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!
For Writers’ Wednesday (#ww), a post about writing fiction. This post first appeared on the Authors Electric blog, for which I’m now a regular monthly contributor. (I write a new post on the 30th of each month).
If you go down to the woods today…
When I started writing my new series, the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and set myself the ambitious target of publishing a cycle of seven novels over two years, I had no idea how much I would come to enjoy escaping into its fictitious Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow.
Having now drafted the first three in the series – Best Murder in Showwas published in April,Trick or Murder?will launch in August, and Murder in the Manger will be my 2017 Christmas special (no surprises there) – I feel as if the characters are old friends. I feel entirely at home with them.
That shouldn’t really come as a surprise, because in real life, I’ve resided in the small Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton for over a quarter of a century.
Both the fictitious and the real village are safe, fun but eccentric places to live. (Well, safe apart from the odd murder – only in Wendlebury Barrow, ouf course.) Frequently heard in response to Hawkesbury Upton events is the phrase “You couldn’t make that up!” There are probably more implausible events happening in the actual village than in the pretend one.
I love living in Hawkesbury Upton, and although I’ve been careful to make all my characters and events fictitious, I write about Wendlebury Barrow in celebration of the kind of village life that surrounds me.
I’ve only once so far caught myself writing “Wendlebury Upton.”
Of Darker Places
Which leads me to wonder whether authors who write much grittier crime books than mine feel the same about the grimmer worlds that they have conjured up. Do they live in places like that? Do they want to visit them? I don’t think so. Yes, I do know about catharsis, but the closest I get to enjoying it in fiction is in the likes of Alice in Wonderland, with its classic “oh thank goodness it was only a dream” moment.
As for me, I’d rather feel safe all the time, whether weaving stories in my fictional world or walking the streets of my home village.
Not for me the more violent books, films or television programmes that my husband enjoys. You probably know the sort of thing I mean: where the soundtrack consists almost entirely of the physical impact of violence (fists on flesh breaking bones, bullets sinking into fleshy targets) and the dialogue would be half the length if all the swear words were omitted.
Or maybe that’s why he watches them – precisely because they make me swiftly leave the room. Perhaps straight afterwads, he channel-hops to “Strictly”.
Incitement to Murder
However, I must admit that writing the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries is also in part a response to his previous complaint that “nothing happened” in my three volumes of short stories – well, nothing violent, anyway.
My pre-planned series of titles commits me to at least one murder per book. My only problem now is that I’m getting so attached to the characters that I don’t want to kill any of them off.
Which my neighbours in Hawkesbury Upton will probably be very glad to know…
The first Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Best Murder in Show, is set in the summer months, at the time of the traditional village show, so it makes the perfect summer read. It’s now available to order Amazon in paperback or ebook here, or from your local neighbourhood bookshop by quoting ISBN 978-1911223139.
My column for the June edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News
Having grown up in a suburban semi, identical to every odd-numbered house in the street (the even numbers were its mirror image), I’d always wanted to live in a house where you couldn’t guess the layout of the rooms from outside. Moving to my Hawkesbury cottage allowed me to achieve that goal.
Here, visitors regularly get lost trying to find their way out.
Our new extension has added a further surprise. Now that it’s nearing completion, we really must start calling it something other than “the extension”. For some unknown reason it’s labelled “the breakfast room” in the plans, although we don’t expect to eat breakfast there. I need to change the name before it becomes ingrained.
I missed that trick with our utility room. Now every time I refer to it, I picture Batman’s utility belt, instead of a laundry.
So I’m going to wait to see how we use our new room before deciding what to call it. I feel like one of those parents who refers to their new baby as “Baby” for a week after it’s born, while trying to decide which name would suit its looks.
I did the opposite with my daughter, naming her Laura some weeks before she was born. What a good thing she turned out to be a girl.
And in case you’re wondering why I named her Laura, and with such certainty, before we’d even met, this post from my archives will tell you:
My friend David Penny, who writes historical novels set in Spain, has just been accepted to appear on A Place in the Sun. This television programme helps weather-weary would-be expats find a new home in the foreign country of their choice.
Authors make great candidates for the programme because as people who spend their days imagining themselves in different places, they’re good at walking into a house and picturing what it might be like to live there. Relocating to the place that’s the setting for their books must feel like a dream come true.
Tempting though it is to pitch for a spot myself, not least because the show’s guests get a free week’s holiday out of it, it wouldn’t work for me, because the novels I’m writing now are set in a small fictitious Cotswold village called Wendlebury Barrow, inspired by Hawkesbury Upton.
All characters and incidents are entirely fictitious, not only because I don’t want to be sued. It’s also because events in Hawkesbury are often so funny/bizarre/surprising that you couldn’t make them up if you tried.
And that’s another reason I’m glad to be living here. At this time of year especially, it may be cold, wet and grey, but life in Hawkesbury Upton is certainly never dull.
(This is my November column for the Hawkesbury Parish News, published just before the annual village Bonfire Night celebrations)
I’m old enough to remember not only the time when “Penny for the Guy” was a common cry at this time of year, but when a penny would be enough to buy something.
You could get four fruit salad sweets or a chocolate mouse for a penny. Or for just a few pennies, you could buy the cheapest fireworks from our local Post Office. My favourite was a box of coloured matches, while naughty boys preferred bangers or jumping jacks. Children were allowed to buy them, and we did. These days we may complain that health and safety regulations have gone mad, but looking back, you can see why we needed to invent them.
My favourite childhood memory of Fireworks Night was our family party. Raised in London suburbia, I was lucky enough to live in a house on the corner of the street, with a wrap-around garden big enough to host a decent bonfire without torching either the guests or the neighbours. That’s something you couldn’t do in most modern estate houses.
Each year our guy got sent on his way atop a pile of crumpled newspaper and sticks. In that simpler age, it didn’t occur to us to build a bonfire shaped like anything other than a bonfire.
Not so now we live in Hawkesbury, where the village bonfire is always a spectacular structure: Tower Bridge last year, complete with London bus. What shape will this year’s be? Whatever it is, if the old guys we used to make could see it, they’d be flabbergasted. Some guys have all the luck, they might say.