My column for the January issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News
Just before Christmas, a couple of evenings after our internet and landline were felled for a week by the wrong sort of snow, I was unexpectedly detained in Bristol by the need to take my mum to the emergency room at Southmead Hospital.*
As the thick walls of our Victorian cottage don’t admit mobile signals, I was for a moment stumped as to how to let my husband know that I’d be very late home.
Then I realised the solution was simple: I’d text a neighbour to pass the message on. Unbeknown to me, she was away from home too, but she kindly forwarded the message to another neighbour a few doors down. That neighbour happened to be on the motorway at the time, but she phoned yet another neighbour, who then nipped over the road to deliver the message in person. Problem solved.
Returning home towards midnight, I was more grateful than ever to live in a community in which everyone looks out for their neighbours, and not only in the season of goodwill.
It was a bonus that this three-step system had not distorted the original message, Chinese whispers style. Not so when I first started seeing Gordon, who later became my husband, when “He is Scottish and lives in Swindon” quickly morphed into “His name’s Scottie and he comes from Sweden”.
But then, as now, intentions were of the best – and that matters far more than accuracy.
With grateful thanks to Emma Barker, Jane Shepley, and Joan Yuill, and all good Hawkesbury neighbours.
*I should add that my mum made a speedy recovery, so happy endings all round!
Thanks to the unexpected consequences of a snowfall before Christmas, I’ve fallen way behind on my blog.
Who knew that snow and internet don’t mix? Our snow felled an overhead cable, cutting off our broadband and phone line for nearly a week. This crisis was resolved only when a team of engineers dug up the road to fix it. I’m still not sure how snow affected subterranean cables, but so pathetically grateful was I to have the service restored that I was not about to query their methods.
Snow and ice also took out our Sky TV. The satellite dish was covered in snow and ice, and Sky’s technical advice when this happens is simply to wait for the thaw.
After that, I allowed real life to take over from the internet (well, it was Christmas), so I’m now starting my new blogging year already way behind. I haven’t even got round yet to sharing here the monthly columns I write for two local magazines, the Hawkesbury Parish News and the Tetbury Advertiser, and the guest posts I write on the 30th of every month for the Authors Electric collective.
I’m torn: I like to share all those things on here not only so that I have a central record of all my writing, but also because many of you tell me they enjoy reading the columns, because they give insight into life in the rural community that has inspired my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and the Authors Electric post because it’s always about my writing.
But I don’t want to bombard my readers with a string of belated posts.
So what I’m going to do instead is tack those belated columns to the bottom of this post, and then carry on with my new blog plan for 2018, which is to post every Wednesday about aspects of my writing life, such as book news and extracts, event plans and reports and reading recommendations
If you have a particular question to ask about my writing life, don’t hesitate to ask, and I’ll add it to my list of blog post ideas for 2018.
Wishing you a very happy New Year full of peace, joy, love, health, fulfillment and great books!
And if you don’t want to catch up with those missing posts, click away now…
AUTHORS ELECTRIC NOVEMBER 2017
It ain’t what you tell, it’s the way that you tell it: in which Debbie Young tries not to lose the plot
Most authors at some point in their writing lives will come across the advice that there are ONLY SEVEN BASIC PLOTS – or maybe nine, or thirty-six, or various other numbers, depending on whom you consult.
If you’re the glass-half-empty type, it’s easy to think:
“Oh no, how can I ever hope to be original? Someone will have got there before me!”
Whereas glass-half-full types like me may think: “Well, Shakespeare just took existing stories and upcycled them into his plays – if it’s good enough for Shakespeare, who am I to complain?”
Those who can’t even see the glass are probably best advised to throw down their pen and take up golf instead.
The BEST thing to do is, of course, to take your choice of basic plot and wrap around it your choice your characters, themes, setting, etc etc to produce a final story that only you could write.
How Shall I Write It? Let Me Count the Ways
(Photo by MJS on Unsplash)
I took as my starting point for my latest cosy mystery novel, Murder in the Manger, one of the oldest stories in modern culture, the nativity. Sophie Sayers, the central character in this series, writes her own version of the classic Bible nativity story for the village primary school and local amateur dramatic association in the Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow, to which she’s recently moved.
