Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

The Alchemy of Marrows

My column from the September 2019 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

My current stockpile of marrows from my cottage garden

“A glut! How rural!” said a city-dwelling friend when I complained about an excess of vegetable marrows.

The dictionary defines a glut as “an abundant supply – more than one could need or sell”. Some might argue that when it comes to marrows, a glut is any number above zero. At the Hawkesbury Show, auctioneer Nick Cragg always raises a laugh when he adds “and a marrow” to the list of items in a lot – you can’t give marrows away in the country at this time of year.

photo of auction in progress at Hawkesbury Village Show with Nick Cragg and Terry Walton
Country Property auctioneer Nick Cragg this year was aided by BBC Radio 2’s allotment guru Terry Walton

But each spring, knowing they’ll provide a guaranteed crop, untouched by the caterpillars and slugs that decimate brassicas, it’s hard to resist the temptation to plant them. This year, in an attempt to make the inevitable glut more interesting, my husband planted a yellow variety.

What’s more, we’ve now alighted upon a satisfying way of using them up: with the aid of a spiraliser. This hand-cranked mechanical cutting device is a bit like a giant’s equivalent of Grandma’s old-fashioned mincer.

photo of a spiraliser sideways on
The spiraliser – reminiscent of the traditional mincing machine

Position the marrow on the shaft, turn the handle, and a tangle of long, thin ribbons emerges through the cutting disc. Spiralising yellow marrows, I feel like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold in the Grimms’ fairy tale.

photo of spiraliser end on with ribbons of golden marrow
Tada! Spinning marrows into gold.

Simmer or stir fry the spirals briefly to provide the perfect vehicle for the pasta sauce of your choice. Who’d have thought the much-maligned marrow could give you three reasons to be cheerful? Courgetti spaghetti, to use the gourmet’s euphemism, counts as one of your five a day, save calories and carbs compared to pasta, and reduces your marrow stockpile.

So if you came home from the Hawkesbury Show with a marrow surplus to requirements, now you know what to do with it. And if you didn’t, I’m sure there’ll still be a few going begging in our household by the time you read this…


Seasonal Fiction for October

In Trick or Murder?, Sophie’s adopted village of Wendlebury Barrow must choose between Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night – risking the wrath of the strange new vicar, the Reverend Neep, who bans their traditional Halloween festivities. Join Sophie and friends as she tries to get to the bottom of what drives this strange fellow – and to prevent the despatch of more than just a guy on the village bonfire. For more information, and to read the first chapter for free, click here.


cover of Trick or Murder?
Available in paperback and ebook, with a lively story spanning Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night

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Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

Back to the Future

My column for the September edition of the Tetbury Advertiser

There’s nothing like a holiday in a place very different from home to give you a fresh perspective. This summer we headed for East Anglia, as flat as the page of this magazine. Not only was the landscape a change from the gently undulating Cotswold hills, but we also learned a lot about British history.  

The Norfolk landscape, flat as your computer screen, but stunning all the same

Going Underground

Neolithic flint mines: who knew? I thought flint was just something you found on the surface. But Neolithic tribes discovered that the best type for spearheads lies in a vertical seam thirty feet below the ground and sank pits to dig it out. Near Thetford, my husband and daughter descended a mine-shaft ladder to bear witness. (Smart delegation on my part.)

Rising Up

In the city museum of Ely, birthplace of republican Oliver Cromwell and base for Hereward the Wake, resistance leader against the Norman invasion, we learned the remarkable story of how the flooded fenland has been reclaimed and made farmable over the centuries. They’re nothing if not determined, these East Anglians.

Ely Cathedral took my breath away

Rising High

But for me the highlight was a trip to a history festival at Castle Rising, once owned by William the Conqueror’s brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, commissioner of the famous tapestry. Dozens of linen tents pitched around the grounds housed historical reenactors in costumes from throughout the last couple of millennia.

A small boy toddling past me in homespun tunic clutched a green plastic Thomas the Tank Engine.

