Tag Archives: writing

Real Life is underrated. Using mundane events to fuel your writing mojo.

I’m not here this week, I am going to post to my blog and give a talk at the same time.  Sadly this is through the wonders of modern technology and not because I have a clone but there we go, you can’t win ’em all. So without more ado, here’s a piece outlining my theories about pimping your world to add realism to your writing. At the risk of sounding a bit waffly …

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Pimp your world!

Real life can feel like an unwelcome and endlessly demanding interruption to your writing happiness.

However, it doesn’t have to be like this. The mundanity of your reality depends on how you see it. Even if you write science fiction or something that is very much not real life, observing what is going on around you can bring you huge dividends if you can put the right spin on it for yourself.

This is an owl; in flight, even though it looks like some kind of ball. Yes. Real life can often be quite weird enough – without the help of a writer.

How does this work?

Embrace the mundanity, be interested in everything, because it’s the sense of natural curiosity that will give you answers to the odd but boring questions of life. And knowing those boring answers will give your writing texture and make it real. Sure, nobody wants to know what that broken bent thing at the back of the drawer is but as a writer, you do because you never know when you’re going to discover a use for it in your books.

Exercise your writing muscles when you’re not writing.

No I don’t mean your hands! I mean this; if you have to do some mundane chore when you’d rather be writing why no approach it a different way? For example, if you have to go shopping, maybe try to see the dreary trek to Tesco’s as if you are making it for the first time, narrate your progress in your head, as if you’re writing a book.

You can make your approach to this exercise range from lateral to literal, for example, your first thought might be, ‘Why am I pretending it’s the first time I’ve ever been to Tesco if I’ve lived here all my life?’

From there you could go on to ask why the character in your head is only visiting now if they’ve lived here forever. Why, how and where have they been shopping in the years leading up to today? What does the sudden need to visit Tesco’s signify? What changed that put them there?

Alternatively, you can take a different approach and narrate your progress without really thinking of the whys and wherefores but simply as if it’s a scene in a novel. Think about whether the ‘you’ in your narrative is sad, happy, bored or something else. If they are, why might be the cause? How could you show it?

For example, if they see a thistle growing between the cracks in the pavement would their mood effect it. EG flowers, spring, lovely. Flowers, funerals death horror. Thistle, prickly and difficult.

Would they notice different aspects of their surroundings in different moods and interpret them differently?If you have access to MP3s on the hoof you could pop on a pair of headphones and see if different types of music inspire different scenarios. Would up beat songs make your character skip happily over the tarmac? Do sad songs make them drag their feet etc.

The point is, if you are thinking this way, it can only help you to develop your writing voice and style at times in the day when you aren’t able to do any writing.

Engaging with your surroundings brings rewards.

Yep, as much as you can, even when it seems as if there isn’t any point. First; you never know what you might see second, if you want to get interesting stuff out of your head, you have to put things in; experiences, ideas, knowledge and you have to be open to them when they occur – which is often when you least expect it.

Terry Pratchett talking about books said:

You don’t know what’s going to be interesting until you’ve read it. Somewhere in a book on the history of false teeth there’ll be the making of a novel.

He’s spot on.

Seek out the small details going on around you.

The other day, as my son and I were driving along, a middle aged woman passed us on her mountain bike coming the other way doing a huge wheelie. She, and we, were going under the A14, in different directions, her on the cycle path, us on the road. As she landed, having wheelied all the way under the bridge she pumped one fist in the air. My son and I didn’t have time to hoot, wave or give her the thumbs up before she was gone but that experience had both of us thinking. We spent the rest of the journey making up a story about her. We are probably the only people that noticed what she did.

Another time, waiting in queue to go to work at Milton way back in the late 1990s I looked up into the blue spring sky. As I sat stationary in the traffic I watched someone in an aeroplane with one of those smoke canisters in it flying round above. They drew a smiley face. Did anyone else see? I don’t know. Weirdly, a couple of years ago, someone did the same thing over the skies of Bury St Edmunds. On both occasions, it left me feeling up beat. I haven’t put either event in a book yet, but I probably will.

Be interested in your surroundings.

Why? Because the insignificant details of what is going on around you are where you will discover the things that will give your work texture and realism. Look at the world around you, be curious, ask questions. Pepper your stuff with answers you discover and it will feel so much more real to your readers, no matter how outlandish it is.

The wall of the Baptist church, in my town, has what looks like bullet holes in it. I’ve always wondered what happened to that wall. I’ve seen bullet holes in things on the continent, where battles took place in the second world war, usually. My son was intrigued, too, and decided to try and find out. It turns out that those are, indeed, bullet holes. The church was used for communications of some kind during the war and a German fighter plane came over and shot it up. Another one flew over one of the main streets, shooting up a pub called the New Inn and the house next door, which just happens to be ours. So it turns out my house has bullet holes in it. Something like this would be a great story to fictionalise or, if you write non-fiction, a collection of stories like this about your local community can make for really intriguing reading.

Similarly, my son has made a point of learning the names of all the local cats, so now as we walk down the street, we greet them by name. This is probably quite weird but if you have a character in a book doing this it can tell you so much about them; that they’re soft hearted that they like cats? Or maybe, that they don’t like cats but they’re too soft hearted not to greet them anyway. Or, possibly, they’re scared of cats and greet them out of superstition, the way some folk salute magpies. One tiny detail, lots of potential.

Be interested in people.

Find out who they are, what they have done.

There was an old man who lived down the same road as my parents who my parents were on nodding terms with. As he became older, he began to suffer badly with arthritis and couldn’t get out much, so Dad started popping in to visit. It turned out that this fellow that my parents had known for years was in the 1936 British Olympic running team. He was injured just as he arrived in Berlin and the Germans gave him one of the best seats in the house to watch the rest of the games. He saw Jesse Owens win and since he was sitting few yards away from the ‘royal’ box he also saw Adolf Hitler having a massive melt down and completely throwing his bricks out of the pram when it happened. But he always swore that Hitler did shake Owen’s hand … when he had calmed down.

