Posted in Personal life, Reading

The Biography is in the Bedroom

Photo of Howard's End is on the Landing on my bookshelf
I blame Susan Hill…

In this month’s Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m sharing my experience of reorganising my bookshelves.

Ten years ago, I was given a copy of Howard’s End is on the Landing, Susan Hill’s memoir inspired by the chaotic state of her bookshelves. This gave me the idea of reorganising my books, library style, and I displayed her book on my landing to remind me of my plan.

In all that time, I got no further than occasionally taking the book down to dust it.

Opportunity Unlocked

Then came lockdown, offering enticing glimpses of immaculate bookshelves of famous people broadcasting from home. Once more I began to yearn for shelves so neat that they’d have space for other items, from pot plants and family photos to curious kittens with a head for heights.

after reorganising bookshelves
…but I’m pleased with the end result

With bookshelves in every room in my house, reorganising my books was no small undertaking. Yet a week after I started, not only is Howard’s End on the landing, but so is the rest of my fiction.

Poetry and biography have moved to the bedroom, including, pleasingly, some poets’ biographies. Arts, crafts, history and music now have their own space in the extension, and cookery, gardening, and rural interest live in the kitchen.

Science, politics, philosophy, geography, and Scottish books are assigned to my husband’s study, while mine is reserved for writing reference and research books. Phew.

How Many Books Do I Really Need?

As the process required me to remove every book from its original position, I took the opportunity to reject any that didn’t “spark joy”, as Marie Kondo puts it. Incidentally, the Japanese decluttering guru believes no household needs more than 10 books, despite having written two herself. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and kept my copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying.

New Lives for Old Books

image of Teach Yourself Rapid Reading on the shelf
Now all I need to do is read them

I set aside some of the rejected books to replenish the Little Free Library on my front wall. (Books awaiting their turn out there are stored in the dining room.) The remaining ten bags full I donated to the Bookbarn* a warehouse near Wells stocking a million second-hand books for sale at bargain prices. The good news is that while delivering my donation, I bought only ten more books. I count that as a win.

Everything in its Place

Cover of shorthand edition of Sherlock Holmes book
I rediscovered forgotten curiosities such as this Sherlock Holmes book entirely in Pitman Shorthand

Every day now I gain so much satisfaction from gazing at my new-look bookshelves that I’m surprised it took me so long to get round to streamlining them. After all, I’m the sort of person who likes to have everything in its place. In my purse, for example, I make a point of sorting the banknotes in descending order of denomination, the right way up, and with the Queen facing me as I take them out to spend.

Not that sorting my banknotes takes very long, being far less numerous than my books. Do you think the two facts might be related?


*The Bookbarn gets a mention in Stranger at St Bride’s, as the source of a place to buy books by the metre for decorating pubs and the homes of the pretentious!

In the eighth book of my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Hector Munro, proprietor of the village bookshop, Hector’s House, will be starting a vintage department, using his vast personal collection of curious old books currently housed in the spare bedroom of his flat above the shop. I think my shorthand Sherlock Holmes book would be right at home there! 

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Kitten Therapy

During the early part of lockdown, the Tetbury Advertiser furloughed itself for a couple of issues (May and June). With content that is events-led, reporting on recent events and anticipating imminent ones, it seemed a sensible step. However, it’s good to see it return for its summer issue (a joint July/August edition, for which I wrote this piece about our new kittens, acquired just before we began to self-isolate. As ever, you can read the whole issue online – here’s the link for the July/August edition

(I also wrote about kittens for the June issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, and I posted that article on my blog here last month- so apologies if this sounds familiar!)

There’s nothing like the acquisition of kittens to lift the spirits, and ours couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

We arranged in February with the Stroud Cats’ Protection League to adopt a pair of boys as soon as they were old enough to leave their mother. This took us to Saturday 21st March, a pleasingly auspicious date on two counts: the first day of spring and my parents’ anniversary (67 years and counting).

Silver Linings

Back in February, little did we know that collecting the kittens from the kindly foster-carer would be our last family outing before lockdown. Ever the optimist, I soon realised that enforced confinement at home would give us the best chance of bonding with our new arrivals, especially for our daughter, who would otherwise have been at school all day.

photo of Bertie with his head in a mug of tea
The kittens share many of our simple domestic pleasures. Bertie is especially enjoys fishing for teabags.

Once home, inspecting the adoption papers revealed another good omen: the kittens had been born on my birthday. This happened also to be the date our senior cat, Dorothy, a former stray, adopted us seven years ago. We called her Dorothy after the character in the Wizard of Oz who finds herself unexpectedly far from home. We named Bertie and Bingo, both boys, after the skittish, privileged and generally irresponsible young men in PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories.

