Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Why Forget-Me-Nots Are a Recurrent Motif in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries

A tribute to my maternal grandmother through the medium of forget-me-nots

arrangement of book cover, candle and vase
Forget-me-nots in my grandmother’s treasured old pressed glass vase

My maternal grandmother, whom we all called Mam, had simple tastes in flowers: the roses that edged the lawn of her suburban garden; sweet peas grown by my grandfather, Pop, in the vegetable patch at the end of the garden. But when as a teenager I bought her cut flowers, her preference was for freesias.

I suspect I first bought freesias because they were the only ones on the railway station stall that fell within my student budget, but she declared them her favourite.

With the hindsight of an adult, I suspect now she’d have said the same of any flower I gave her, but at the time I took her at her word and ever after I bought her freesias.

“Ah, my flowers!” she would smile, when I presented her with the latest bunch.

I appreciated them too, not just for their exotic fragrance, out of all proportion to the size of the flower, but because they were surprisingly robust, their slender stems having a wiry strength. They were also more dependable. Not for freesias the sulky post-purchase droop of hothouse roses.

Not Forgotting…

But there’s a second flower that I can’t see without thinking of Mam, and that’s the humble forget-me-not.

As any English gardener knows, forget-me-knots readily self-seed and spread. Left unchecked, they’ll carpet a flowerbed in no time. Some people even view them as weeds, defining weeds as any plant that grows where you don’t want it to.

But to my child’s eye, they were enchanting, their tiny flowers like little faces nestling among the furry foliage.

They were flowers fit for a fairy.

The Discreet Charm of the Forget-Me-Not

Forget-me-nots were even more charming than the bluebells that ran wild in the woods behind my primary school. In spring, every classroom windowsill boasted a jam jar full of bluebells, picked on our way to school as an offering for our teacher. No matter how many we picked, there always seemed plenty more.

But in Mam’s garden, the forget-me-not was colonist-in-chief.

As I walked up the back garden path on my weekly visit after primary school, I’d linger to admire them, picking a bunch to present to Mam when she came to greet me at the back door.

I was particularly pleased in the years when she let them run rampant, overflowing the flower bed that ran parallel to the concrete garden path. At the time, I wondered why she looked a little wry when I remarked upon a particularly fine crop.

Only later did I realise that the best crops occurred in the years when she couldn’t find it in herself to keep the garden in order: perhaps the year her beloved big sister Auntie Ev had died, or when my grandfather, Pop, had been very poorly with a stomach ulcer.

Even if these little blue flowers didn’t have their distinctive name, they would, like freesias, ever since have reminded me of Mam.

From Fact into Fiction

And that is why, decades later, writing my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, when seeking a flower to be a motif in her stories, the choice of the forget-me-not was obvious.

In the first book in the series, Best Murder in Show (published three years ago today!), Sophie’s eyes are the colour of forget-me-nots. Without spoiling the plot, Hector Munro, who employs Sophie in his village bookshop and soon strikes up a romance with her, comes to appreciate them too. He pays a special tribute with a forget-me-not theme on Valentine’s Day, towards the end of the fourth book in the series, Murder by the Book. I think Mam would have approved.

forget-me-not vase photographed from above on lace tablecloth


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cover of Best Murder in Show
A fun story set in high summer in a classic English village

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Posted in Events, Personal life

Weathering Storms

Every month, I write a column for our local community magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News. The copy deadline is the middle of the month prior to the cover date. After having spent much of today in my garden enjoying balmy spring sunshine and spring flowers, it seems odd to recall the stormy weather that had come to seem the norm when I was writing my March column, mid-February, which I’m sharing below.

Image by @valentinmuellerandalanmueller via unsplash.com

With Storm Dennis raging outside my study window, I decided to research the naming of storms. The Met Office started this practice just five years ago to make it easier for the media to talk about storms, and so to raise awareness of the dangers they might bring.

A storm is given a human name if it is likely to trigger an amber or red weather warning for wind, rain or snow. A list of 26 named storms is announced at the start of each year, one for each letter of the alphabet. Their names are picked from suggestions submitted by the general public to represent the nation’s cultural mix – hence the likes of Asian Samir and Gaelic Roisin, alongside the solidly English Ellen. The alphabetical list alternates between male and female names. It’s probably only a matter of time before there’s a gender-neutral Robin or Vivan, but Stormy McStormface is a non-starter.

The appearance of Storm Willow in the 2020 list surprised me. I’d always thought of Willow as a good name for a cat, as in Pussy Willow, and it’s currently #23 in the cat name charts. But it’s now also in the top ten for baby girls born in 2020. Who knew? It’s still not a name I’d associate with a scary storm.

But then nor is Dennis, even though psychologists claim that unconscious bias makes us most fear storms with male names. The name Dennis makes me picture a genial old man sitting by the fire with pipe and slippers doing the newspaper crossword. The trees in my garden currently being buffeted about by Storm Dennis beg to differ.