Often, each person is the sum of some amazing stories. People love to talk and if you listen, you will hear incredible things, things that also shed light on human nature.

For example, my mum grew up in the country and recalls how she and her brother saw a plane fly across the garden during the war. Some people had been shot at on the Downs while blackberrying the week before but Mum and my uncle were on their own and were delighted to be able to wave at the plane without being told off by an adult. They were even more delighted when the pilot who was blonde and curly-haired waved back! It was only after the plane had gone that they realised it had a cross on the side of it, not the circles of the RAF. Meanwhile Mum’s friend Norah used to talk of the time a ME109 was brought down on the Downs near Steyning in Sussex. Everyone was arming themselves with pitchforks, kitchen knives, pickaxe handles etc and went off to capture the pilot. The gentleman in question unwittingly evaded capture and was discovered wandering local lanes by someone taking an afternoon constitutional, someone who was unaware that a dangerous armed enemy was on the loose. The pilot asked, politely, for directions to the local police station so he could hand himself in.

All your characters need a back story that is as real to you as life, even if it is never mentioned in the actual book you write about them. Collecting stories like these from people you meet can give you some fantastic, readymade back stories, or at least a place to start.

Use the mundane.

Also using mundane events in writing can tether your writing to the real world, giving the most outlandish scenes realism or throwing scary stuff into stark relief.

So for example, say you have a character who is held captive by a scary bad guy. Her guards take her to the bathroom. It has one of those fans that comes on automatically when you turn the light on and then chugs away for several minutes after you’ve turned it off again. When she is finished the guards turn the light off and take her back to her cell, but she can hear the fan droning on for several minutes. A lot of us can identify with listening to that kind of fan. So when our heroine hears it in book we can immediately get alongside her. It grounds the narrative in reality making a situation that may be difficult to imagine more realistic, while, at the same time, highlighting the unusual or menacing nature of parts that are different.

To sum up then, there is gold all around if you if you look.

I think it was also Terry Pratchett who said something along the lines that if you want to write convincing fantasy you will need a better handle on how reality works than anyone else. It’s a strange dichotomy that fictional or hard-to-imagine events seem to spring to life if you can fix them to reality every day real things.

It’s worth taking notice, observing the everyday and riffing with your surroundings in your head as you go about normal life. Because if you practise your writing by adding a little fiction to your normal life it will help you to develop your writing style and voice, and train your brain to view the world differently. Likewise if you look for little snippets of reality to use in your writing you can add immense power and depth to your words.

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Toboggan update, a war story and McMini versus Alexa.

It’s been a busy week this week. McMini is due to go on a school trip which involves two nights away. I have therefore been spending most of the week with a list of required clothing working out which items we have and buying the ones we don’t have. Pretty much all of them.

In order to try and train McCat out of some of his many behavioural problems, I have bought a thing that senses when he goes near the bin to flip the lid off and search for scraps and squirts a jet of air. Unfortunately, though this is working, the people who set it off 99.99999999% of the time are McMini and McOther.

It’s nearly run out already and judging by the cost of the refills it’s actual solid gold in there rather than the air the makers claim, or it’s liquidised diamonds or something. I thought one would do but with my menfolk, no chance, it’ll be hard put to last the week.

I also bought a static electric mat. Unfortunately it comes with no meaningful instructions. I think I switched it on but after an hour it started beeping and the battery died. I haven’t tried it since.

Ho hum … a partial success then.

Sadly, I also jinxed any chance of tobogganing joy this weekend by retrieving the one I had as a kid from Mum and Dad’s, barn, washing the mouse and spider pooh off it, along with the yucky, knackered crispy wood louse carapaces left by the spiders, and bringing it home. Turns out it’s a bit older than I thought as it’s a Flexible Flyer No 1.

It looks as if it may be Great Grandpa’s rather than Granny’s. Luckily, I don’t think that makes it any more valuable, so it’s still worth the same as a modern replacement, which means we can use it. Oh yeh.

Except for that bit about the jinxing. Yes, now that we have a slightly more McMini-friendly toboggan, we have had the usual boring Bury St Edmunds snow: chuffing cold, snows all day but doesn’t sit. Seriously I have no idea how it can be this fucking cold and still melt. It’s a bastard miracle. Climatologists should look into it because frankly, I reckon there’s something going on. Also, I’m getting a bit bored of being cold. I wish it would either snow properly or just piss off. It’ll probably snow properly tomorrow when I’m at my club dig out in the country at the bottom of a hill (note to self, take a tow rope).

Also this week, I went with Mum to the funeral of a lovely lady who used to go to their church. The chap doing the eulogy told a splendid story this lady used to tell about the time a ME109 was brought down on the Downs near Steyning.

The word spread like wild fire and everyone armed themselves with pitchforks, kitchen knives, pickaxe handles etc and went off to capture the pilot. Meanwhile, the gentleman in question unwittingly evaded capture and was discovered wandering local lanes by someone taking an afternoon constitutional, someone who was unaware that a dangerous armed enemy was on the loose. The pilot asked, politely, if they could tell him the way to the local police station. Unaware of the posse the other side of the Downs looking for him, he then calmly followed the directions he’d been given and handed himself in. Stories like these say so much about human nature.

In a bid to keep the screen time to quality time, I have given up doing the social media stuff in the evening in front of the telly in favour of knitting. I now have seven pairs of socks – and I’ve only shrunk two pairs so far – along with a smaller pair for McMini, and a pussy hat – but in red and light pink because militant use of pink is vile and gives me the boke.

Meanwhile McOther has purchased an Alexa. It’s quite good but not able to answer many questions. For example, I asked it how to make pasta the other day … about seventy times.