The performance of her script is a story-within-a-story, or rather a play-within-a-play (yes, Shakespeare got there before me on that too, with the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It’s a plot device which complements the themes of transformation and restoration that are wrapped around it in the novel’s main plot and various subplots.
Sophie’s Choice of Story
Sophie’s telling of the nativity includes a lot of humour, including in-jokes for the villagers, (the Innkeeper is the school admissions officer, for example), without ever being disrespectful of the Bible story or offensive to believers. At the end, the vicar even compliments her on making the story more accessible to the audience than a more erudite approach such as the medieval mystery plays, which also get a mention in the story.
I don’t know how many other novels have retold the nativity, as I have in this book – but I think even such a well-known and simple plot can be endlessly reworked and still be compelling. As Sophie’s friend Ella reassures her, when she’s worrying about whether her play will work:
You’re on to a winner, no matter what. No-one can complain that the plot is flawed, or that they can’t work out which character is which, or what their motivation is. Your audience will be determined to enjoy it, come what may. They’ll mostly be related to someone in the cast, so they’ll be willing the production to succeed. You don’t have to worry about technical hitches, because you’re not using any technology – no lights, no microphones, no recordings. What could possibly go wrong?
Of course, this being Wendlebury Barrow, things do go wrong – and by the end of the first chapter, the whole congregation gathered to watch the play is accused of murder by a mysterious stranger.
But my point remains:
a basic plot can be retold in numerous different ways without losing its power
Rather than run through a list of other written interpretations of the Christmas story, I thought I’d go visual to reinforce my point…
And into three dimensions… Not far from where I live, St John’s Church in Chipping Sodbury has just started its annual Crib Festival, which each Advent displays over a hundred different models of the stable scene, contributed by all kinds of people from toddlers to professional craftsmen, with materials as diverse as Lego and coconut shells. I’m looking forward to my annual visit there to remind myself of the many different ways to tell a story.
Sunday supplements’ suggestions for home improvements usually evoke hollow laughter in our house: the gift-wrapping room (who gives enough presents to justify dedicating a whole room to the activity?); the return of wallpaper (at £1,000+ a roll); the subterranean swimming pool (like something from a James Bond villain’s lair).
So the latest trend, the Book Nook, took me by surprise. As soon as I read about it, I wanted one.
What’s a Book Nook?
A cosy corner reserved for curling up with a good book, furnished with copious cushions and throws to keep you cosy while you escape into the pages of your current read.
A Book Nook doesn’t require much investment, provided you can find a little space somewhere in your house. That may be easier than you think. We’ve just created one from a disused inglenook fireplace, previously used primarily as a repository for the cat’s bowls where we wouldn’t fall over them.
Which leads me to suggest that the best way to identify a potential Book Nook in your house is simply to follow your cat.
Cats like to hang out in cosy corners: wide, sunny windowsills, empty alcoves, the cupboard under the stairs, even the airing cupboard. What could be cosier?
So our new Book Nook is where I’ll be heading in future when I want to lose myself in a good book, though I may have to fight the rest of the family, and probably the cat too, for the space.
Once you’ve identified your nook, if you find you’re lacking a book, just head up to the Hawkesbury Stores for the solution to your problem. I’ll be filling the book corner, at the back right of the shop, with carefully selected second-hand books for all tastes and occasions, with all proceeds going to the Stores, alongside a collection of new books by local authors.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to my Book Nook…
TETBURY ADVERTISER – NOVEMBER 2017
When Every Night is Fireworks Night
The Lord Mayor of London’s proposal to abolish woodburners in the city’s Emission Zone should not have affected us out here in rural Gloucestershire, with our abundant supply of fresh air and local logs. I don’t know whether there’s a fuel equivalent to food miles, denoting how far a product travels from source to point of use, but the journey of some of the wood burned in our house can be measured in metres rather than miles.
Even so, his announcement made me realise that it was time to replace my ancient woodburning stove with a more efficient, less polluting contemporary model.
