Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

The Show Must Go On (Eventually)

cover of show schedule
The promise of the Village Show to come: the annual schedule

Anyone who has read my first Sophie Sayers novel, Best Murder in Show, will be familiar with the very English phenomenon of the annual Village Show.

At this action-packed event, locals display their home-grown fruit and vegetables, baking, handicrafts and sometimes livestock too. Often such shows include funfair rides, market stalls and organised entertainments in an outdoor arena.

A tea tent and a beer tent are always popular, and other catering options are likely to include a hog roast, a deer roast, a fish and chip van and ice-creams.

Hawkesbury’s Village Show

In the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, where I’ve lived for nearly 30 years, the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, which takes place on the last Saturday of August, is generally acknowledged by villagers to be the social highlight of the year for all ages. The community is proud of the show’s credentials as the second-longest running of its kind in the country. Not even the First and Second World War managed to close it down.

Postponed until Next Year

So it was with great sadness last month that the Show Committee announced that the 2020 Village Show would have to be postponed until August 2021.

Postponed, please note, not cancelled, due to circumstances beyond our control – which means that our place in the record books will still stand.

The Village Show and Me

Over the years, I’ve been involved with the Village Show in many ways. Like most people in the village, we have submitted entries into the marquee for judging, winning prizes for all sorts of things. I’ve done particularly well in the knitting and crochet, but also once took the top prize for the oddest shaped vegetable!

inside pages of the show schedule
There are hundreds of categories you can enter in the Show, as these sample pages from the schedule demonstrate

 

photo of rosettes
Rosettes, proudly worn by show day winners, are kept for posterity and displayed at home year round

I’ve run stalls – for many years, a secondhand bookstall in aid of the village school’s PTA or youth club – and taken part in the carnival procession on floats and in groups on foot.

I’ve been the Queen of Hearts for an Alice in Wonderland team, with my husband as the White Rabbit and my daughter as Alice. I was the Chinese Ambassador in our family’s Pandamonium trailer, celebrating the arrival of Chinese pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. (My husband was the Scottish zookeeper in his kilt, my daughter, step-grandaughter and friends were pandas.) I’ve even been a St Trinian’s schoolgirl for one of the youth club floats. (I helped run the village youth club years ago.)

Photo of panda-themed float called Pandamonium
Our Chinese-themed entry for the carnival a few years ago (although every Show Day it’s pandemonium in our house)

A highlight for our family was when my daughter and her best friend were on the Carnival Queen‘s float, my daughter one of the attendants to her best friend, the queen. It was a historic day because for the first time the other attendant was a boy. It was the first year the random draw of the pupils in the top class of the village school included boys as well as girls. We’ve since had our first Carnival King.

The Man Who Knew His Onions

I also served on the Show Committee for 13 years. I didn’t realise it was that long until I resigned and was thanked for my long service. During that time, I was editor of its printed schedule, still produced today in the format that I designed. Show Committee meetings, which go on all year round, were always entertaining.

My favourite moment was a visit from the onion judge (all judges come from beyond the village, in the interests of fairness), who proudly showed us his onion rings – no, not the edible kind, but a shiny set of brass hoops used to gauge the precise dimension of each entry in his class. His father had used them before him, and possibly his grandfather too.

For the last few years, I’ve run a pop-up lit fest with a few guest authors promoting the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, which takes place in April. The visiting authors have even volunteered as carnival judges.

photo of lit fest marquee
A A Abbott, one of the authors at the pop-up lit fest, kindly provided this photo featuring Lucienne and Gerard Boyce, now regular carnival judges

Bittersweet Connections

There are also poignant memories. My first husband, John Green, adored the show and carried off prizes for his home-made wine. He once took first prize for a bottle of potato wine that had earned second prize the year before. When he died in 2000, I donated the John Green Cup in his memory for best home-made wine. Seeing it awarded each year is a bittersweet moment.

I also arranged for a memorial trophy to be presented in memory of my friend Lyn Atherton, an early green campaigner who co-launched Hawkesbury’s recycling schemes. At the request of her widower, Clive, I sought out a secondhand trophy to be recycled into the Lyn Atheron Cup for a Useful Object Made from Recycled Materials. I found just the thing on my summer holiday in a curiosity shop in a tiny Scottish seaside town. When I told Clive where we’d got it from, he was astounded – that seaside town happened to be the site of their first ever holiday together. He had fond memories of barbecuing sausages on the beach there with Lyn, washing off the sand in the sea.