Try as I might I couldn’t get it to understand that I wanted it to make actual pasta, not a pasta dish. It came up with a whole variety of pasta dishes but not the ration of eggs to flour I required to knock up a few sheets of lasagne. It was like …

‘Alexa, can you give me the recipe for pasta.’
‘I found this recipe for pasta with meatballs on Recepidia.’
‘No, stop Alexa. I meant the actual pasta.’
‘I found this recipe for beef ragu with fusilli.’
‘Stop Alexa, please. OK, Alexa, if I have some flour and an egg and I’m Italian what can I make?’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that.’
‘Jeez …’ Recording of dull thudding sound made by MTM’s head beating against the kitchen work surface, ‘I just want to make a lasagne sheet, Alexa.’
‘Lasagne is a dish comprising tomatoes, bechamel sauce and-‘
‘Alexa stop. What are the ratios of egg to flour I need to make pasta.’
‘I found this great recipe on Recipedia for egg and spinach-‘
‘NO! Alexa STOP! Don’t they have the recipe for pasta on Recipedia?’
‘There’s a recipe for salmon and seafood with pasta shells, difficulty level, easy on Recipedia-‘
‘Alexa STOP! For the love of God, or I shall do you an injury.’

And so on ad infinitum. Alexa stores all these exchanges on an app on McOther’s iPad. I think he enjoyed reading that one.

This morning, I overhead McMini talking to it.

‘Alexa can you set a timer for cheese?’
‘I’m sorry I do not understand your question.’
‘Oh. OK. Alexa, set a timer for seven years.’
‘I’m sorry I can only set a timer for a time within the next 24 hours.’
‘Hmm … OK. Alexa, set a timer for seven hours.’

It might be sensible to occasionally say, ‘Alexa, stop timer,’ to it I think. Just in case.

In next week’s post I’ll be talking shop. I’m giving a talk called, ‘Real Life is underrated. Using mundane events to fuel your writing mojo,’ and since it’s 1,200 words long, I thought I’d reproduce it here, for your delectation, as I deliver it. And also because I’ll be actually doing the talk at the time, so I won’t be here to write a blog post … so … until next week!

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Sleigh that again?

It’s been all go this week. Snow has fallen (snow on snow) and it’s been fucking freezing (pardon my French) all week. We’ve had about 8 inches of snow, going by the pile on top of the wheelie bins, but the first four inches melted a bit before the second four arrived so it was only ankle deep here in town. Still looked cool though (see photos). What I like about snow is the way it lets you see the world anew; the same old same old, yet so different. I don’t know about you, but a quick dose of snow always helps me to appreciate my surroundings more. For us, here, there was just enough to be pretty and fun and not so much that things began to get a bit dicey.

That said, I believe there are folks out towards Norwich who have seen some impressively big drifts and now have a good grasp of how the average raspberry feels atop a pavlova. While others have no power. Definitely less fun for them.

On Friday, after school, I took McMini tobogganing. Our sledge is a plastic one, but slightly different to the usual in that it has a raised back and a lowered front. Apart from the fact makes the thing look more like a boat it also makes steering harder and you can’t use it lying down, face first. That didn’t stop fourteen stones of British lard from careening down the hill though – I lay back, skeleton style – but McMini was rather more cautious. I understood his reticence, my first memory of tobogganing is of me, my brother and my dad, all sitting on our toboggan and feeling very frightened.

Judging by the size of our toboggan, I must have been very small, in fact I’m amazed that the three of us fitted on. My misgivings soon disappeared when I discovered I could lie on it and proceed face first. Our toboggan was some ancient thing that had belonged to my mother as a child so it had steering, which helped.

On the down side though manoeuvrable, it was extremely fast – although that was also an up, in many respects. I remember visiting my uncle, aunt and cousins in Kew over New Year – a visit that was famously cut short after I ate an icicle off the bottom of a car and was violently sick about fourteen times but that’s another story. Where was I? Ah yes, tobogganing with my cousins. We took our toboggan to a hill in Richmond Park. It was icy, very steep and rammed with other folks on toboggans, mostly plastic ones or the Blue Peter home build (like the one my cousins had). All were going very slowly.

Our toboggan was not only the one Mum and my uncle had used as kids, it was the one which, in turn, my grandmother had used when she was a child. Antique and battered it may have been but this thing went like shit off a shovel – it still does. It looked rubbish, it also still does, and as you arrived on any packed slope you could almost feel the other kids watching you go past thinking,

‘What the fuck is that?’ and snickering contemptuously at your toboggan POS.

Then you’d take a run down the hill and the impression you got was that they were still thinking,

‘What the fuck is that?’ but with a different inflection entirely.

On this occasion, it was like trying to drive a Grand Prix car at full speed through a shopping centre without hitting anyone. You know the first car chase in the Blues Brothers, when they’re trashing the mall … that’s our toboggan with all the other kids pootling about around it. My cousins’ Blue Peter model seemed faster than everyone else’s as well, so it was kind of a rinse and repeat on theirs only with no steering! Unnerved by a couple of rounds of toboggan frogger we decided to move to another part of the hill which wasn’t being used.

Despite being a bit mad and fast, things were much easier with our toboggan on home ground. I grew up in two places at once, the staff side of the house in the school where Dad was a housemaster and our own actual home, which we lived in during the school holidays. Both places were half way up a down … well … the housemaster’s one was more three quarters of the way up but you get the picture. The point is, you could walk out of either house and pretty much onto a big hill. Five minutes and you’d be away. On the few occasions it snowed in the holidays, we’d spend hours up on the hill. There were thrills, spills and luckily, no injuries.

This is a ‘Down’. As you can see from the photo, the downs could be more appropriately named, ‘ups’.

The other great thing about living on a down was that you are not going to get that many people up there, and if you do, there’ll be plenty of room. The downside is that they look smooth but in reality there are a lot of sheep tracks up there so try the wrong slope and it’s like tobogganing down steps. Also there are fields up there, and the thing about a field is it usually has a fence. Hedges were getting pretty rarified in those days so said fence was usually three strings of barbed wire and some shuggly posts.