Dorothy, my personal assistant at my writing desk – where the kittens are not allowed, for fear of the ensuing chaos

Bertie and Bingo, after spending the first nine weeks of their lives in a pen (albeit an ample one), were initially content to keep to one room in our house. Since my husband built his room a couple of years ago, we had, with a singular lack of imagination, referred to it simply as “the extension”. Now I think of it as The Drones’ Club, which is where Bertie Wooster and chums take their meals in the Jeeves novels, often leaving chaos in their wake.

Advised to keep the kittens indoors for a couple of weeks, we eventually let them into our enclosed garden. We kept them on tiny harnesses to slow them down until they’d got their bearings. Bertie and Bingo do everything at high speed, unlike our senior cat, Dorothy, who lopes around languidly like the Pink Panther.

kittens curled up asleep in base of plant pot
In their early days, the kittens moved so fast it was hard to get a photo that was not blurred – until they were asleep.

Off the Leash

After a few days we allowed them to roam at will, gradually expanding their territory and surprising us with their feats of athleticism. They share a talent for scaling vertical walls with the power and grace of Spiderman. Bingo has proven a dab paw at swingball, which he sees as a scaled-up version of their scratching post, which happens to be topped by a ball on a string. Bertie prefers the trampoline, climbing to the top of the netting surround with ease.

photo of kitten in tree
Bingo and Bertie both love to climb the fruit trees in our cottage garden

It’s only when one of the kittens tries to squeeze into the cardboard box that used to be big enough for both of them that we realise how much they have grown. I haven’t yet dared step on the bathroom scales to see whether lockdown has had the same effect on me.

(The next issue of the Tetbury Advertiser will be out in September, as they also publish a double issue for July/August.)


Cats and Kittens in my Stories…

cover of Stranger at St Bride's
Spot the cat! McPhee appears on the cover of both my St Bride’s novels

As a cat lover, it’s perhaps inevitable that cats and kittens feature in my novels, often serving to move the plot along and adding new dimensions to the characters.

In Springtime for Murder, the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Sophie acquires a kitten, while investigating the strange goings-on at the Manor House, where Bunny Carter, a sparky elderly lady, lives with a houseful of cats and her cat-averse daughter.
(Buying links: buy the ebook online herebuy the paperback online here, or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN  978-1911223344.)

In Stranger at St Bride’s, the first in my St Bride’s School series, McPhee, the headmistress’s cat and constant companion, joins forces with Gemma to try to drive away the unwelcome stranger, with comical results.
(Buying links: Buy the ebook online, buy the paperback online  or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 979 19 11 223 597.)

(I’ve just realised that in both cases the cats are black – I suppose that’s what comes of writing mystery stories!)

 

 

 

Posted in Personal life

Off the Garden Wall

nest of three glass dishesIn my column for the July issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I addressed an ancient form of rural trading: the use of your front cottage garden wall as an impromptu shop counter. It’s a common sight in the English countryside to see home-grown produce sold this way, especially in times of summer surplus,with payment made via an honesty box. Where I live in the Cotswolds, and I’m sure in other rural regions all around the UK, lockdown has triggered a new twist on garden-wall trading – the free distribution of unwanted household goods.


Social media posts saying “It’s on my front wall” have become commonplace during lockdown.

As we declutter our houses, the front wall has been the closest we can get to a charity shop drop-off. This method has the added bonus of feedback. I was gratified to hear from a local boy’s mother how thrilled he was at the progress of the mint plant he’d adopted from me.

The prospect of free gifts in someone else’s front garden lured me out for my first village stroll after twelve weeks of shielding. I returned home with abundant bounty:

the perfect pot in which to store my kitchen knives

a small vase just right for the pinks I’m currently cutting every day

small pottery vase of pinks

a set of pressed glass dishes the colour of rosé wine that makes me smile every time I see them

trio of pink pressed glass bowls

and a planter just like the one I used to admire as a small child at infants’ school. (The less useful a memory, the better my recall.)

china planter with succulents

But the pleasure lies deeper than in the initial frisson of acquisition. What makes such trophies special is knowing the circumstances in which they have been given.

Antique dealers set great store by “provenance” – the record of an item’s ownership to show it’s genuine and honestly come by. The provenance of “off the wall” items is precious in a different way. Such things are being gifted, often to strangers, in a spirit of generosity fuelled by the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves.

