Posted in Personal life, Writing

Why Doing A Jigsaw Puzzle Is A Bit Like Writing A Book

(How the gift of a jigsaw puzzle made me recognise interesting truths about writing and the subconscious mind)

Completed 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle
My Christmas present from Laura

When my 10 year old daughter presented me with a jigsaw puzzle  on Christmas Day, I knew it was just what I needed to take me out of myself and away from my keyboard for a much-needed mental rest.

She was surprised that I hadn’t guessed what her gift was after her not-so-subtle question on Christmas Eve:

“What’s your favourite number of pieces for there to be in a jigsaw puzzle?”

Fortunately my answer matched the puzzle that she’d bought: 1,000 pieces. What’s more, the picture was the kind I like best in a jigsaw puzzle: an array of small pictures combined together.

I couldn’t wait to get started on it. I seldom take time out to piece a jigsaw together, but every time I do, I get a frisson of pleasure from the reminder offered by jigsaw puzzles of the workings of the subconscious mind.

Subconscious Solutions for Jigsaw Puzzles

Completed small puzzle
It’s a miracle!

I love the way that you can pick up a piece and slot it immediately into place without thinking. You find your hand has already placed the piece in its correct position before you’ve made a logical appraisal of where it might fit. Only afterwards does your conscious mind catch up, realising, for example, that the slender grass stalk down one side of the piece lines up perfectly with its tip on the piece above. It’s as if some jigsaw-loving higher power is using your hand as its vehicle.

As I was slowly piecing my new puzzle together, it occurred to me that assembling a jigsaw is a lot like writing a book.

  • No matter how carefully you prepare the component parts – the corners, the edges, all the pieces with blue sky or Persian carpet or Delft tiles or pink flowers – the assembly of the puzzle never goes entirely according to plan.
  • When daunted by what seems like an insurmountably difficult section, you realise that if you only apply yourself, one piece at a time, you really can conquer the challenge.
  • Sometimes it works best if you switch your conscious mind off for a bit and let the subconscious take over.

So it is with writing a book.

Different Approaches to the Jigsaw Puzzle

Not everyone tackles a jigsaw puzzle the same way, any more than authors follow the same formula for writing books:

  • When I do a puzzle, I like to keep the box in view, so that I can study the picture and monitor my progress. Every time I look at it, I spot new and helpful details.
  • My husband prefers the “mystery tour” approach, turning the box face down to create a harder challenge. He’d be the sort or writer who prefers not to start with an outline, letting the characters lead the way.
  • Our daughter goes for her favourite parts first, e.g. the big pig in my Christmas present puzzle. She’s named him Steve and put a note in the box so we remember to greet him by the right name in future.
A selection of standard puzzle pieces with different shapes
Meet my new friends

But it may be only writers (or crazy people) who like to anthropomorphise the pieces. As I’m assembling the puzzle, I like to classify the different shapes into characters (clockwise, from top left):

  • the chubby, confident man, with outstretched arms extended for a hug
  • the  synchronised swimmers looking up
  • the ballroom dancer
  • the tractor driver
  • the ballet dancer, leaping across the stage
  • the air-traffic controller, waving a big lollipop to guide pilots around the runway
Wentworth Wooden Puzzle with whimsies
Where my whimsies take me

Although my more sensible scientifically-minded husband may not make making friends with puzzle’s component parts, he does enjoy as much as I do any jigsaw containing “whimsies”. Whimsies are the fancy-shaped pieces dreamed up by the Victorians to resemble specific shapes.

Our near neighbour, the Wentworth Wooden Puzzles company, is famous for its modern whimsies. It riddles its puzzles with pieces in the fancy shapes on specific themes. After completing my Christmas puzzle, we did a Wentworth one with an Alice in Wonderland theme. Camouflaged within the puzzle were an Alice, a Cheshire cat, a white rabbit, and all kinds of other characters from the classic children’s story. The need to accommodate these fancy shapes ensures the rest of the puzzle pieces also take unusual forms. Sometimes there are straight edges in the middle of a puzzle – how anarchic is that?!

The Joy of Completion

Whatever one’s approach to puzzle-making, who can fail to experience a creative joy as each small scene falls into placec? I find it odd that so sedentary an occupation has such power to quicken the heartbeat. And, oh, the heady satistfaction at the puzzle’s final completion, even though the end result is not exactly a surprise.