My father embraced the joy of tobogganing with even more enthusiasm than his children so we usually went as a family, or depending on school holidays etc it would be me and Dad or Dad and my brother and Mum back at home getting some peace and quiet. One occasion, I remember we had already moved out of the school for the holidays into our actual ‘home’ but needless to say, my school term hadn’t ended. Dad and my brother went for a tobogganing session while Mum collected me from my last day at school. We returned to find the two of them at home, which was not expected. There was a perfect field, just as you come into our village; a nice gentle slope, someone was even skiing on it one year, but it did have hedge at the bottom, in the middle of which was the ubiquitous knackered downland barbed wire fence, and beyond which was a trunk road. This wasn’t troubling the four or five other sledgers who were out the day Dad and my brother went but our mad toboggan was faster than all comers, as usual, so it went further. After a few runs it was clear that my dad and brother could only ride safely from half way up the hill, unless they wanted a close encounter with the hedge.

The field was L shaped and the road turned away taking the hedge away and leaving a lovely big square of unsullied virgin snow. My brother and dad wishing to experience full tobogganing joy trundled along the hill until they were above this. Now they could go from the very top and would have a huge amount of run off ground where the toboggan could come to a safe halt. Unfortunately, they moved along at the top of the hill so they didn’t hoist in that, where the road and the hedge turned the corner, the crappy barbed wire fence from the middle carried on, across what they thought was a wide snowy gap.

Dad went first and as he careened off down the hill, three things occurred to my brother:

  1. He noticed the barbed wire fence for the first time.
  2. He realised that Dad was short sighted and still hadn’t seen the fence.
  3. He realised that, not only had his loving father not noticed the fence but that he was unlikely to do so until he caught it in the neck while riding a toboggan at speed.

My brother set off running in hot pursuit shouting, ‘Dad! Fence.’ My father was sitting on the toboggan and steering with his feet. It had picked up some serious speed and there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of it stopping before it hit the fence. Luckily some other folks further down heard my brother and also ran towards Dad, relaying the message, with a bit more volume. Dad heard them and saw the fence, at a distance of about ten feet. There was no time to think, no time to steer and for whatever reason, it didn’t occur to him to bail out. Instead he lay calmly back, flattening himself against the toboggan – and probably the ground behind it – as if he was doing the Luge for real.

According to my brother, Dad passed under the fence at high speed. He took a slight scratch on the nose and it whipped off his red woolly bobble hat but otherwise, he and the toboggan came out the other side unharmed. My brother said it was one of the coolest things he’d ever seen because Dad had been so calm, but also one of the scariest because he felt he was about to witness his father’s untimely death. That said, I suspect Dad may not have felt as calm as he looked, since he suggested that they’d probably done enough tobogganing for one day and that they head home for a cup of tea, some biscuits and a plaster.

I guess the moral of this story is that few things are as they seem, ever.

On a side note, it turns out that the toboggan, itself, is not as it seems either. Indeed, it is a collector’s item. Which just goes to show that, coming from good Yorkshire stock who are too tight to throw anything away has its benefits (even if it was via five or six generations exiled down south to soften them up).

The toboggan is in Sussex and I’m in Suffolk so I can’t send you a picture. I can, however, show you what it looks like.

Thanks to Sledhill.com for this. Check out John’s Sledhill P1 in the menu for details of ours; it’s either a FFNo2 or an FF2B.

Like the snow on Bury, trying to find a picture of our toboggan has made me see it afresh. I knew it was old but it had never really occurred to me to think how old. Over 100 years. And it’s from the USA. I can imagine Grandpop (my great grandfather) going to Harrods or somewhere – possibly Hamleys – to get it for his son and daughter one Christmas.

That’s a hell of a thing.

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The pool-eyed lady

A light one this week, a quick extract from one of my Non fiction things, Setting Tripwires for Granny and other Tall Family Tales. I hope you enjoy it.

The Pool-eyed Lady

Every family has its ghost story and it seems mine is no exception. Indeed, just to be enthusiastic we have two but they are about the same ghost. This one comes from my maternal grandfather’s side of the family so it was great grandfather Castle. The story happened in a house called Woodbines which was in Kingston Upon Thames and which was haunted, sporadically, by what we British call ‘a grey lady’. Basically this is a Puritan lady from the time of the English Civil War. The first story about her comes from my Uncle.

One day Great Grandfather Castle fell gravely ill. The doctor was called and he told Great Grandmother Castle that she should employ a nurse to watch over him. But Great Grandfather was the family breadwinner, the illness looked as if it would take a fair time and all the while he wasn’t earning. The family were civil engineers at the time and so earnings peaked and troughed enough already. With the family breadwinner ill and possibly about to die, Great Granny was worried that there wasn’t the cash in the kitty for a nurse.

A few days later the doctor called again but the patient was asleep so after a quick peep in, he went downstairs to wait until Great Grandfather Castle woke up. He congratulated Great Grandmother Castle on taking his advice to employ a nurse.

‘But I haven’t employed anyone,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ said the Doctor, ‘then, who was the woman sitting by his bed?’

The second story is from my Mum. Great Grandpa Castle had recovered from his illness and enjoyed a return to robust good health. He was outside playing croquet with a friend on the lawn. As they played they were having a debate about cricket. I do not know what they were discussing, batting averages, test scores, who knows, but they disagreed and each of them was adamant that he was right. Eventually, Great Grandpa Castle suggested he go get a copy of Wisden, the Cricketer’s Almanac, from the house so they could look it up and settle the dispute once and for all. In the library, to his immense surprise, he happened upon a lady whom he’d never met. She was wearing an old fashioned grey dress and her face was drawn, her eyes so sunken that in the light it was as if she had nothing but dark pools where they should be.

‘Ah,’ said Great Grandpa Castle quietly and then he got over her strangely old fashioned dress and apparent absence of actual eyes. ‘Hello there, can I help you?’

She said nothing but just smiled at him.

‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ asked Great Grandpa Castle again.

Still nothing.

‘Ah. Right. Then, if you’ll excuse me a moment, I just have to get a book.’

She smiled and inclined her head.

He flashed her a nervous smile back.

‘Just a moment,’ he said.

He turned and went to the shelf to get the volume that he wanted.

‘Now then,’ he said as he turned back to face his unknown visitor, book in hand, ‘there really must be some way I can h—’

The lady in the grey dress had gone.