My second husband, Gordon, is the proud winner of the Lyn Atherton Cup, and my aunt and my father have also won this cup.

photo of wooden bench with trophy
The garden seat nade frin old pallets which won my husband the Lyn Atherton Cup last year

Eerily Quiet August

Every August, as the start of the Show week, seeing the bunting go up, crisscrossing the High Street, and hearing the rumbling of the funfair rides arriving in the village gets everyone excited as we put the finishing touches to our carnival floats and show entries. This year, the last week of August will seem strangely quiet, as it will in all the showgrounds around the country as Covid-19 makes such crowded events too high risk.

cover of Best Murder in Show
First in my Sophie Sayers series, set in high summer, was inspired by Hawkesbury’s annual show

In the meantime, if you’d like a flavour of a traditional English village show like ours, there’s always Best Murder in Show, which from now until after what would have been Show Day will be reduced to just 99p for the ebook, and there’ll be £1 off the paperback. It’s also now available as an audiobook at various prices on various platforms – currently a bargain at just £2.99 on Amazon’s Audible.

Buy the ebook online herebuy the paperback online here or order it from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223139, and buy the audiobook from Audible here or from your favourite audiobook online store.

Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

The Story Behind the Dedication of “The Natter of Knitters”

In an occasional series on my blog I share the reasons behind the dedications in my stories. Today I’m describing how Chudleigh Women’s Institute and Westonbirt School inspired the first in my new Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, The Natter of Knitters.

Every book I write has a dedication to the person or people who played a key part in its conception. My mini-mystery The Natter of Knitters, 20% the length of one of my novels, has a three-way dedication:

To Irene Smith, Joy Bell and the Chudleigh WI.

What’s a WI?

photo of vintage WI badge
My vintage WI badge dates back to the Second World War when the WI slogan was “for home and country”

First of all, I’d better explain what WI means, for the benefit of readers outside of the UK who aren’t familiar with this long-standing organisation. WI is short for Women’s Institute (motto: Inspiring Women). The Federation of Women’s Institutes coordinates the local groups that meet regularly all over the country. This is how they define themselves on their website:

Inspiring women – then and now

In 1915 we set out to give women a voice and to be a force for good in the community. Since then, our membership and our ambitions alike have grown tremendously. Today , we are the largest women’s organisation in the UK and we pride ourselves on being a trusted place for women of all generations to share experiences and learn from each other.

Why Chudleigh?

There is a thriving WI in my home village of Hawkesbury Upton in the Cotswolds, so why is my dedication to a group a hundred miles away in Chudleigh, Devon, a place I’ve visited only once?

A couple of years ago I was a guest speaker at Chudleigh Lit Fest, an ancient wool town in Devon. On my way to the festival marquee, passing by the local playpark, I noticed that its perimeter railings were festooned in colourful knitted scarves .

The WI had yarnbombed the playpark.

(If you’re not familiar with the concept of yarnbombing, there’s a helpful definition here. )

A sign on the railings explained the WI’s mission: to make scarves for the homeless while also raising awareness of their plight before visitors to the playpark and to the festival.

As a lifelong knitter, this arresting sight inspired me not only to pick up my needles and start a new knitting project, despite it being a hot summer’s day, but also to plot a story that centred around a village yarnbombing event.

The Westonbirt Connection

It took another knitting-related encounter two years later to germinate the seed of the story that was planted on my trip to Chudleigh. When I put a call out on social media seeking a charity that might welcome handknitted items, my former colleague Joy Bell, Head of Textiles Technology (amongst other things) at nearby Westonbirt School, drew my attention to her pupils’ project to knit blanket squares to be turned into blankets for an Indian orphanage they were sponsoring.

A few weeks later I called in to the school to drop off some squares I’d knitted for them. Manning reception was Irene Smith, who is also the school seamstress, running up impressive costumes for school plays. We started chatting about knitting, and her enthusiasm for real wool from Cotswold sheep, as well as from those of her native Scotland, added a further strand (ho ho) to my story. We were talking for so long that at the start of our conversation, girls in lacrosse kit passed by on their way to a PE lesson, and we were still going strong when they returned.

The Natter of Knitters

cover of The Natter of KnittersBy the time I got home, the plot of The Natter of Knitters, about a village yarnbombing event that goes wrong, had fallen into place. The story features lots of familiar characters from my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series (Carol, the shopkeeper, teaches Sophie to knit, much to Hector’s annoyance), as well as introducing some memorable new ones.

It’s a quick read, at around 20% of the length of one of my novels, and it’s available either as an ebook or as a tiny postcard-sized paperback. If you’d like to read it, you’ll find the buying links at the end of this post.