The stove itself had been hinting to us for some time that it was ready for retirement. Bits kept falling off it, and running repairs had become more frequent. By the end of last winter, we’d reached the point at which closing its multi-paned double doors had turned into a Chinese puzzle. Unfortunately, I’ve always been very bad at doing Chinese puzzles.
The stove’s efficiency was also decreasing. This went against the (wood)grain in a household fitted with solar panels, supplied by electricity from sustainable sources (Ecotricity), and populated by habitual wearers of jumpers, thermals and boots throughout the winter.
Considering that we’d bought it twenty-five years ago, second-hand, for £150, we didn’t feel it owed us anything. So we made for the nearest stove showroom, prepared to splash out. We plumped for the most environmentally-friendly woodburner on display, designed to burn wood at the optimum temperature for fuel efficiency, while minimising emissions and particulates. In short: more heat for less logs – and a conscience as clear as the new stove’s window.
Now in pride of place in our inglenook stands a neat iron box with one large rectangular window in its single door. The stove’s size and shape remind me of the television we had when I was a child, and it’s just as compelling to watch. Its clever design keeps the glass forever clear, providing a constant display of flames and sparks from an ever-changing array of kindling and logs. It’s like having a Guy Fawkes’ Night display in the comfort of my own front room.
But best of all, the fire works.
I wish you a cosy November, however you choose to keep warm.
HAWKESBURY PARISH NEWS – DECEMBER 2017
Lighting Up Time
We’re fast approaching the shortest days of the year, when in cloudy weather it feels as if it never really gets light at all.
Successive days and nights meld into one long chunk of darkness, like a forgotten bag of boiled sweets that have congealed into a single, indigestible lump.
I was therefore pleased to read in last month’s Parish News a call from Councillor Sue Hope to light up our windows on the evening of 9th December to coincide with the switching-on of Lee’s lights and the illumination of the Christmas tree on the Plain.
Actually, I’ve been channelling my inner druid since about Halloween, turning on the string of coloured lights at the front of my house to brighten up dark evenings and drive away the SAD. By that I don’t mean repelling gloomy door-to-door salesmen, but Seasonal Affective Disorder, the form of depression induced by winter months.
A few years ago, before peak Scandimania, there was a trend to display little wooden arches of electric lights, candle-style, in our front windows. The last couple of festive seasons, these seem to have all but disappeared, perhaps naturally extinguished as their bulbs failed and couldn’t be replaced.
Such are lightbulbs, and such is life. Lighting up your windows on 9th December will be more than just an act of community. It’s an assertion that despite the darkness of these dreary winter days, we stand on the cusp of a whole new year of village life. All we need to do is keep the faith, and the sunny summer days that bring the Hawkesbury Show will roll round again, no matter how far off they might seem now.
I wish you all a bright and merry Christmas, and a peaceful New Year full of life and light.
When you reach a certain stage in life, it becomes nigh impossible to know what you’d like for Christmas. Once you’ve paid off your mortgage and got the kids into net profit, if you want something, you buy it for yourself, regardless of the time of year.
Or at least you do if, like me, you are a spendthrift but with modest tastes. I’m in that happy stage between the habitual end-of-month overdraft of the heavily mortgaged and the mid-life crisis for which the prescribed cure is a sports car.
Consequently, until yesterday, my Christmas wish list was blank. Then, walking instead of driving up the road to buy a few groceries, (my usual car habit done for the sake of speed – if only Father Christmas could bring me more hours in the day, I’d put them on my list every year), I realised I longed for an old-fashioned shopping trolley.
Not the horrid trolley only ever seen in supermarkets and upside down in ponds; nor the aluminium, nylon-bagged kind; nor even the medically-oriented type with so many functions that it almost qualifies as a caravan: shopping bag, seat, balance aid. No, what I crave is the old-fashioned wicker basket on two wheels, pulled by a long wooden handle that looks like a walking stick sent out to work for its living. My grandmother, born in 1900, used hers on every expedition to her local shopping parade in the London suburb in which I grew up.