Later, I’m not sure when, but probably in the late eighteen hundreds or early twentieth century, the house was demolished. The demolition company got in touch with Great Grandpa Castle who was one of the last owners, I believe. Apparently the wrecking ball had uncovered a secret room. For a split second the workman wielding it had seen a seventeenth century gentleman in fine clothes; a cavalier. He was sitting at a table, slumped forwards with his head on his arms, as if sleeping, or, perhaps, in despair.

Apparently, this sort of thing happens from time to time, usually, the body has decomposed but the lack of draughts means the dust into which the object has dissolved just kind of sits in the position it was in when it was part of something else. The minute the smallest draught hits it, it collapses but in this case, as in many others, it stayed together just long enough to catch a glimpse. Obviously, the demolition was halted while the workmen searched the rubble for a body. Nothing could be found of the man but they did find the tin breastplate he’d been wearing.

Clearly someone had secreted him away to hide him in a secret room, an old priest’s hole perhaps? He’d either died from lack of oxygen or dehydration. How long had he sat, trapped in the room, unable to escape? How long had it been before he realised that those who loved him and had hidden him to preserve his life were not going to return? What must he have felt as he sat there, all hope fading, waiting to die? And who had put him there? Was it a relative? A lover?

Was it the puritan maid who had sat by Great Grandpa Castle’s bed and whom he had met later in the library? Is that why she was there? Was he her brother, or a cousin, her son? Or had she returned to release her long lost love? What happened that meant she was unable to free him at the time?

Had the Cromwellian troops commandeered the house and forced the family to leave? Had someone realised the family were hiding a Royalist, arrested them and carted them away. Was she killed? Is that why she never came back? Or was our Grey Lady’s father some tub-thumping puritan elder who knew something was going on and kept her under lock and key, too tightly monitored to escape and free her lover. She was a woman, she would have had little control of her destiny in those days. Was she married off and whisked away? And if she wasn’t killed, she must have had to go through the rest of her life knowing that she had left a man, possibly a close relative, her son, her brother or even the man she loved, to die, how horrible for her that must have been. Imagine her, unable to act, thinking of him suffocating, or dying of thirst while she fretted and pined, with no way of reaching him, no way to apologise, no way to explain.

These people are not my relatives, the house wasn’t in my family for that long, but even I can feel the tragedy of it. How sad it is. We don’t even know their names. They’re just another pair of anonymous casualties in one of the most uncivil of wars.

The priest’s hole at Oxburgh Hall – through this door across the room beyond and into the raised trap door – photo courtesy of the National Trust Website.

 

Priest’s hole at Oxburgh, close up. I did get in there as a child and it was properly scary; you could feel the fear in the walls. Interestingly, that is pretty much what the fellow who wrote the article from which I snipped this photo also thought. This photo courtesy the imaginative conservative, who explains about priest’s holes and gives a potted history of religious persecution in the British Isles – Christian on Christian (we’re VERY good at it, unfortunately). It’s written from the perspective of a man of faith – there are some rather right wing things on his blog but you can read his account of persecution and his visit to this priest hole here.

 

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New M T McGuire release … sort of and Kobo Sale

Talking about books this week! Well, this is an author blog I have to interrupt the cat and dementia stories sometimes.

Christmas Lites VII is out! Woot!

Yes! I have a new release out. It’s an anthology of fantastic short stories with one dodgy one from me to lower the tone. Phnark.

Christmas Lites is a charity anthology to help victims of domestic violence. Even the story of how it came about is amazing and because I think that, I’ve made the bold assumption that you will, and decided to tell it to you, now.

As they used to say on Watch With Mother, ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’

Back in 2011, a guy I knew a little from a thread on an Amazon forum, C S Splitter, was given the job of being Father Christmas for his work Christmas party. He hired the costume, bought some candy canes to give out, put them in a suitably theatrical and Santa-esque sack and headed off. He managed to get a bit lost on the way and ended up in a strange looking building.

There was a substantial kerfuffle when he arrived and when he discovered why he was surprised he’d even managed to get in. It was a safe house.

He realised that the women in this place had all recently fled from domestic violence. It was eerily quiet, despite the presence of children. The kids there had learned to stay silent and unnoticed – out of site and off dad’s radar. Some of these children were glad to have escaped with their lives. This Christmas, they weren’t expecting Santa. So Splitter realised he could, at least, give them that.

He was shown into the lounge where he did the whole ho! ho! ho! thing and gave out the canes to the kids. They were delighted and all wanted to talk to Father Christmas so he was there longer than he expected; nearly two hours.

When Splitter finally got to the office party it was finishing, the drinks had been drunk and the nibbles eaten. Despite Father Christmas’s no show, everyone was in high spirits although the party was fizzling out now and people were beginning to go home. Unfortunately, his boss had noticed his absence so Splitter explained where he’d been and she went very quiet.

The next day she called him into work. He wasn’t too happy as it was Christmas Eve but he reasoned that a) his boss was Jewish so she didn’t celebrate Christmas and it was just another working day for her and b) what with her going so quiet after he told her why he was late for the office party, he feared he might be in trouble. It was probably best to look eager, he thought, so he didn’t protest but drove straight into the office.

When Splitter arrived, his boss met him in the car park, her car stuffed to the gunwales with presents for the kids at the safe house. She explained that she didn’t know where it was so she needed him to show her the way. They went there together and handed over the presents to the children.

Unsurprisingly, Splitter was deeply moved by the experience and continued to be haunted by it for months afterwards. Eventually, he and a group of authors on the Amazon forums got together and published an anthology, in aid of the the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. It’s an American charity, but as a fellow participant commented, a punch hurts just the same, wherever you are.

That was way back in 2011. Splitter died of spine cancer a few years afterwards but every year since then, that same group of authors – plus a few others – have contributed a story to the Christmas Lites anthology. I believe the money raised is now well into three figures. That’s a pretty good legacy.

Everyone involved; editor, cover designer and authors donates their time, work and effort to make it a success. I remember reading the posts about planning the first one, wanting to contribute and failing to get anything done in time. Finally this year, the seventh, I’ve got my shit together and managed it. OK so it takes me a long time to do things but I do get there eventually!