Casting my eye down the list of names for the rest of 2020, there is one that leaps out as easily the most ominous. I can’t help wondering whether the Met Office really thought this particular choice through. In the meantime, look out for Storm Noah, folks – and better start building that ark…

image of double rainbow over landscape
Image by @plasticmind via unsplash.com

Cover of All Part of the Charm
Available as an ebook and in paperback

If you enjoy reading my entries for the Hawkesbury Parish News, you may like to know I have published a collection of my columns from the 2010-2015 issues as an ebook and paperback. 

Click here to buy the ebook on the ereader of your choice.

Click here to order the paperback from Amazon.

Or order from your local bookshop, quoting ISBN 978-1911223023.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Out of the Mouths of Aunts

cover of March 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
To read the whole issue online, click the image

Every month I write a column for the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, a not-for-profit community magazine. In this month’s issue, I shared one of my favourite sources of story ideas: eavesdropping.


As an inveterate eavesdropper, I shamelessly raid overheard conversations for fun phrases to put into the mouths of my fictional characters.

While I may not remember a meeting time from one day to the next (top tip: hold all meetings to coincide with elevenses), when it comes to other people’s one-liners, I have the carved-in-stone memory of a Ten Commandments tablet.

Impressive Pledge

Inspired by old memories

In my twenties, I worked alongside an ardent vegan, in the days when this now common lifestyle choice was rare. One day over coffee she announced that she could only ever marry another vegan. The chance of falling in love with a man who met this as well as all the usual criteria seemed to me about as likely as the miller’s daughter guessing Rumpelstiltskin’s name. Twenty years later, I used her declaration of intent as a starting point for “Housetraining Thomas”, my short story about finding partners in my collection Marry in Haste. (In case you’re wondering, my friend she eventually settled for a vegetarian and in true fairytale style they are living happily ever after.)

Legendary Lessons

A Westonbirt alumna’s quote borrowed with her permission

Working at Westonbirt School in the late 1998, I harvested a great line from former pupil Jane Reid. When compiling alumnae’s memories for the school’s seventieth birthday, I asked, “What’s the most useful thing you learned at school?” Without hesitation Jane replied, “At my prep school, how to steam open an envelope and at my senior school not to sign anything I hadn’t read.” With her permission, I lent her words of wisdom to Miss Harnett (aka Hairnet), the eccentric headmistress in my recent novel Secrets at St Bride’s.

Family Favourites

cover of The Natter of Knitters
Auntie Minnie helped!

I’m equally insouciant with members of my family. Like Bertie Wooster, I’m blessed with a fine collection of characterful aunts. When my father was reading my new novella, The Natter of Knitters, he instantly recognised a favourite saying of his Auntie Minnie’s, spoken in my story by a character worried about the well-being of a very slender neighbour: “Where does she keep her organs?” In a similar vein, my grandmother, spotting someone bending over would say “Have you seen my nice bottom?”

old family photo
Grandmothers and aged aunts – a great source of quotable quotes

I wonder whether I shall pass any memorable phrases of my own down the generations? At the moment, the main contender is “Steady, Teddy”, said to any small child who is getting out of hand (and occasionally my teenage daughter). And that, I confess, was copied from my favourite television programme as a toddler, Andy Pandy. Once a thief…


cover of Young by Name
Earlier columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, available in paperback and ebook

If you’d like to read more of my columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, you’ll find the first six years’ worth in this collection, available in paperback and ebook. I’ll compile another at the end of this year.

Click here to order as an ebook

Click here to order the paperback from Amazon, or ask your local bookshop to order it in using ISBN 978-1911223030.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Nought to 60 in No Time At All

Click the image to read the whole magazine online

For ten years now, I’ve been a regular contributor to the Tetbury Advertiser, a multiple-award-winning community magazine run by the Tetbury Lions. As well as providing a valuable community news service, it donates any profits from advertising to local good causes. I’m proud to be a part of it. 

The monthly deadline is around the middle of the month prior to the cover date, so I wrote my column for the February issue around the time of a very big birthday…

When the calendar flipped over to 2020, I was very pleased. I’ve always liked round numbers. 18 days later, another round number was due to enter my life: I was about to turn 60.

It was hard to understand where all that time has gone. But when I wondered why I was having trouble sourcing a new refill for a favourite pen, I realised I’d had the pen for 42 years.

For the Love of 60

headshot of Grandma in a beret
My beloved Grandma – always me + 60

Despite my natural aversion to growing old, I have always loved the number 60. Write it in Roman numerals (I’m currently learning Latin), and it looks like the suffix of a luxury car model:  LX.

At primary school, 60 was my favourite times table answer. My love affair with maths ended as soon as we got beyond arithmetic.

I also liked 60 because it was the age my beloved grandmother turned just after my entry into the world. Throughout my childhood she was therefore my age plus 60. To my childish imagination, this seemed a significant bond, almost like us being twins, despite her being a Victorian.