To me these items will always be souvenirs not of Covid-19 but of the kindness of neighbours and of their propensity to offer solace in a time of crisis.

I hope such exchanges continue long after lockdown is over. I for one intend to keep putting surplus items on my front garden wall, weather permitting. With the triffid-like growth of the mint in my garden, I should have plenty to go around.


Village Trading in Wendlebury Barrow

I haven’t yet used this idea in my village mystery series. In the fictitious village of Wendlebury Barrow, all shopping scenes take place either in Carol Barker’s village shop, where she stocks goods in alphabetical order to make them easier to find, and Hector’s House, the bookshop and tearoom where Sophie Sayers works. But I’m adding it to my ideas book for future use.

There must be a good mystery plot hinging on the mysterious appearance and disappearance of various goods on Sophie’s front wall!

Best Murder in Show against backdrop of Cotswold cottages

If you’ve not yet encountered Sophie Sayers, you might like to know that the sixth book, Murder Your Darlings, was launched at the end of February, and I’m currently planning the plot for the seventh, Murder Lost and Found.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

A Lockdown Date with Kittens

photo of two kittens on fleecy blanket
Two sources of comfort in lockdown: kittens & the Hawkesbury Parish News

During lockdown, our community magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News, has heroically continued to publish, thanks to its dedicated team of volunteers writing, editing, printing and distributing it about the village.

In the absence of news of events, which usually makes up a large part of its content, the editor, Colin Dixon, has solicited plenty of new and interesting editorial to fill the space, including personal lockdown diaries by local residents.

Although many of the services advertised in its pages are suspended during lockdown, these companies are continuing to support the magazine, as they book and pay for a year’s advertising each January. They deserve our support in return when normal life returns.

In these strange times, it is comforting to see the Hawkesbury Parish News drop through our letterbox each month, giving some semblance of normality and regularity to the disrupted pattern of life in the time of Covid-19. A huge thank you to the whole team for your continuing service to our community.

Now here’s the column that I wrote for the June issue. 

 

Photo of cat gazing into fish tank
Bertie enjoys cat television

My top tip for lockdown entertainment is to acquire a pair of kittens.

We did this only by chance, collecting Bingo and Bertie (named after P G Wodehouse characters) at nine weeks old, two days before lockdown.

21st March seemed a particularly auspicious day for us to bring them home. Not only is it the Spring Solstice, but it was also my parents’ 67th wedding anniversary.

Reading the adoption paperwork when we got home, I was astonished to find that they were also born on my birthday, January 18th – the same day that our older cat Dorothy moved in. Dorothy was a stray found by neighbours (the Rounds) in their garage on a school snow day. She was personally delivered by another neighbour, Roland Starling, when I joked on Facebook that she could be my birthday present – that’ll teach me to be flippant! Best birthday present ever, though!

Dorothy, my personal assistant, reporting for duty at my writing desk
Photo of cat with head in mug of tea
A nice cup of tea always goes done well. (Bertie likes to search for teabags and lift them out with his paw.)

As Dorothy did when she first came to live with us, the kittens have provided daily cheer and distraction. The timing of their arrival has meant that we have spent as much time as possible bonding with them, and they settled very quickly.

Much as we love the kittens, my daughter has already declared that she is looking forward to seeing how they turn out when they’re full grown. I know just what she means. When she was born 17 years ago, I worried that I might be sad when she grew up. I soon realised that at each stage of development, I loved her even more.

Of course, kittens are for life, not just for lockdown, but I’m glad to have at least this one positive souvenir of these challenging times.


We are very grateful to the Cats’ Protection League for caring for our kittens until they were old enough to leave their mother. Their loving care gave Bertie and Bingo a wonderful start, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that they are such affectionate, good-natured creatures now.


Further reading inspired by cats: “Springtime for Murder”

cover of Springtime for MurderDon’t worry, no cats come to any harm in this book!

In the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, I wanted to write about cats and so I introduced some new characters – an elderly neighbour, Bunny Carter, who has a house full of cats, and an irritating do-gooder who keeps trying to foist more cats upon her while also trying to persuade her to leave her fortune to the local cat charity (not a bit like the wonderful Cats’ Protection League, I hasten to add!)

Sophie, as a cat person like me, is easily persuaded to adopt a black kitten, whom she names Blossom, a name nominated by my friend Sue, and not Beelzebub, which was suggested by my friend John, whom I suspect is more of a dog lover! Unfortunately Sophie discovers too late that Hector, her boss and her boyfriend, is a dog lover too…

Full of fun about cats and cat-lovers, and featuring the usual banter between the regular cast of characters in this series, this story is underpinned by serious thoughts about family relationships and the importance of solving family feuds before it’s too late. (Bunny, who earned her nickname by producing so many children in her younger days, has fallen out with all of her offspring.)