Grandma’s trolley held just enough shopping for a few meals, plus a ball of knitting wool from her named box at Rema’s, the drapers. (We bought our jumpers in installments in those days.) She could always squeeze in a quarter of sweets from the sweetshop too. Her every-other-day shopping habit had been formed when food was bought in small quantities, fresh, dried or in cans, before the fridge, never mind the freezer, had become commonplace.
When I shared a photo of such a trolley on Facebook yesterday, several friends confessed they wanted one too. We thought if we all acquired one, we might make them fashionable. After all, they do chime with the trend to shop local and on foot, rather than in a stressful supermarket sweep by car.
But my Christmas present won’t just be a low-emission form of shopping transport. It will also be a time machine, taking me back to the days before globalisation, when a trip to the shops with Grandma meant me begging for a turn to pull her wicker shopping basket on wheels. Eagerly I’d clasp the wooden handle, burnished smooth by constant use, as were Grandma’s silken hands, stilled so long ago. Perhaps the imperative to shop local on foot isn’t the real reason that I want a wicker trolley after all.
Whatever is on your Christmas list, I hope you’ve been good enough all year for Santa to oblige. And if not, there’s always 2018.
Well, that’s my blog all up to date now! Stay tuned for the first “proper” post of 2018 on Wednesday…
I’m lucky enough to live in a village with a profound sense of community, and never is it more strongly visible than on Remembrance Sunday.
On Remembrance Sunday, villagers come together to process down the High Street from the former Hawkesbury Hospital Hall (built to nurse injured soldiers in wartime) to the war memorial on the Plain (our village green) at the centre of our village. All local groups are involved, either in laying wreaths at the service or taking part in services in school or in church or in one of our two chapels.
I don’t remember this degree of commemoration when I was my daughter’s age, living in suburbia in the 1960s.
Perhaps the war was still too close for my parents’ and grandparent’s generation – they wanted to forget. Although it’s now so much longer since the end of the Second World War, I feel much more conscious of it now.
For this reason, and slightly to my surprise, I found myself writing it into the Christmas special of my latest cosy mystery novel, Murder in the Manger, whose timeline runs from 6th November to the week before Christmas.
My Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are essentially comedies, but there’s always at least one serious, and, I hope, moving scene. One such scene that I found myself writing in Murder in the Manger takes place on Armistice Day (11th November) in the village school, in which villagers join the children in the village school. During a short service of commemoration, the children recite the names on the war memorial, many of whom, as in Hawkesbury Upton, are still represented in the village by their descendants (Chapter 13 We Will Remember Them). It also draws the reader up to consider who in their acquaintance would be called up to fight should there ever be another such war. (Chapter 14 We Can Be Heroes)
I know that is something I consider every year, as I stand quietly at our war memorial during the service there, observing the young men and women in the crowd who would be sent to fight, or who would not have long to wait for their call-up papers. My daughter, her friends, and her peers.
This small episode in my novel is my small tribute to those that sacrificed their lives in both World Wars and to their bereaved families and all those who loved them, not just in Hawkesbury Upton, but all around the world.
(My column for the October 2017 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser)
People often say to me “I don’t know how you do so much”.
But I have plenty of sins of omission, because, as an optimist, I am constantly trying to fit more into the day than can physically be done.
I wish I could bring myself to subscribe to the Fall Off the Desk rule invented by my former boss. She held that if you ignored a task for long enough, there’d no point in doing it.
Harnessing Time’s Chariot
Not being that defeatist, I decided last month to re-embrace the timesheet. Years ago, working as a consultant, I had to keep timesheets to demonstrate I’d spent no more hours on a client’s business than they had contracted to pay for. These days, my chief client is me, but I hoped the practice might help me get more ticks on my action list each day – or at least excuse me from wasting precious time on the ironing.
The last time I filled in timesheets was before the invention of smartphone time management apps. We got by with paper lists or commercial systems such as Filofax. Such systems may look smart, but they’re not exactly exciting. My novelist friend Alison Morton‘s husband’s collection of Filofaxes earned him a place in the book Dull Men ofBritain, alongside a drainspotter. No, that’s not a typo.