Where The Similarity With Writing Ends

Of course, the similarity with writing a book only goes so far:

  • Jigsaw puzzle with last piece missing
    Not the same without the vital spark

    The writer never has the problem of finding the cat has chased your words around the table, sending a few of them skittering under the dresser, from whence you have to extract them with a broom handle.

  • Nor does the writer return to her desk from a break to find her husband has, annoyingly, put into place the last few pieces of a finished story, leaving the writer redundant.
  • No writer embarks on the act of creating a story knowing that all of the component parts are right in front of her, neatly laid out and only needing to be mechanically selected and assembled in the right order to produce the required result.
  • But neither does she find herself at the end of a story with the final word apparently missing from the face of the earth, never to be seen again,  the trick with the broom handle having failed.
  • When you start a jigsaw puzzle, there is only one right solution. There are no absolute rights or wrongs about a book.

But what a good thing the similarity only goes so far. Otherwise  all stories would be soulless, no matter how neat and tidy.

When writing a book, even with a clear outline from the start, all kinds of mysterious processes happen along the way to morph it into something bigger, better and more interesting than the plan made it at first appear.

Unlike jigsaw puzzle pieces, the component parts of a story often materialise as if from nowhere, sent spinning out of the subconscious or unconscious mind by the mysterious powers that govern the human brain. Sometimes the act of putting a whole story down on paper can feel like an unconscious act, especially if it’s one you’ve had simmering at the back of your mind for a long time, or if you’ve woken up, as happens often, with a complete story fully formed in your head. That’s when the act of writing becomes more like taking dictation (though any writer who works that way is best advised to spend time consciously refining and editing the piece).

No author wants to write books with the predictability of a jigsaw puzzle. But some days the notion sounds appealing: if the task of writing a book were  as formulaic and straightforward as a jigsaw puzzle, we writers would have a lot more time on our hands and a lot more books in our back catalogue.

And I wouldn’t have to wait till next Christmas for my next fix of the jigsaw puzzle experience.

In the meantime, I’d better get back to my manuscript…

Pile of unsorted jigsaw puzzle pieces

If you liked this post, you might enjoy other posts about writing and creativity:

And if you’re an author yourself, you might like to read my latest post on my Off The Shelf Book Promotions blog:

How To Sell More Books via An Author Newsletter – with special guest David Ebsworth

Posted in Writing

My New Philosophy of Flower Arranging

This weekend, my lovely friend Susanne, whom I’ve known since I was 11, presented me with a beautiful bunch of spring flowers – anemones and tulips (my favourite). As I stuffed them unceremoniously into the first vases that came to hand, (well, we were in the middle of my husband’s birthday party), I inadvertently conducted a floral  experiment that’s brought out the philosopher in me. Or should that be the flowerosopher? I think I’ve just invented a whole new school of thought. Florists, philosophers – you decide….

Sometimes it’s good to be in solitary splendour, regardless of what anyone else is doing – but it can get a bit lonely.

Single anemone in a green IKEA vase
1) Standing, strong, alone.

Other times, there’s safety in numbers, all standing together, disciplined and firm.

Tulips and anemones stuffed tightly into a glass vase
2) Looking pretty but with no room for manoeuvre.

Best of all is when you can be together, but enjoy the freedom to be who you want to be and to go where you want to go in life.

Tulips and anemones loosely placed in a glass vase, arrange themselves
3) With room for manoeuvre, these flowers arranged themselves to perfection.

I know which I prefer.

Thank you, Susanne – you and I definitely belong in vase number 3!

Posted in Family, Travel

The Joy of a Tidy Car

McDonald's Happy Meal logo in Spanish
Have Happy Meal, will travel

As we sit in the front of my car for a speedy lunch on the move, my daughter Laura decides that my car’s designers haven’t thought their task through properly. It is proving near impossible to find a place to stand all the components of  a McDonald’s Happy Meal (don’t tell my  husband), without spilling something that will stain the pale grey carpet.

heart-shaped air freshener in my car
I Heart My Ka

I love my trusty Ford Ka. Its cheeky, chunky shape oozes personality (a bit like a Weeble) and it’s full of useful storage pockets and cubby holes. The lidded cupboard in the back is what clinched the deal when I bought it a few years ago, when Laura was small enough to travel in the back seat. The salesman clearly knew when he had a pushover before him.

small cupboard in the back of my car
The travelling toy cupboard: every mother’s car should have one

“Look at this cupboard – it’s perfect for storing all the little one’s toys!” he beamed. “And think how practical the leather seats are! Easy to wipe clean when she spills her drink or has a little accident!”