If you fancy picking up a quick short by myself and a number of rather better stories by other writers, please go ahead. I’m sure you’ll understand that I can’t give this one away for free or at a reduced price, indeed, I have no advance review copy. But if you want to help people, and grab yourself a dose of the warm fuzzy feeling – as well as a damned good book – please feel free to click on one of the links below.

I should also add that the book went live on Christmas Eve which means it’s not showing in many places yet. So the link takes you to a page on my website where I’ve given you a universal link to your local Amazon, a Barnes & Noble link which currently takes you to the paperback but when the ebook goes live it will be there, too. Apparently the places it is available will be listed on Books2Read soon – so that’s the third link.

Incidentally, the basis of the story I wrote for Christmas Lites is true; it’s how my mum and uncle discovered who Father Christmas really is.

Christmas Lites on Amazon
Christmas Lites on Barnes & Noble
Christmas Lites links from all outlets (eventually) via Books 2 Read

K’Barthan Series Box Set 40% off.

Yes, the lovely peps at Kobo are doing their sale thing again so if you do Kobo and you’d like to grab a copy of the K’Barthan Series box set for a lot less, click on the link below. It will take you to a page on my website with more details and links to all the Kobo sites worldwide so you can pick up your local one. If you already have the K’Barthan Series, you can always use the links to get to Kobo and browse the box set sale from there. I saw a lot of nekkid man torso books on the first page but there are other genres involved so it’s worth digging a bit.

As always, the prices will not show as reduced but will drop when you enter the code at checkout – 40BOX in this case. Also, you can use the code as many times as you like so fill up that e-reader!

K’Barthan Series in the Kobo Box Set Sale.

Next week some exciting news about eyebombing … well … not that exciting I suppose but reasonably interesting!

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Welcome to my world. Oh look! It’s like a car crash only less pretty …

Last week I was talking about being organised.  Remember that. Mwahahahrgh! Yeh. I did mention, I think, that it’d be a while while I set my house in order first? Mmm. Looking at my schedule, it’s going to be quite a long while even for a normal person. But a good day, for me, is like the aftermath of a multiple car pile up. Messy. And then there’s the weird shit. Take yesterday. Yes, actually, take yesterday, I’d like a new one because it was dreadful. I’m just going to dump the day’s events here, wholesale, to give you an idea of what I’m up against.

For heaven’s sake!

Yes, let me share a glimpse of what my life is like; day in, day out. It all started earlier this week, Wednesday, I think when my Fitbit app started acting very oddly. All of a sudden, it was labelling today’s stats as completely blank, while the day before’s stats – the yesterday section – that was actually showing today’s step total etc. It was weird but I could still understand it so like the plug-in hard drive that my computer won’t read since the spring 2017 update, and like the printer I bought after Window’s decision that I didn’t need to be able to print pdfs anymore, and still haven’t set up, or my computer’s sudden – yet random – habit of arbitrarily closing down all open programmes without saving anything when I put it to sleep,  it wasn’t worth the time and effort sorting it out.

Come Friday morning I wake up, muzzy-headed and gritchy throated with pending cold and discover that it’s 7.33. That is 33 minutes after the alarm on my phone is supposed to have gone off and woken me. Never mind, all is not lost. I eschew any waking up time and leap straight out of bed, never something that puts me in good spirits. I rush to the bathroom to do my ablutions and head back into the bedroom to get dressed. I set the alarm alarm on my phone to go off at 8.50 so I can snooze it and it will keep ringing each 10 minutes. I have no sense of passing time, so if I don’t do this, I will get engrossed in something and suddenly realise that we are all still at home and it’s five to nine.

As I try to set my alarm it keeps saying it’s going to go off in six days’ time. Why the hell is it doing that, I wonder. I check. I’m setting it for ten minute’s time. Why won’t it chuffing set for for this morning like I’m asking it to. I go do something else, come back and the phone has locked, when I look at the lock screen I realise it is displaying the day and date as Saturday 13th January. My alarm didn’t go off in the first place because it’s set to go off from Monday through to Friday and the moronic sodding phone thinks it’s Saturday. Likewise, setting my alarm for 8.00 on a Friday won’t work.

Because it’s Saturday.

According to my phone.

Except it’s not.

Great, so now I will have to set the alarm for Saturday. No wait I really can’t be doing with this. Maybe if I turn it off and on again it will reset? What’s the worst that can happen? Oh yes, that the phone stops working and I lose my Mum and Dad’s banking app for ever. I did drop it in a car park before Christmas, and someone had driven over it and cracked the screen before I managed to find it but hey …

Hoorah it is OK. See the time, the weather app refreshed, 19.04 on 12th except it was the eleventh because this screenshot was taken on the 12th at the time shown the top right hand corner; 15:02. Yes, my weather app went into the future and refreshed itself.

No. It’ll be OK.

Are you sure MT? This is you, after all.

Yes, what’s life for if you can’t take risks now and again.

Sure enough it reboots but nothing goes wrong! Now it’s Friday. I set the alarm to get my 10 minute count downs and carry on. Downstairs, grabbing a hurried breakfast I lay out some vitamin pills and nip through to McMini with a bowl of cereal. When I return McCat is on the counter.

‘For fuck’s sake Harrison! Get off there!’ I shout.

He complies but he trots away with that special fast, I’m-not-running, there-is-nothing-to-see-here trot which means he has something he shouldn’t have. Sure enough he stops in the next room and puts something down that he’s been carrying in his mouth. One of my vitamin supplements. It’s some kind of essential oil but I’d laid out three different ones which come in identical capsules so I haven’t a blind clue which one. The cod liver oil capsule, I assume.

Later, buying cat litter at the pet shop the lady there and I had a bit of a giggle. She told me,

‘He’s definitely in the wrong body, that’s not a cat you have, it’s a dog. Still, maybe he thought he needed a more lustrous coat.’

