! Lettuce seedlings, parsley and basil displayed on a ladder ©Christina Hollis, 2021

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!

Would you prefer the crowded city to these wild woods? ©Christina Hollis, 2021

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.

Window boxes can fit on a sill or stand on top of a wall, but make sure they are secure and can’t fall. @Christina Hollis 2021

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!

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.