“Ah, a time travelling baby!” I observed.

“Just don’t ty to separate him from Thomas,” replied his dad, a medieval peasant. “Some Romans tried that earlier, and there’s not much left of them.”

A passing Agincourt archer showed me his quilted jacket, thirty-one layers thick to withstand arrowheads.

“I like your sunhat,” I smiled, thinking he must be melting in the heat.

“Armoured straw,” he said with a wink.

But this was no cosmetic exercise. Also on show were impressive demonstrations of historical skills, from handforging chainmail to armed combat with a vast array of authentic weapons. Now I know what a poleaxe looks like, I realise how devastating being poleaxed would be. This stout stick taller than the soldier ends in a combined dagger, axe and hammer – a medieval forerunner of the Swiss Army knife, on a grander scale.

How did ordinary people cope with such gruesome methods of fighting? A Redcoat, polishing his musket, explained.

“It was just normal life to them. When you’re used to slaughtering your own livestock to survive, the only difference in battle is that the blood and guts spilled are human.”

Afterwards, my daughter asked me which era I would choose to live in. I was quick to reply. “The modern era, but in ten years’ time, when all this Brexit nonsense is over and done with.”

And if it’s not, at least I now know how to fell a politician with a poleaxe.

Unfortunately my camera had a flat battery when we arrived at Castle Rising, so let’s close with some classic Norfolk lavender instead!

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Have You Read My Latest Novel?

Secrets at St Bride’s – A School Story for Grown-ups is now available in paperback and ebook. It’s a fun, gentle blend of cosy mystery and romantic comedy set in an eccentric English girls’ boarding school. As the series title suggests – “Staffroom at St Bride’s” – it’s about intrigues among the staff rather than the girls, but it will appeal to anyone who enjoyed reading school stories when they were younger, from Malory Towers to Chalet School to Molesworth! Click here to find out more about it and to read the opening two chapters for free.


Posted in Writing

Why I’m Writing My Books By Hand in Fountain Pen

photo of vintage Parker Lady Pen
My favourite fountain pen – a vintage classic

This post was inspired by my author and editor friend Belinda Pollard, who posted on her Facebook page recently that she’s trying to write by hand rather than direct on to her computer, and asking for other writers’ experiences. Here are my thoughts on the topic.

“You write your books by hand? Are you nuts?”

That’s the typical reaction when friends discover that these days I’ve reverted to old technology to write the first draft of my novels: fountain pen and A4 wide ruled file paper, as we used at school and university.

Technology – Mightier than the Pen?

In this golden age of technology, when we have so many labour-saving alternatives at our disposal, why am I not typing straight onto my computer? After all, I am a very fast touch-typist. (Most useful skill I ever learned! – read my post on that topic here.)

And why, when I have a digital hand-held voice recorder and Dragon Dictate voice recognition software on my PC, am I not sitting back and dictating my stories? Especially as I have rheumatoid arthritis which restricts the mobility in my hands.

Dictation has its attractions, eg it encourages you to write more fluidly in natural speech patterns – especially helpful when your books contain a lot of dialogue, as mine do.

I’ve tried all of these routes – though I’ve yet to have the luxury of dictating to a real person, Barbara Cartland style! (I don’t have the requisite little dog either!) I dictated my second novel, Trick or Murder? in its entirety, (boy, did that speed things up!) The other novels have been a mix of typing and dictation.

Back to the Fountain Pen

But now I’m writing my seventh novel entirely by hand, and I’m loving it, especially since I discovered some interesting justification: that writing by hand connects with the brain in a different and more creative way.

Why fountain pen rather than ballpoint pen, fibre tip or pencil?

Fountain pen is easier on the hand as you don’t have to press hard. Use a good quality ink and pen and it flows effortlessly across the page, which is a pleasant experience aesthetically, and has a calming, meditative effect, no matter what you’re writing.