The Perks of Turning 60

Back to 2020, and as my big day approached, there were reminders everywhere I went. Signs enticed those over 60 to claim extra points at Boots, 25% off at the local optician, and a significant discount with a railcard.

A few days before my birthday, I found myself in a hospital’s charity bookshop. I’d been meaning to read more Graham Greene since enjoying his autobiography last year, so when I spotted his name on the spine of an ancient Penguin (the book brand, not the bird), I pulled it off the shelf without checking the title.

A Special Vintage

headshot of Debbie Young against Cheltenham Lit Fest logo
Reading at Cheltenham Literature Festival at the tender age of 56 and channelling Grandma’s love of hats

It turned out to be A Burnt-out Case, set in a leper colony in the Belgian Congo. (Whoever donated that novel to a hospital bookshop lacked tact.) Wondering when it was published, I consulted the copyright page. You’ve guessed it: 1960, same vintage as me. At secondary school, I wrote a history essay (possibly with that now empty pen) about the Belgian Congo gaining independence, but I couldn’t remember the year it took place. I looked it up on line. Who’d have thought it? 1960.

Finally, when I woke on the big day, I was relieved to realise that not only did I feel no older than the day before, but that my grandmother, if she were still alive, would next month turn 120 – exactly twice my new age. That pleased me immensely – and made me feel much younger. Then her daughter, my 89-year-old aunt, wrote in her birthday card to me that the sixties are the best time of your life. So, all in all, I’m sold on the idea of turning 60 now. So let the good times roll… and with discounts!

CLICK HERE TO READ THE WHOLE OF THE FEBRUARY ISSUE OF THE TETBURY ADVERTISER FOR FREE ONLINE


For the Love of Knitting

One of the many traits I inherited from Grandma was a love of knitting – the theme of my latest book, The Natter of Knitters.

It’s now available as a cute compact paperback the size of a picture postcard – the perfect size to slip in a birthday card for knitting addict friends! -, as well as in all ebook for

cover of The Natter of Knitters
The first in a fun new series of quick reads

mats.

It’s a quick read – a short novella, about 20% the length of one of my novels – and features Sophie Sayers and friends from Wendlebury Barrow, as well as introducing new ones, such as the officious Mrs Fortescue, organiser of the village yarnbombing event, and Ariel Fey, self-appointed defender of local sheep.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

A Trick of the Light

photo of sunset behind leafless trees
Sunset on Starveall Lane, one of the single-track roads that leads into Hawkesbury Upton

Every month, I write a topical column for the Hawkesbury Parish News, the local magazine run by an apparently tireless team of volunteers, for the benefit of everyone within our local community. What could be more topical for an English village in the middle of winter than a heartfelt longing for signs of spring?

Yesterday mid-morning, in a brief interlude between torrential downpours, there was a clear, fresh quality to the daylight in my back garden. If I were an artist, I would have been reaching for my paints, eager to capture the arrival of spring. Yet the calendar told me winter would last two more months.

I welcomed the arrival of this blackbird every morning last week as it worked its way through old apples left over from last autumn

Unlike my husband, I don’t always trust supposedly scientific evidence. Our bathroom scales are another case in point. Bringing them into the bedroom to weigh himself last week, he was startled to find he’d lost ten kilos. “Put them back in their usual place and try again,” I advised.

Sure enough, when returned to the bare boards of the bathroom floor, the scales showed his usual weight. Those ten kilos were never lost – they were just temporarily mislaid. Like his car keys and his phone, which go missing several times a week, I knew they’d turn up eventually.

Weight is in any case relative and not worth getting worked up about. At my health MOT at the GP surgery last week, the nurse congratulated me: “Well done, you’ve lost five pounds since this time last year.”

Taking the compliment with good grace, I chose not to confess that I’d actually lost a stone – and then regained nine pounds.

But I’ll store up my husband’s experience for future reference. Then when I really want to lose weight and keep it off, I’ll just put the scales on the bedroom carpet.

photo of snowdrops in the churchyard at Slad
More signs of spring in the Cotswolds: carpets of snowdrops at the churchyard in Slad, resting place of the writer Laurie Lee

And In Case You’re Impatient for Summer…

A Free Summer Read!

A fun story set in high summer in a classic English village – first in a series of five novels (book six due out at the end of February!)

If these signs of spring aren’t enough to lift your spirits, here’s a chance to download a free ebook of my novel set in high summer, Best Murder in Show.  For a limited time only, the ebook edition is available to download free of charge from all good ebook retailers (Kindle, Kobo, Apple, etc).

Just click this link to download your copy in the format of your choice. 

Why am I giving it away? I’m hoping readers will get hooked and go on to buy the rest of the series – especially as book six in the series, Murder Your Darlings, is due out at the end of February!

Fortunately, it costs me nothing to give away an ebook as the file is a digital download, with no print or delivery costs. I just wish I could do the same with paperbacks!

More news about Murder Your Darlings soon…