The day didn’t improve. I had two skeins of wool which I decided I’d make into a pussy hat. I should have known that today was not the day to try and unravel a skein of wool shouldn’t I? I mean, why did I even fucking try. On I go, tosser that I am, and try to do it anyway. I even googled doing it right, hung the skein over a chair the way they tell you but I got this:

That’s fifty metres of wool there, my lovelies. I would buy another one but it’s silk and merino. Not something you think about buying twice. So over the next year and a half I’ll be unravelling that bastard in my spare time. For now, if anyone wants to hire a clown wig …

Yeh. That’s M T McGuire when she’s following the sodding instructions; using the back of a chair to hang the skein of wool over, winding it carefully onto one hand. What I didn’t realise was that the bloody thing was already knotted beyond help so when I started winding it just tied itself into the gargantuan Gordian knot you can see there. At first I couldn’t even find the other chuffing end so it was taking ages to tease out each loop and pass the ball of wool through. Finally I found the other. Then Harrison intervened and now I have four. All this because I want to knit a pussy hat but hate pink, so I thought light pink and the kind of pink that is, essentially, red, would get the message over without being all pink and I’m-a-girl-therefore-I-like-pink and fucking … PINK. Knob that I am.

On the up side, when I scolded the cat he did get the hint and he went away. Mummy is being both boring and grumpy while shaking the biggest and most exciting cat toy ever.

I’ve given up on the bloody thing for a while.

Actual plans for January …

Yes, I did have some.

However, unfortunately January is very busy with trying to catch up with all the shite I didn’t do because it was Christmas. There’s this quarter’s parish magazine – not going to happen until early February I’m afraid, and I promised I’d write a children’s picture book by mid January! Why in the name of God did I think I could do that? And of course, there’s all the pissy admin like putting all the dates of our holidays and term times in the diary in the kitchen and the one on my phone. Want to know how long that took? One and a half hours!

One and a half effing hours!!!! This must be a special skill. I’ve not even finished.

Now, I have to book the cattery for all our holidays and put the drop off and pick up dates in the diary. Aaaargh. And then there’s booking a baby sitter for the inevitable Christmas Party that one of McOther’s clients or another will always have – and yes, are having – this January. And not forgetting windows borking updates.

And I still haven’t done my tax return which has to be done end of January. Two years ago, I opted to do this online which is the stupidest thing I ever did. Sure I have until January to hand it in instead of October but actually October is easier, I have more time then than I do now. Also, if you fill in a paper form, then, if your income is under a certain amount – and mine very much is – you can fill in a short tax form. The online form is the long version. Fifteen pages of questions most of which are so incomprehensible to me they might as well be printed in a foreign language. All with the exciting frisson of knowing that if I get one wrong it’s a crime, my solicitor husband will be struck off and I’ll probably go to prison. Thank heavens the help line is helpful, even if there is a hefty wait to get on.

Then there’s the deadline aspect; miss the January deadline and I’m screwed, it’s a £100 fine but I am already at the point where HMRC will not be able to get a new password to me or unlock my access to their website should I discover I’ve lost my password and am unable to get onto it (they say it takes up to four weeks). That also adds to the excitement. Yes, of course I meant to do it last month! And the one before! But with all the joyous task of filling in those bastard Lasting Power of Attorney for Health forms and preparing for bastard Christmas it was impossible. Short of pulling an all-nighter, there was no time left to do it in.

Organised people won’t understand this but then organised people don’t have phones that tell them it’s tomorrow all fucking week and they probably have time to work out how to get Windows to install security updates but not the other periperal-destroying shite my version insists on adding as well.

Then there’s Dad. Dad is becoming increasingly surreal. On Thursday one of our lovely carers, Aimee, took Mum and Dad to the dentist, where Dad announced, loudly, that Mum was his mother, Aimee was his girlfriend and that although there was a bit of an age gap it was OK because he does have a ten inch cock. Jeez someone is going to sue us before long, and we will counter-sue for discrimination against someone with a disability. Luckily the folks in the dentist, like the folks at the garden centre and all the other places where Dad has been inappropriate are OK with it. On a lighter note, I discussed this behaviour with Mum and Dad’s doctor on Thursday morning. He was telling me that he had to prescribe medication to stop some of the gentlemen in the dementia wing at the local care home from making improper overtures to some of the lady inmates. I guess when you think you’re eighteen but are really an octogenarian with the social niceties of a toddler that’s what happens.

God help us.

And now, as I sit here and type, I look down and realise I’m wearing my jumper inside out and have been for half the day. Head, desk.

Every single fucking day is like this. Frankly, I’m I consider it a victory if I get enough of my shit together to dress before dark. And it’s not going to improve. This is a short term. Five weeks either side of half term. In other words, there will not be time to sort all this bollocks out before the wooden spoon is inserted back into my brain and everything is given a good old stir.

So to put it in pictures …

Planned MTM January.

Obviously … but I’m a realist.

Type of January MTM would settle for.

Yes, I would settle for this, I mean, it’s a bit stringy but it’s tidy and it’s all there.

How MTM’s actual January is going so far.

See illustration, left.

Status of MTM’s efforts to catch up: Exactly the same as day one.
Progress achieved: Zero.

Hey, it’s January, let’s see more people and do more things and catch up after being away for Christmas!

NO! Fuck off!

So there we have it. Clearly, I’m going to be spending January and February firefighting and catching up. Ho hum.

Here’s to the start of the MTM New Year in March, then.

Thank you for reading. If you have been trying to organise yourself this new year, and, like me, have had the wheels fall off your efforts before you begin, I hope this has given you a laugh and cheered you up.

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To Infinity and Beyond! Plans for 2018. #Newyearsresolution (sort of).

Heaven knows how many weeks ago it was now, far back in the mists of time, anyway; before Christmas, I posted about my efforts to bludgeon people into reading my stuff over the course of 2017. Basically, I discovered that I had a much higher rate of read-through on my perma free book than I thought and that I should maybe think about making something else permafree this year. Or Doing Something New.

Mostly, this year, I intend to be Doing Something New. Here are my New Year’s … not resolutions exactly, that will only set me up for disappointment in myself. Let’s call them Things I Intend To Do.

Yeh.

That sounds good. On we go then:

Thing 1: sort out my time management.