Sample of handwritten manuscript with pen
The story so far… the current manuscript for Sophie Sayers’ sixth adventure, Murder Your Darlings.

20 Reasons to Write by Hand

If you’d like to read more about the benefits of writing by hand, click this link for a blog post listing 20 reasons, Although it is primarily talking about handwriting at school and college, many of the reasons apply throughout your writing life, as point 5 in their list makes clear:

In 2009, researchers at University of Washington found that elementary aged students who wrote creative stories with a pen on paper far exceeded the performance of their peers. Not only were the writers able to complete their assignments faster than the typers, they also wrote longer compositions with more complete sentences. Perhaps this is why so many novelists prefer to compose their first drafts in longhand form – that is, with pencil and paper – despite having access to a computer of typewriter.

I especially like their final point: that pen and paper aren’t connected to the internet and all of its distractions! Increased productivity is definitely a plus point.

On the Other (Inky) Hand

Of course, there are downsides – not least, if you’re using a fountain pen as I do, inky fingers, and the blue scar on the pine floorboards beneath my desk where I dropped a bottle of ink, having lifted it up by the top, only to discover it wasn’t screwed down tight!

photo of floorboards stained blue with ink
The inky floor beneath my desk

And the manuscript still has to be typed eventually. If you type it up yourself, you can count that as the first round of editing, as you’ll inevitably make a few tweaks and corrections as you go along. As I’m currently short of time, I’m using an author services company, Zedolus.

Over to You

How do you prefer to write whatever you need to write? I’d love to know!

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Have You Seen My Latest Novel?

Secrets at St Bride’s – A School Story for Grown-ups is now available in paperback and ebook. It’s a fun, gentle blend of cosy mystery and romantic comedy set in an eccentric English girls’ boarding school. As the series title suggests – “Staffroom at St Bride’s” – it’s about intrigues among the staff rather than the girls, but it will appeal to anyone who enjoyed reading school stories when they were younger, from Malory Towers to Chalet School to Molesworth! Click here to find out more about it and to read the opening two chapters for free.

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Why I’m Writing Novels Set in Boarding Schools (For a Grown-up Audience!)

Well, what’s not to love about novels set in boarding schools? Most of us grew up enjoying the likes of Malory Towers and The Chalet School, even if we never set foot in a boarding school ourselves.

Although the world of vintage boarding school stories may seem dated by modern standards, to adult readers, they continue to grip young readers and retain the allegiance of those of us who read them as children ourselves

What’s in it for Readers?

For readers, there’s something compelling about the world of the boarding school, with its unique rules and vocabulary that wouldn’t make sense beyond its boundaries. Readers enjoy joining that fantasy world and feeling a part of it – hence the huge merchandise sales for the Harry Potter franchise.

The setting naturally throws together disparate characters with interesting and varied backgrounds, all great ingredients for a story.

The tropes of boarding school life will be familiar to adults who grew up reading Chalet School et al, which means there is plenty of scope for gentle humour built on their fondess for these vintage classics.

What’s in it for Writers?

For the novelist, the boarding school offers a contained community in which characters are thrown together with no escape. They must face challenges and overcome them together, and their characters grow in the process.

To a writer of mystery stories, the boarding school, usually segregated from the outside world by a clear physical boundary, presents a neat device to isolate victim, suspects and onlookers while the crime is solved.

In the Footsteps of Agatha Christie (but with more laughs…)

St Bride’s isn’t quite as isolated as Agatha Christie‘s famous stranded train in Murder on the Orient Express (it’s just a bike ride away from Wendlebury Barrow, the village in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and there is some cross-over between the two series) – but you get the idea.

(Incidentally, my current work-in-progress, Murder Your Darlings, the sixth Sophie Sayers mystery, is set on an island beset by a storm, from which none can escape, and which the police can’t access – as in Christie’s And Then There Were None, although my body count will be much lighter.)

St Bride’s School provides a unique and eccentrica environment for the education of girls

Why Me?