He sure knew how to hit my hot button. (The six-disc CD player didn’t hurt, either.) But now Laura’s 9 and promoted to front seat passenger, her standards are more stringent.

“What this car needs, ” she advises, “is a little button just here on the dashboard.”

She points to a space equidistant from our seats.

“And when you press it, a bit of metal pops out, with two rings, just the right size for holding McDonalds cups.”

It’s certainly a good idea – and it would work better than balancing them precariously on our laps, as we are doing now, while french fries cascade onto the floor.

But it’s not all Ford’s fault. There are plenty of storage spaces – it’s just that they are too full of junk to be of any use just now. The trouble with discreet cubby holes is that it’s too easy to stuff them with rubbish and then forget to empty them.

sun tan lotion and book in door pocket of car
The only in-car reading any travelling family needs (for when you run out of Brownie campfire songs)

So I set about with decluttering my car with a vengeance. From the depths, I extract used tissues (but no clean ones), empty plastic food wrappers, used envelopes, tacky lolly sticks, and a small bathroom hand towel (how did that get there?)

Handier but hidden I find charger cables, car fuses, spare car light bulbs, and an ocean of other non-vehicular accessories. A nearly empty bottle of suntan lotion (last year’s), spare sunglasses, fleecy gloves and an ice-scraper show that I’ve inadvertently been prepared for all seasons (handy when you consider the November-like weather we’re having in June). I draw the line at delving into the pockets behind the front seats: my daughter’s territory, these need to be tackled with more determination than I have to spare right now.

sunglasses stored in car pocket
For when my Ka needs a disguise

But with a little application, I discover my sunglasses fit neatly into the mesh pocket above the rear-view mirror (ah, so that’s what it’s for!) My charging cables coil neatly into the redundant ashtray. The passenger door pocket is swiftly transformed from a rubbish bin into a tiny and pleasing mobile library. A new, pristine, unopened packet of tissues is soon nestling by the gear stick, while my indispensable Body Shop Lip Butter looks right at home in a dimple to the right of the dashboard.

All I need to rehome now is my fleece gloves. I glance about for somewhere to keep these constantly accessible (a leather steering wheel can be a very cold thing early in the morning or late at night) and my eye alights on the glove compartment. The glove compartment – of course! Why didn’t I think of that before? Now we’re really motoring…

glove compartment in dashboard
The glove compartment: what will they think of next?

If you enjoyed this post about driving with my daughter, you might like: 

Bubble Mum

Or a post about my battle with another feature of modern cars, try this:  

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the SatNav

Posted in Travel

Dorothy Was Right: There’s No Place Like Home

Living as I do in an area that’s a tourist destination, I’m always curious when I go away on holiday to see whether I can find any other tourist spots that are equally homely. It’s rare to find another place that’s a match for our little corner of the Cotswolds.

Cropped screenshot of Judy Garland from the tr...
"But, Toto, how will I ever get home to the Cotswolds?" (Photo: Wikipedia)

I’m therefore taken aback to come across a small Scottish town that seems on first glance to meet my demanding criteria.

Late one afternoon, en route in our camper van from Perth to the coast of Fife, we encounter a small market town with a familiar air. Spotting brown tourist information signs to a nearby castle, we decide to stay the night and visit it in the morning. We find a place to park near the centre of town, and while my husband reads the paper and my daughter plays with her toys, I combine a recce with a run (I’m in training for the Bristol 10K).

I gently jog down the narrow high street, making a mental note of the facilities. There’s a craft bakers, an award-winning butchers, two charity shops with a high class of junk, and a useful old-fashioned hardware shop.There are signs to a library and a leisure centre and an edge-of-town supermarket. (Sound familiar, anyone?)

The calorific perils of a chippy, a Chinese and an Indian take-away are offset by a slimming club in the old market hall,which also hosts a cafe offering hearty soups, sandwiches and cakes. (Well, this is Scotland). I jog on to the end of town and I’m immediately amidst farmland, where fingerposts beckon me on to pleasant footpaths through sheep-strewn green fields.

