Posted in Personal life, Writing

The Early Bird Catches the Focaccia

This post first appeared in the July/August issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of July/August issue of the Tetbury Advertiser“Only in the Cotswolds!” commented a friend when one Monday morning I posted on Facebook a photo of what I’d just put out in my garden to feed the birds: green olive focaccia and grissini. (And yes, before there are letters to the editor, I did soak it in water first, so as not to dehydrate the birds.) I thought the birds might appreciate dinner-party leftovers as a change from my daughter’s school lunchbox leavings.

Even more Cotswold would be a selection of Hobbs House bread and some trimmings from Tetbury’s House of Cheese, all drenched in elderflower pressé and served up on a wooden trencher hand-carved from a piece of Westonbirt Arboretum wood.

I should probably also have served it in an elegant little Boden dress, covered with a Cath Kidston pinny. I failed on both counts, despite my predilection for the latter’s handbags. And sadly none of it had been nowhere near a middle-aged man wearing oxblood corduroy trousers.

Back to Basics

In fact what my friend took to be a gourmet treat for my little feathered friends was more slummy than yummy. The olive focaccia being reduced for quick sale before loitering in my freezer for a few weeks. The grissini was not the rustic hand-rolled type, but straight white mass-produced batons, bought for a young visitor who eats only bread that looks as if it’s gone a few rounds with a bottle of bleach.

But I’ve come to realise that gourmet cooking is in the eye of the beholder. In a supermarket recently, I overheard a lady saying proudly to her friend “I cooked porridge from scratch the other day”. Er, water, oats, oats, water – there’s only so much that you can do with that. Her claim struck me as not far removed from saying “I prepared a banana from scratch” when all she’d done was peel it. But in a world in which you can buy frozen baked potatoes and frozen scrambled eggs, perhaps I should not be surprised.

Fly-by-Nights?

Fortunately my garden birds are not foodies, and they’re not much bothered by sell-by dates. (Don’t worry, letter writers, I never leave mouldy food out either.) But I was a little puzzled that most of the food put down after my daughter got home from school, still there when I went to bed, would entirely disappear by the time I opened the curtains at breakfast time, without me ever seeing a single bird tucking in.

Another social media friend came up with the answer: “If the birds don’t get it, the rats will.”

To be on the safe side, I’ve now changed feeding time in my garden, so that I’m up in time to see who’s coming to Garden Café Young. If the dawn chorus want a snack before I’m up and about, they can jolly well catch the proverbial worm. Even so, I have to say this morning when I put out their daily rations, I have never been so glad to see a blackbird.


image of covers of first three books in the Sophie Sayers series
My series of village mystery novels is inspired by my daily life in the Cotswolds – just click on the image to find out more about them
Posted in Personal life, Writing

Making Hay Fever While the Sun Shines

This post was originally written for the July issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

A Hawkesbury summer

I don’t mean to sound like one of those townies who on moving to the countryside complains about pesky tractors slowing them down or inconsiderate cockerels crowing at dawn, but this year I’ve found the hay fever season particularly troubling. On the days when the pollen count is at its highest, I feel like I’ve been ambushed by an invisible demon casting gravel down my throat, sand in my eyes and pepper up my nose – all effective sleep deprivation techniques that leave me dysfunctional by breakfast time.

My usual first resort for healthcare advice is the NHS website, but having waited all winter for this glorious summer weather, I will not be following their top tips: stay indoors, close all windows, and don’t dry your washing on the line.

A plea for alternative remedies that would still allow me to have a summer produced several alternatives to prescription and over-the-counter antihistamines. I’m sharing them here in case they help you too. These three are definitely helping me already:

  • Invisible armour: smear Vaseline around your nostrils and eyelashes to trap pollen before it reaches your system (it may not be a good look, but boy, is it effective!)
  • Clean sheets: change your pillowcase every night to avoid pollen build-up
  • Hose down: shower before bed to chase away lingering grains from hair and body

I’m about to try these:

  • Fight fire with fire: take a teaspoon of bee pollen a day (you can buy it in jars – no need to chase bees around your garden with a butterfly net)
  • Grasp the nettle: a daily drink of nettle tea (commercially available nettle teabags will take the sting out of the preparation)

My go-to winter cold remedy, hot water with honey and lemon, is also very soothing, especially for the sore throat. Local honey, available from Hawkesbury Stores, is meant to be best for hay fever, though Sandringham Estate honey, a gift from my sister who holidayed nearby, also works a treat for me. I’m guessing the Queen Bee was involved in that one.