There’s another reason I chose to write about a boarding school. It’s a world I know well, having worked in one for thirteen years, as a member of the office team rather than as a teacher. I loved the sense of community, just as I love the community spirit of the Cotswold village in which I’ve lived for nearly thirty years, so this is in part a celebration of community. The world of St Bride’s is completely fictitious, with all the characters and situations completely invented, but the school I worked at was the springboard for my imagination, just as living in Hawkesbury Upton inspired me to invent the world of Wendlebury Barrow in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries.

What’s Different about St Bride’s?

While I have fun with school routines and customs such as the prefect system and school dinners, the focus of the St Bride’s series will be the behaviour of the staff. I remember as a schoolgirl being fascinated by the secret world of the staffroom, and the formal relationship fostered between staff and pupils.

For example, at the girls’ grammar school I attended between the ages of 11 and 14, pupils were not allowed to know the first names of staff. In Secrets at St Bride’s, the girls are running a book on the teachers’ names. One of the younger pupils speculates that Miss Bliss’s initial O in stands for “Obergine” – because she’s heard the Geography teacher, Miss Brook, complain over her moussaka at lunch that she hates aubergine.

However, at St Bride’s, the secrecy goes one step further: the staff keep secrets not only from the girls, but from each other, with potentially deadly results. With the story told by new arrival Miss Lamb (but you can call her Gemma!), you, the reader, will become slowly acclimatised to school life as she does. Together you unravel the surprising secrets that are putting the community at risk.

What I Don’t Write About in this Series

What I’ve steadfastly avoided in this series is the kind of boarding school scandal that pops up now and again in the media or in memoirs. You won’t find any corporal punishment or abuse at St Bride’s – it’s a gentle, caring environment, but not without perils of a different kind. What are those perils? You’ll have to read the books to find out!

How to Order Your Copy of Secrets at St Bride’s

The first St Bride’s novel, Secrets at St Bride’s, is now available to order online and will soon be available to order from high street bookshops too.

As ever, if you read and enjoy the book, please consider leaving a brief review online, to encourage others to read it too! Thank you very much!

Posted in Events, Personal life, Reading, Self-publishing, Travel, Writing

A Trip to the Van Gogh Exhibition and More Serendipitous Inspirations

In keeping with Orna Ross‘s recommendation to replenish the creative well by going on a “createdate”with yourself every week to a fun, stimulating place, I book tickets for the Van Gogh Britain exhibition currently running at London’s Tate Britain Gallery. I bend Orna’s rule by taking my teenage daughter with me, because Van Gogh is her favourite artist and this seems the perfect focus for quality mother-and-daughter time.

Van Gogh Britain Exhibition

The exhibition is even bettter than we thought it would be, demonstrating how a three year stay in London before he began to paint influenced Van Gogh’s themes and style, and how his own paintings went on to influence subsequent generations of British artists. It was not only art that influenced him, but also British literature, his favourite being Charles Dickens, and the architecture and ambience. He particular enjoyed the views from the Thames Enbankment, a constant source of inspiration to artists and writers.

Afterwards my daughter and I channel our inner Van Gogh by walking along the Embankment on our way to Trafalgar Square, via Whitehall, then back down the Mall and through St James’s Park, as I point out historical and cultural landmarks along the way. I enjoy introducing her to the landmarks that as a Londoner I grew up with, and have never felt fonder of my home city.