Hmmm, this is home from home, I begin to think. I could get to like this place.

Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots, wishing she had Dorothy's ruby slippers (Photo: Wikipedia)

There’s even a local royal connection, albeit not one to ever make the pages of Hello magazine: Mary, Queen of Scots, was once a guest at the local castle and later a prisoner.

Turning left onto a footpath, I jog happily round the perimeter of the town and am rewarded with a glimpse of the castle, in the middle of a small loch. I pause to catch my breath by the ticket office and mentally book a family boat trip to it for tomorrow. Culture, a boat and a spooky-looking setting that would do Scooby-Doo proud – there’s something here to keep all the family happy.

When I head back into town, the charity shops are opposite me, and I notice for the first time that they are in aid of a Scottish children’s hospice. A little further down the road, in the direction of the other end of town, is a sign to that very hospice. A few yards further I pass the high school. It is closed down and boarded up, peppered with danger signs. I’m sure there’s no connection between the closure of the (dangerous) school and the presence of a children’s hospice, but it still makes me shudder with horror. I’m so sad for the children affected by either building.

I run on, hoping to find something cheery to negate the effect of these discoveries. A little ahead of me is a large building, by far the most grand and imposing on the high street. I run a little faster, spirits rising. Level with the gated entrance, I read the sign. It is a funeral directors.  Now feeling thoroughly chilled, I turn on the heel of my trainers and plod back to the van, to find my family waiting. I couldn’t live here, not amidst all this sadness. After all, there is no place like home.

(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, May 2012 issue.)

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one about the lure of home: East, West, Our Village Show’s Best or this one about another country dear to Mary, Queen of Scots’ heart:   Lost In France.

Posted in Uncategorized

Say It With (Fake) Flowers

Logo of IKEA

Frankly, I’m flatpacked out. I’ve reached that stage in my life when my home is more enhanced by getting rid of items of furniture rather than acquiring new ones. And I certainly never want to see another Allan key.

But this doesn’t mean my passion for IKEA is abating. These days my visits target the little bits and pieces that fit easily into my Ford Ka – and chief among those just now is the Ikea artificial flower.

An INSET day provides  the perfect excuse provides the perfect excuse for my daughter Laura (8) and I to mount an assault on IKEA. Using her new-found map-reading skills, honed in this term’s topic on “The Awesome Outdoors”, Laura leads off round the store. She is trailing one of of their small  new yellow trolleys designed to hold an IKEA yellow bag once it gets too full of stuff to carry without crippling yourself.

My main prey today will be some fake plants to create an indoor window box effect on the shelf behind the piano and whatever fake flowers are currently in season. (In season? What am I saying?!) Since we acquired them on our previous trip, long-stemmed sunflowers have been blazing in our bay window as if basking in Provencal sunshine. Even though I know they’re fake, they’ve lifted my spirits through the recent foggy days.

Toy cat with fake flowers from IKEAPeering from the top of Laura’s yellow bag is another device of clever artifice: Lulu, her spookily lifelik toy cat. Whever we allow her the luxury of batteries, she purrs and makes subtle little feline moves. She seems an appropriate toy to have brought with us to the land of IKEA make-believe. Lulu is so lifelike that I sometimes place her in public view in our front room, on the windowsill or sofa, to deter burglars.  I am surprised that no member of staff (sorry, co-worker) requests we remove her from the store. Nor does any mad old lady reproach us for animal cruelty. (I was once scolded by a stranger for leaving Laura’ lifelike, lifesize toy collie dog in a hot car.)

Our mission is successful: as a harbinger of plastic spirng, IKEA is serving up a new stock of gorgeous white daisy-like feverfew floers and long-stemmed golden buttercups. I scoop a dozen stems into the yellow bag, where Lulu is now reposing on a flowery fleece blanket (new, £9.99).

Ikea artificial flowers in green glass vaseDecanting the flowers later into my grandmother’s old green pressed-glass vase on my kitchen table, I’m uplifted every time I pass them by. They may not be real spring flowers, but they’re putting a spring in my step.

Psychological research has proven that artificial plants in an office setting have as much benefit as real ones on workers’ well-being. Naff placebos they may be, but placebos work, and that’s good enough for me. Happy plastic Spring Equinox, everyone.


(What are your naff pleasures in life? I think we should be told!)

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy: Saying It With Trees