Forever Knitting

In the meantime, my passion for knitting continues, and I’m currently alternating between tiny knitted flowers for fun and to use up lots of oddments:

photo of knitted flowers
Tiny flowers an inch or two across, including roses, dahlias, tuplips and pansies

and a “lockdown blanket” for function, made in colours to match my favourite Harris Tweed cushion. (There’s a nice piece about the concept of a lockdown blanket here.)

Knitting my lockdown blanket in stripes to echo the thread colours in my Harris Tweed cushion

 


How to Order

cover of The Natter of KnittersEbook To order the ebook online, click here.

Paperback To order the paperback online, click here.
To order the paperback from your local bookshop, ask for ISBN 9781911223511.

 

 

Posted in Events, Personal life, Travel, Writing

Sophie Sayers and Me

Perhaps because I write in the first person and I live in a village in the Cotswolds, readers sometimes assume that my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are partly autobiographical. One of my best friends, who has known me since we were 11, said to me after reading the first in the series, Best Murder in Show, “Sophie Sayers – she’s you, isn’t she?” Today I’d like to explain some of the similarities and differences between us.

Best Murder in Show against backdrop of Cotswold cottages

First of all there is a disparity in our ages. I’m old enough to be Sophie’s mother, but I was only four years older than Sophie when I moved to the Cotswold cottage where I still live and work today.

Like Sophie, I had previously lived in towns and cities before moving to a village, but I moved here with my husband rather than as a single girl on the rebound from a failed relationship.

Cottage Home

This illustration of the Hector’s House bookshop by Thomas Shepherd is in the same style as Sophie’s ficitious cottage (Copyright Thomas Shepherd http://www.shepline.com)

Sophie and I are both lucky enough to live in a Victorian Cotswold stone cottage with a pleasant established garden, but Sophie inherited hers. I had to buy mine, paying off my mortgage a few years ago. I envy Sophie her mortgage-free status from such a young age!

Strangely, when I write about Sophie’s cottage, I don’t picture my current home. That might seem the obvious choice, but it’s the wrong size and shape for my story. Mine is a three-bedroomed semi-detached cottage, whereas Sophie’s is a two-bedroomed terrace. (That’s a row house to American-English speaking readers.)

For the internal layout, I picture an amalgam of my maternal grandmother’s 1920s terraced house in Sidcup and my first house, a Victorian two-up, two-down workman’s villa in Tring, Hertfordshire. Both of those houses were brick-built, but Sophie’s is definitely made from the local honey-coloured Cotswold stone, like all the other old houses in her village.

Writing Ambitions

Sophie and I both harboured writing ambitions since childhood. Like Sophie, when I decided the time was right to start taking my writing seriously, I took baby steps rather than plunging straight into writing novels. Having swapped my full-time job for a part-time one to give myself time to write, I committed, as Sophie does, to writing a monthly column in the village community magazine, in my case the Hawkesbury Parish News. This was to force myself into a regular writing habit and to nurture the discipline of writing to deadline and to length.

cover of Young by Name
You can also read the archive of columns in each magazine in book form

Unlike Sophie, I volunteered to write a second column for a magazine with a larger readership and circulation, the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, which serves the nearby Cotswold market town.

For both publications, I write about seasonal or topical issues, and they’re generally humorous, ending with a smile even when addressing a serious issue such as Covid-19, but the editors give me free rein as to choice of topic.

Sophie, on the other hand, confines herself initially to writing for Wendlebury Barrow’s parish magazine, in which her column is called “Travels with my Aunt’s Garden“. The great aunt from whom she inherited her cottage was a travel writer and filled her cottage garden with plants that remind her of her favourite places around the world. Each month Sophie writes a seasonal piece about a plant currently thriving in her garden and its exotic origins.

Cosmetic Details

There are many differences between us:

  • Sophie’s got light brown hair and blue eyes, my natural colour at Sophie’s age was dark brown, as are my eyes.
  • I’ve never worked in a bookshop or dated a bookseller, although I do love bookshops of all kinds.
  • Sophie is thriving in her job running the Hector’s House tearoom, whereas my only stint as a waitress was in a tea shop in York while I was at university. I was very bad at it and soon made my excuses and left.
  • Sophie’s parents live and work in Inverness; mine retired to Bristol after working in London, Frankfurt, Detroit and Los Angeles.
  • Sophie has taught at international schools, whereas I attended one as a pupil between the ages of 14 and 18.
  • Sophie is an only child, while I have a brother and sister.

Writers’ Retreat as a Turning Point

But there is one final similarity that unites us:  we have both attended writers’ retreats on Greek islands. Mine was on Ithaca, run by author, designer, poet and musician Jessica Bell, an Australian living in Athens. Sophie’s is on a tiny fictitious island just off the end of Ithaca and is run by a specialist company based in London.