This one’s kind of done, I just need to put what I’ve learned into practise. The basic gist is to be more rigid about planning the day. There is so much to do that in order to avoid overwhelm the trick is to do a few sprints of several projects in progress to keep everything moving. I have no idea why I didn’t think of this before. I used to do it all the time at work, which was well busy and usually involved starting the day with a couple of hours’ firefighting. It’s the same now, as I usually get a call from Mum or the carers, or some wages come in to pay. This method sounds nuts, especially for someone like myself who prefers to do things one at a time in sequence. However, a bit at a time quells the rising sense of panic that it’s all too much and nothing is getting done.

Time allocation is also good for controlling those things that suck you in and spit you out at the end of the day before you even know it. Need to find a printer? Set a timer for one hour, make notes on what you need it to do and ask for advice in a forum. Then do something else. After someone answers your post set a timer for an hour and armed with the information, have a look a few different models on line. Compare prices if there’s time, if not, when the pinger pings, stop, schedule an hour on the printer search in for tomorrow and do something else.

This is a bit hit and miss, but even a nod to apportioning my time seems to be working in that it gives me the illusion of control. The time slots are flexible. I’m doing a course at the moment so I give myself 90 minutes to watch each new vid and do the homework. Writing is a minimum of a 20 minute sprint; more if I can, and so on. I try to write down what I need to do as well, so I can enjoy the feeling of achievement crossing it off the list afterwards.

Thing 2: write something every day.

Yes, set the timer, write for 20 minutes and hey presto there are 250 – 700 words that weren’t there yesterday. Not doing too well on that so far as I’m still ‘getting rid of Christmas’ as in thank you letters, taking decorations down and all that other malarky. Not long now though and my real, proper 2018 can start.

Thing 3: make it easier to write.

That is simple stuff like doing a plot outline and a scene list. That way, if there’s only twenty minutes to write, you avoid spending nineteen of them working out where everyone’s got to and what happens next. I am a born pantser and I was very sceptical about plotting but I did some free training from Joe Nassis and it is really good. If you get the chance, or find it online somewhere it’s so worth doing. He does a course attached, too, but I don’t have time to do it justice. The principles he sets out are brilliant though because the technique gives space for the characters to do their own thing but without you heading off after plot bunnies.

Other ways to make writing easier to do include:

  • Having more than one project on the go so there is always something I feel like writing.
  • Planning in advance (as mentioned) not hugely but enough to have titles for your scenes and be able to dive in and write one at any point in the book.
  • Doing sprints to focus my attention on what I’m doing.
  • Taking a break from the computer so that the time spent at the keyboard is quality time – ie knitting in front of the telly at night rather than writing mailshots or coding web pages.

Thing 4: set out my wares better.

Phark, alright no giggling at the back you smutty lot. At the moment folks can buy my books in a fair few places. They can also buy bits of my art, and bits of artwork from the books. After using some of my own artwork to illustrate a blog post the other day I linked it to a place where the picture is for sale as a card. I sold three. It occurred to me that I always sell a few cards when I take a stall to sell my books but that none of this is organised. None of it is anywhere easy for people to find if they want it. Then there are my books, currently, there’s is no way people can buy my books from my site.

However, just recently Bookfunnel introduced a system that will make that possible. It looks complicated but I am looking into opening my own online store, so people can buy ebooks direct from me.

Thing 5: diversify.

Leading up from Thing 4 really but … tidying up the other day I found the beginnings of a sketch of General Moteurs, and since Unlucky Dip, with my dodgy homemade cover seems to get way more downloads than my other books in giveaways it makes sense to resurrect plans to make more artwork of the characters like this.

Not General Moteurs

Guess who?

Originally, the plan was to do a spoof of the cover of A Hard Day’s Night but my pictures of The Pan of Hamgee came out really shit. To be honest, I thought they all came out really shit but other folks, people who don’t even know me, seem to disagree. An artist friend tells me this is usual because you’ll always be too close to your own drawings. Perhaps it’s time to try that one again, then see about turning it into postcards. Also on the agenda is making more things like the K’Barthan bling pictured to the right, or possibly below, but nearby anyway.

You can do all this stuff on sites like cafe press and zazzle. They are really expensive but they print, ship and process payment after which they give me a royalty – a pitifully small royalty but one that takes no admin or effort on my part after making the original product.

In other words, keep up the policy of paying more for cover art that can be used for other things.

Then there’s the eyebombing. I’ve really missed a trick there. The other day when sharing some of the year’s eyebombing highlights someone said,

‘You should make these into postcards! I’d buy a set.’

Amazingly, I’ve done nothing arty with my eyebombs short of sharing them on instagram and facebook. I’ve written the book text but left it sitting for lack of cash. Now I’m thinking I should have made a calendar and all sorts. Head desk. So for 2018, now that I am earning for the admin I do for my parents, my plan is to squirrel that cash away and then use it make more of the opportunities that arise, not to mention try and notice what is happening when said opportunities are busy smacking me about the face and still failing to get my attention.

Thing 6: chill.

Yep, that’s Thing 6.

You can never do all the things you ought to, so you just have to content yourself with doing what you can.

There’s been a bit of a journey this year with the situation with my parents and the sadness associated with it. Sadness can be a habit if you’re not careful. On the other hand, if you blank it too effectively you wonder what damage it’s doing inside, and you have to open yourself up to being hurt because that’s the only way you can engage with the people you love who are suffering.

Suffice it to say that this year has been about learning to do what it is possible to do, accepting that it isn’t as much as I’d like, and letting the rest go. It does feel as if I’ve made some strides with this now, not least in that I’ve found ways to shoulder the burden without ceasing to write, although I had to stop writing for about nine months to work that out. I think it was worth it. In other circumstances I imagine I could be a better mother, a better daughter and a better all round better person. But looking at it, I’m probably about as decent as I’m capable of being right now. I haven’t murdered anyone and I’ve only been rude to the gets I’ve encountered occasionally, so that’s OK.

Happy New Year everyone.

Run fast, laugh hard, be kind.

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