Squirrelling Time Away
So this time round, I decided to go high-tech, choosing from a wide selection an app called Toggl, because it reminded me of Tog, the red squirrel from the 1960s children’s television series Pogle’s Wood.
Toggl lets you set a timer running as you begin each new task. My first experiments were fun, but flawed, due to pilot error. I kept forgetting to turn it off when I went to lunch, logging five-minute tasks as taking an hour. Usually I turn my computer off before I got to bed, but when I forgot, Toggl recorded a gruelling night shift. I may burn the candle at both ends, but I’m not that bad. With constant mistakes reducing its accuracy, Toggl’s novelty started to wear off, and I wondered whether to send the little squirrel into hibernation.
Tuning into a New Trick
Then by chance over breakfast, I heard an article on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme promoting the importance of idleness to the creative mind.
To be more productive, it suggested, I shouldn’t be managing my working hours but increasing my down-time.
I already knew my best ideas arise when I’m not actually trying. Sure enough, after the programme finished, I got the idea for this column not at my desk but while in the bathroom cleaning my teeth. Well, it could have been worse.
Here’s to a season of mists and mellow idleness for us all. I think we deserve it.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read my collected columns from my first six years of writing for the Tetbury Advertiser.
Now available in ebook from all good eretailers, and in paperback online and from your favourite independent local bookshop – just quote ISBN 9781911223030 to order.
The Tetbury Advertiser has just won another award for parish magazines – best for content and third place overall. Congratulations to the Tetbury Lions, who run it to raise money for charity, to the tireless editor Richard Smith, and to all my fellow contributors. What a team!
My Young By Name column from the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
Whenever I’m on holiday, my writer’s habit of eavesdropping on other people’s conversations goes into overdrive.
It is particularly well rewarded this August in the heart of Inverness’s shopping district, a regular pit-stop when we’re touring the Highlands in our camper van.
Outside the Co-op in a seedy side street, a cluster of pale, unkempt young men is hanging on a bedraggled, older woman’s every word. She looks like she is holding court, giving her loyal troops their instructions for the day.
“There’s the cemetery, like, the graveyard. There’s always the graveyard.”
I am unsure whether this is a deployment directive or a warning against disobedience.
As my teenage daughter checks out Primark, a father and his little girl are idling in the toy section. He must be under orders to occupy her while his wife enjoys a bit of low-budget retail therapy. The child, decked out in princess pink, is beautiful: strawberry blonde curls, blue eyes, sweet face. She seems to be taking the lead in the entertainment stakes, so perhaps the maternal instructions were for her to keep Daddy amused, rather than the other way round.
“Let’s play chicken,” she suggests brightly.
He looks blank, unsure of the rules. I pretend to browse a nearby rack of t-shirts while I wait to find out.
She seizes two plastic bazooka-style guns from a nearby display.
“You’ve got to shoot me, and I’ve got to shoot you. Bang, you’re dead! Now you shoot me. Now we’re both dead.”
The father looks dumbstruck, and I suspect I do too. What has he raised? The natural successor for the lady outside the Co-op?
Half an hour later, towards the top of town where the smarter shops are, I am heartened by the approach of a more wholesome-looking family group emerging from Marks and Spencer: a father, son of about ten, and daughter young enough to be riding on her father’s shoulders. They are all bronzed, beautiful, and glowing with health. They could have stepped out of the pages of an upmarket Sunday lifestyle supplement.
Their glowing tans make me wonder which country they’re from. The Highlands is awash with foreign tourists in summer. Parked near our van that day are high-end cars registered in Monaco and San Merino, as well as the usual swarm of Italian, French, German, Spanish and Dutch motor homes. Then I spot the boy’s West Ham supporters’ scarf.
As the group passes by, the little girl’s crystal tones ring out in Queen’s English: ‘Well, everybody has to pass wind.”
I suspect Daddy may be regretting offering her a shoulder ride.
Tourists in Tetbury
I wonder what Tetbury’s tourists take away from conversations they hear in its streets? Listen out next time you venture into town – you may find your routine shopping trip more entertaining than you expect.