To end on a positive note, at least hay doesn’t actually give you a fever. But that’s the kindest thing I can think of to say about it.


image of covers of first three books in the Sophie Sayers series
My series of village mystery novels is inspired by my daily life in the Cotswolds – just click on the image to find out more about them

 

Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

My Dream Office (with a little help from the National Trust)

This post first appeared on the Authors Electric collective blog

shot of Debbie going through a gate into a graveyard
Debbie Young, going places…

“Where do you write?” asked a very pleasant lady at a talk I gave recently to the Cheltenham Writers’ Circle.

I gave my standard answer: how lucky I am to have my own study in my Victorian Cotswold cottage, with a big desk facing a window that looks out over the garden.

But next morning, when I sat down to write there, I shrieked as a sharp pain shot from my spine to my ankle, reminding me that lately I had been spending far too long at my desk-with-a-view – and I felt desirous of change.

Prompted by the arrival of my new National Trust card in the post the day before, and licensed by my friend and mentor Orna Ross to fill the creative well with a weekly “create date” with self, I stowed my purse, my shades, and my notebook and pen into my backpack, donned my walking boots, and set off to nearby Dyrham Park.

photo of Dyrham Park manor in deer park
The long and winding road down through the deer park to the spectacular Dyrham Park
The long and winding road down through the deer park to the spectacular Dyrham Park

Ok, I confess, I drove there (well, it is about eight miles away) – but on arrival, I eschewed the visitor bus service and set off down the path to this beautiful stately home, nestling at the bottom of the deer park, in search of a different place to write my daily words.

A cosy nook beckoned me from inside a hollow tree

This old hollow tree looked tempting. I’ve always had a soft spot for hollow trees since reading Enid Blyton’s The Hollow Tree House (over and over again) when I was a child. Unfortunately this one was roped off from public access.

I proceeded to the main house, skirting round the building – it was too sunny outside to be indoors – admiring beautiful Delft pots of tulips on the way. (This was a few weeks ago now.)

The original owner had served as Dutch ambassador

I thought the chapel would come in handy if my writing wasn’t progressing well and I needed a quick pray, but sadly it was locked.

The chapel now serves as the parish church.

There were plenty of seats to choose from with scenic views of the flowerbeds…

To sit in sunshine or shadow? – depends on which end you choose

…although I might be tempted to take pity on the gardener and lend him a hand with the weeding.

I think he might benefit from a bigger wheelbarrow

Wildflower meadows complemented the formal planting, replete with so many traditional English plants that I found Oberon‘s seductive lines running through my head…

“I know a bank where the wild thyme grows…”
Great swathes of forget-me-nots – a humble plant invested with a special significance in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries – brought me back to the purpose of my visit: to write.
Not forgetting…
I turned my back on the lake to investigate what looked at first glance as a kind of wooden hammock.
Nature’s hammock?

…but closer inspection revealed a forbidding sign.

Then – who’d have thought it? – I found myself on the threshold of the National Trust gift shop. I do like a National Trust gift shop. Thoughts of writing were quickly forgotten as I snapped up a lovely new linen sunhat, a book about drawing (a hobby I’ve wanted to take up for a long time), and some souvenir postcards.
Running out of time to get home for my daughter’s return from school, I got the bus back up the hill to the car park, and returned home feeling like Wordsworth inspired by his visit to Tintern Abbey, rested, revitalised and refreshed by my impromptu outing, back at my normal place of work.
“Home again, home again, jiggety jig”
And where did I write this post? In Dyrham Park’s excellent tea room, of course. At last – I’d discovered the perfect office!
  • To find the nearest National Trust property to you, click here
  • To find out more about my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, click here
  • To order any of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, click here.
  • To read other posts by the Authors Electric, click here
Posted in Events, Writing

The Reluctant Murderer Finds Partners in Crime at CrimeFest

This post first appeared on the Authors Electric collective blog at the end of May. 

Partners in crime at CrimeFest, on a panel chaired by the fabulous Zoe Sharp, far left

In the same month that I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association, I also pitched up on a panel at CrimeFest. An unlikely duo, you might think, but my cosy mystery series has a foot in both camps, with a strong romantic subplot  underpinning the murder in each novel.

In some respects it’s a similar situation to visiting Greenwich and being able to stand on the Meridian line with one foot in the east, the other in the west. Further variety is added by a generous helping of comedy running throughout my books.

But I’m by no means the only one to tread such a complex path, genre-wise. Fellow CrimeFest panellist Alison Morton adds alternative history to her crime/romance split.