Ithaca photo
Wonderful memories and much knowledge gained from the retreat organised by Jessica Bell six years ago

Sophie wins her place on her retreat as a competition prize, whereas I attended Jessica’s as a paid speaker.

Yet both Sophie and I returned from our retreats significantly changed.

For me, the retreat was the turning point that made me realise that I really could write novels. Previously I’d focused on short stories, nervous of tackling the larger canvas of full-length fiction. My eighth novel, Stranger at St Bride’s, is due to launch on 1st July.

Sophie enters her retreat questioning not only her ambition to write books, but also the future of her relationship with Hector.

How is Sophie changed by her retreat? You’ll have to read Murder Your Darlings to find out!


Escape to a Greek island through the pages of the sixth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, now available in ebook and paperback

How to Order Murder Your Darlings


graphic advertising course

How to Create Your Own Writing Retreat at Home

While the coronavirus pandemic hampers foreign travel, writers’ retreats abroad can be only a fantasy. That’s a great shame, because writing is terrific therapy in a time of crisis, even if you write only for yourself.

But here’s news of a different kind of writers’ retreat that you can set up for yourself at home – the new Fictionfire  – you may be interested in a different kind of this talk of retreats has got you hankering after taking such a trip yourself.

My friend Lorna Fergusson, an award-winning author, writing coach and editor, has set up this course online at a very reasonable price ($17 earlybird rate until 21st June, $37 after that). This gives you a lifetime access to the course materials.

Lorna also runs free online writing retreat sessions, and having enjoyed a couple of those during lockdown, I know that her course will be of a high standard (and yes, I have already snapped one up at the earlybird rate!) Click here for more information. 

Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

Invitation to a Free Online Lit Fest & Other Author Events

team photo at Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest
Team line-up from a previous Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest, before social distancing had been invented  – I’m at the centre, arms folded, in my element! (Photo by Angela Fitch Photography)

One of the many things I love about my writing life is the social side – attending lit fests and writers’ groups and meeting author friends for coffee and a catch-up. You don’t need me to tell you that, to quote Basil Fawlty, “that particular avenue of pleasure has been closed off”“.

However, despite my initial reaction that online events are no substitute for the real thing – as a very tactile person, I spend quite a lot of my own Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest (HULF) hugging people! – I’m being won round to the wonders of online litfests and other author events. They have several benefits compared to conventional events:

  • no travel required, so no fare/fuel/parking/travel time necessary
  • they’re generally free to attend (HULF is free, but that’s unusual)
  • they are open to a worldwide audience, so anyone can attend, wherever they are in the world

Your Invitation to Attend Crediton Literary Festival Online (Saturday 6th June)

So in today’s post, I’m extending an invitation to you to join me at the next one: Crediton Literary Festival, hosted by Crediton Library in Devon, on Saturday 6th June. As you can see from the programme below, I’ll be part of a crime and thriller panel at 11.30am, but you’re welcome to attend any or all of the events, wherever you are in the world.

You need to book in advance, as there is an attendance limit of 100 people per session for reasons of bandwidth, but booking is very easy: just send an email to Crediton Library at crediton.library@librariesunlimited.org.uk, stating which event you’d like to attend and how many tickets you require. (NB If you’re sharing your screen with your lockdown housemates, only one ticket is needed.)

Catch Up with my Previous Lockdown Events

Crime & Thriller Panel at MYVLF.com

I’ve also done several other online events since lockdown began, and all are still available to view or listen to.

MYVLF.com (short for My Virtual Literature Festival) is a multiple-award-winning digital organisation staging great litfest sessions all year round via its smart Virtual Theatre interface. (If you’ll look closely, you’ll see two my photo and the cover of my latest novel, Murder Your Darlings!)

The grand virtual setting of MYVLF.com

I was delighted to be part of the Crime & Thriller panel chaired by C L Taylor alongside Mel Sherratt and Trevor Wood. Our discussion is still available to view when you log in to MYVLF and navigate to the Theatre Hall, click on Past Interviews/Events when you get there, and scroll down to our event on Saturday 28th March.

Oakwood Literature Festival Facebook Live Interview

I was honoured to be asked to officially open the Oakwood Literature Festival three years ago, so jumped at the chance to be a guest of their new Facebook Live series of interviews with festival founder Dawn Brookes. Dawn and I both write mystery fiction and have been friends since before the launch of her debut novel, and it’s always good to catch up with her. As Dawn had the foresight to record the Facebook Live session, you can still watch it here:

 

The Writing & Marketing Show Podcast with Wendy H Jones

Today my latest guest spot has gone live, for which I was interviewed by Wendy H Jones, President Chair of the Scottish Association of Writers and author of fiction for all ages. Wendy lives in Dundee, where her books are set, but has also been to my home village of Hawkesbury Upton when she came to speak at HULF last year.