3 Unexpected Pleasures

But as always with planned trips, serendipity yields more food for thought. On this trip to London, three incidents stand out for me that transported us out of London and around the world:

  1. Waiting at the bus stop for our coach to London, we’re approached by what I assume to be an unremarkable old man, in old-fashioned windcheater and slacks. He is clutching a Sainsbury’s carrier bag, and I assume he’s come into Chippenham to do a bit of grocery shopping. When he strikes up a conversation with us, we discover he is also London-bound, on his way to meet a former student he taught in Macau as Professor of Intercultural Trade and Relations. He still teaches for in China, Hong Kong and Macau, for three months a year, the maximum visa period. He gives us plenty to think about on our way to London. My key takeaway is “Never judge a man by his carrier bag.”
  2. Strolling down the South Bank of the Thames before our allocated time slot for our date with Van Gogh, at the foot of the Oxo Tower we chance upon Latitude, a free exhibition of wildlife photography, an array of breathtaking pictures of Arctic polar bears, Antarctic penguins, and all kinds of animal in between, including cheetahs frolicking as playfully as domesticated kittens and a tiger apparently leaping towards the photographer with murderous intent. From a modestly tiny picture of the photographer Roger Hooper in the exhibition brochure, I recognise the grey-haired man lurking diffidently in the corner. “Excuse me, are you the photographer?” I ask. “Yes,” he says with a smile. “How many risks do you take to get such fabulous shots?” I ask, indicating the hungry tiger. “Ah,” he smiles wryly. “You’ve picked the one shot that isn’t entirely real. That tiger is the one used in the film The Life of Pi, and i had a piece of meat on a stick dangling from my hand beside the camera. I photoshopped the background in and blurred it afterwards.” That still sounds pretty risky to me. The mental image of that set-up is almost as pleasing as the resulting photo, which I can’t reproduce here for copyright reasons, but you can find out more about the photographer Roger Hooper and view his pictures on his website here. You may also be interested in his laudable charity to help build a brighter future for African girls here: www.hoopersafricatrust.org.
  3. The final surprise of the day is when, exhausted, we’re sitting in St Martin’s in the Fields Crypt Cafe, enjoying our tea, when my eyes alight upon what seems to me the most perfect piece of brick wall. The pleasing array of colours in such a neat grid reminds me of Van Gogh’s thick daubs of rich colour, and to an artist’s watercolour paint box filled with the promise of the pictures still locked inside the neat rectangles of pigment. Whether prompted by our encounter with the Professor at the bus stop, or the amusing snap of Roger Hooper apparently being photobombed by a giant panda, it also puts me in mind of the Great Wall of China and all the wonders of the world, whether natural or manmade. My daughter is bemused by my fixation with beautiful bricks (“I can’t believe you posted bricks on Instagram!” she crows later) after all the sights we have seen, but to me it seems a neat and fitting end to a stimulating day, and the perfect end to an enjoyable July.
A paintbox in brick form in the crypt of St Martin in the Fields – could be an artist’s palette for skin tones

Thank You, July, It’s Been Fun

And what a busy July is has been! It kicked off with included a week in Scotland (see my earlier post), finishing my latest novel for publication, and completing a new novella to be sent as an free ebook to my mailing list next month. (If you’re not already on my mailing list, you can sign up now via the form at the foot of this page to receive your copy in August – sorry, originally intended for July!)

I also enjoyed being a part of the usual monthly BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club, in which we talked this month about Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, 300 years old this year but still a cracking read. If you’d like to hear what we had to say about this and other bookish talk, you can listen again for the next couple of weeks on BBC Sounds via this link – we’re in the first hour of the show.

Our discussion about Robinson Crusoe included reminiscing about the wonderful old children’s TV series that we all grew up watching

One other highlight of July for me was starting to write guest posts for the IngramSpark blog. IngramSpark is a huge printing company that not only prints books for all kinds of publishers but also puts them into the distribution system for high street bookstores. All my books are published via IngramSpark, which means that you can order them from your favourite bookshop rather than online. I love bookshops – a good bookshop is an invaluable part of the high street and of the wider community, so I’m really glad to be able to drive trade their way.

IngramSpark’s blog is aimed at authors rather than readers, but if you’d like to read the post I wrote for them, about writing productivity, here’s the link: https://www.ingramspark.com/blog/writing-1000-words-a-day-finding-better-ways-to-measure-productivity-finish-your-book

So that’s it for July. And despite my careful plans for a productive month ahead, I wonder what serendipity August will bring?

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