Deemed by The Guardian to be the best crime writing festival in the world

A Multiplicity of Murderers

Just because two authors write in the same genre, doesn’t mean their books need have much in common. While each of my books has “Murder” in its title, none of them are that dark. One reviewer, Rosalind Minett, a career psychologist, describes mine as “uplifting murders”. Certainly my books include plenty of life-affirming threads and happy endings for everyone except the murderer(s).

Reluctant to Murder

The fourth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery

Sometimes I even provide a stay of execution for the murderer’s intended victim. I’ve started describing myself as The Reluctant Murderer, because sometimes I have to force myself to polish people off. I took no chances with my latest novel, Murder by the Book, shoving someone unceremoniously down a well to their death in the very first chapter, before my resolve could weaken.

And in the book I’m currently writing, Springtime for Murder, (Sophie Sayers Village Mystery #5), I’m as yet undecided as to whether the person who gets hit over the head with a hammer will be allowed to survive. (“Might knock some sense into X,” Billy has just muttered, about 20k words into the manuscript.) [Update on 25th June: I’ve now finished writing the first draft and it’s not looking good for the hammered one…]

Different Shades of Danger

My first in series, Best Murder in Show, stood out on the bookshop table at Crimefest as practically the only one with a sunny blue sky on the cover. The rest were mostly murky muddy colour palettes, or various shades of bruising. But that’s fine, there’s room for all kinds – and many readers enjoy the whole range.

Sharp as a Zoe

I hadn’t met our panel’s host, Zoe Sharp, before the day of our talk (the last of the four-day festival), but a reference to her in a previous talk had me alarmed. A member of the audience asked that panel what was the best way to kill a person with a knife with a single would to the head.

“That’s easy enough,” said the chair, “but if you ask Zoe Sharp, she’ll tell you how to do it with a biro.”

What’s in a Name?

Sharp by name, I thought… though her name too is a mixture of light and dark, with Zoe being Greek for life, in contrast to her surname that might be chosen as a pseudonym filled with threat, hinting at razor blades and flick-knives.

As it turned out, Zoe was sparky, smiley and smart, and while her books may be full of combat, her direction of our panel was pure fun.

Which just goes to show: it takes all sorts to make a murder story.

You couldn’t meet a nice bunch of murderers – a quartet of CrimeFest authors: David Penny (seated) next to me, Alison Morton (standing left), Carol Westron (standing right)
Posted in Events, Writing

The Reluctant Murderer at Oakwood Literature Festival

cover of the June issue of the Tetbury AdvertiserThis post first appeared in the June 2018 edition of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser.

“I have a no-murder policy,” said the tall, softly-spoken man in black.

If, like me, you were obliged to sit beside him for the next hour, would you be reassured by that remark, or alarmed?

What if that statement had a similar impact to those “Keep off the lawn” signs that make you want to do nothing so much as kick off your shoes and run barefoot across it, desperate to feel the cool blades of grass tickling the soles of your feet?

Or to those tantalising signs in the swimming pools that list all the things that you’re forbidden from doing: “No diving, no bombing, no running”, etc – I’m sure you can reel off the list as well as I can – at the same time helpful providing a clear line drawing showing you exactly how to commit each of those offences.

Having a murder policy of any kind might even exert the power of suggestion, in the same way that the instruction “Don’t think of oranges” immediately makes you think about oranges.

It’s All About the Context

Of course, context is all. If the man’s statement had been an unsolicited chat-up line in a wine bar, or his opening gambit at a speed-dating session, I would have been worried. What else might he have up his sleeve? “I have a no wife-beating policy.” “I have a no-coveting-my-neighbour’s-ox policy.”

Cover of Child Taken by Darren Young
Don’t worry, they all live to tell the tale

As it happened, it was music to my ears, as what had brought Darren and I together was an invitation to speak on a panel at the Oakwood Literature Festival in Derbyshire last month, and he was describing his approach to writing his psychological thriller, Child Taken.  As I am a writer of crime novels that are more Miss Marple than Nordic Noir, I really have to force myself to kill people for the sake of the plot. I’ve even started describing myself to readers as “the reluctant murderer”, which no doubt comes as a relief to my friends and relations. Listening to Darren, I was glad to know I wasn’t alone in my reluctance.

So as introductions go, his opening line was much more innocuous than one might assume. Although it turned out his surname was also Young. Now that was creepy.


set of four Sophie Sayers booksTo read more about my cosy mystery series, in which all the murders are gentle and sometimes there’s even a stay of execution, click here.

Cover of Young by NameAnd if you’d like to read more of my whimsical columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, here’s a book of the first sixty of them, available in ebook and paperback.