Wendy had asked me to speak primarily about self-publishing, in my capacity as the UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors (affiliate link), so much of the talk is a speedy lesson in how to become an indie author, but we spend the last ten minutes talking about my novels, of which Wendy is a big fan!

Click here to listen to this episode of Wendy’s podcast on the platform of your choice.

You can download Wendy’s podcast on whichever platform you prefer.

I do hope you’ll be able to join me on Saturday 6th June for Crediton Literature Festival – it would be great to see this public library in Devon virtually full! 


Escape to a Writing Retreat through My Latest Novel

cover of Murder Your Darlings
Fly away with Sophie to an idyllic Greek island!

Meanwhile the jury is still out on whether I’ll be able to attend the two writers’ retreats that I’d booked into this autumn – one in North Wales as a guest speaker, and the other simply as a writer in Surrey. Mind you, most of the time these days, I do feel as if I’m on retreat from the world, so they could feel like a busman’s holiday!

In the meantime, if you fancy a taste of a writers’ retreat, you can do so not online, but via the pages of my latest novel, Murder Your Darlings, set on a remote Greek island. It’s full of fun and humour about writers, writing and reading, and I hope it’ll provide you with a welcome escape and a change of scene from wherever you are locked down right now.

Available in paperback from Amazon and in ebook on all the usual ebook sites.

Click here to order your ebook.

Click here to order the paperback.

Posted in Events, Family, Personal life, Writing

Body Clock Versus Alarm Clock: A Lockdown Dilemma

photo of two sleeping kittens curled up
Chez Young we are sleeping like kittens during lockdown – including our new kittens, Bertie and Bingo

I wrote this column towards the end of April for the May 2020 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

Now that all but essential keyworkers are at home all day and most of us are no longer slave to the alarm clock, are you finding your body clock is changing?

In our house, we’ve moved into a different time zone, four hours behind British Summer Time. We’re in synch with Rio de Janeiro.

We’re also sleeping more, typically nine to ten hours a night instead of the usual seven. It feels almost like hibernation, but that’s all wrong for spring.

Anyone for estivation? – a handy word meaning the summer equivalent of hibernation, mostly done to survive periods of drought.

As I’m used to working from home, I’d assumed lockdown wouldn’t affect my writing schedule. When getting up at 6.30am to see my daughter off to school, I used to start writing between 8am and 9am, before any other business of the day might distract me. Now I don’t start writing until mid-afternoon. That’s a much bigger lag than our sleep schedule.

I’ve no idea why this is so, but as with all else in lockdown, I’ve decided to go with the flow and count any day that ends without a crisis as a win.

Our current situation makes clear how artificial “office hours” of 9am-5pm are. How did they ever catch on? Of course, office hours don’t apply to many of those keyworkers whose true value to society is now apparent to us all. I bet many people now enjoying working their own flexible hours from home will be lobbying to retain them post lockdown.

Even so, I will have to break my current habit of stepping outside the front door in my nightie at midday to bring in the newspaper/milk/parcels, as there will once again be passers-by to consider.

Roll on the day when moving the wheelie bin onto the pavement no longer feels like an exciting, slightly illicit outing.


Need Escapist Lockdown Reading?

cover of Murder Your Darlings
Fly away with Sophie to an idyllic Greek island!

While all of my novels class as comfort reads (despite the odd murder!), my latest novel Murder Your Darlings is particularly escapist, as it takes place in the idyllic setting of a tiny, remote Greek island in the month of May. Starting an finishing in the village of Wendlebury Barrow, the action takes Sophie Sayers outside of her comfort zone while she takes stock of her relationship with Hector. Will absence make the heart grow fonder? You’ll have to read it to find out!

Order the ebook for the ereader of your choice here.

While most bookshops are currently closed, order the paperback from Amazon during lockdown – or contact me to provide a copy to you directly.

Addicted to Audio?

image of square version of Best Murder in Show cover, ready for new audiobook
An audiobook bargain at just £2.99!

Audiobooks make a great accompaniment to gardening, decorating, crafts and other activities you may be doing more of during lockdown.

I’ve just discovered that the ebook of my first novel, Best Murder in Show, is currently on special offer at just £2.99 on Audible. (Also available from many other ebook retailers – prices may vary.)

Click here to order your copy on Audible.

Siobhan Waring did such a great job with this story that I’ve just booked her to narrate the audiobook of Secrets at St Bride’s later this year.