The book is available as both a paperback and an ebook, and makes a relaxing escapist read at any time of year.

Click here to order the paperback

Click here to order the ebook from your favourite ebook retailer

Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

Invitation to a Free Online Lit Fest & Other Author Events

team photo at Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest
Team line-up from a previous Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest, before social distancing had been invented  – I’m at the centre, arms folded, in my element! (Photo by Angela Fitch Photography)

One of the many things I love about my writing life is the social side – attending lit fests and writers’ groups and meeting author friends for coffee and a catch-up. You don’t need me to tell you that, to quote Basil Fawlty, “that particular avenue of pleasure has been closed off”“.

However, despite my initial reaction that online events are no substitute for the real thing – as a very tactile person, I spend quite a lot of my own Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest (HULF) hugging people! – I’m being won round to the wonders of online litfests and other author events. They have several benefits compared to conventional events:

  • no travel required, so no fare/fuel/parking/travel time necessary
  • they’re generally free to attend (HULF is free, but that’s unusual)
  • they are open to a worldwide audience, so anyone can attend, wherever they are in the world

Your Invitation to Attend Crediton Literary Festival Online (Saturday 6th June)

So in today’s post, I’m extending an invitation to you to join me at the next one: Crediton Literary Festival, hosted by Crediton Library in Devon, on Saturday 6th June. As you can see from the programme below, I’ll be part of a crime and thriller panel at 11.30am, but you’re welcome to attend any or all of the events, wherever you are in the world.

You need to book in advance, as there is an attendance limit of 100 people per session for reasons of bandwidth, but booking is very easy: just send an email to Crediton Library at crediton.library@librariesunlimited.org.uk, stating which event you’d like to attend and how many tickets you require. (NB If you’re sharing your screen with your lockdown housemates, only one ticket is needed.)

Catch Up with my Previous Lockdown Events

Crime & Thriller Panel at MYVLF.com

I’ve also done several other online events since lockdown began, and all are still available to view or listen to.

MYVLF.com (short for My Virtual Literature Festival) is a multiple-award-winning digital organisation staging great litfest sessions all year round via its smart Virtual Theatre interface. (If you’ll look closely, you’ll see two my photo and the cover of my latest novel, Murder Your Darlings!)

The grand virtual setting of MYVLF.com

I was delighted to be part of the Crime & Thriller panel chaired by C L Taylor alongside Mel Sherratt and Trevor Wood. Our discussion is still available to view when you log in to MYVLF and navigate to the Theatre Hall, click on Past Interviews/Events when you get there, and scroll down to our event on Saturday 28th March.

Oakwood Literature Festival Facebook Live Interview

I was honoured to be asked to officially open the Oakwood Literature Festival three years ago, so jumped at the chance to be a guest of their new Facebook Live series of interviews with festival founder Dawn Brookes. Dawn and I both write mystery fiction and have been friends since before the launch of her debut novel, and it’s always good to catch up with her. As Dawn had the foresight to record the Facebook Live session, you can still watch it here:

 

The Writing & Marketing Show Podcast with Wendy H Jones

Today my latest guest spot has gone live, for which I was interviewed by Wendy H Jones, President Chair of the Scottish Association of Writers and author of fiction for all ages. Wendy lives in Dundee, where her books are set, but has also been to my home village of Hawkesbury Upton when she came to speak at HULF last year.

Wendy had asked me to speak primarily about self-publishing, in my capacity as the UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors (affiliate link), so much of the talk is a speedy lesson in how to become an indie author, but we spend the last ten minutes talking about my novels, of which Wendy is a big fan!

Click here to listen to this episode of Wendy’s podcast on the platform of your choice.

You can download Wendy’s podcast on whichever platform you prefer.

I do hope you’ll be able to join me on Saturday 6th June for Crediton Literature Festival – it would be great to see this public library in Devon virtually full! 


Escape to a Writing Retreat through My Latest Novel

cover of Murder Your Darlings
Fly away with Sophie to an idyllic Greek island!

Meanwhile the jury is still out on whether I’ll be able to attend the two writers’ retreats that I’d booked into this autumn – one in North Wales as a guest speaker, and the other simply as a writer in Surrey. Mind you, most of the time these days, I do feel as if I’m on retreat from the world, so they could feel like a busman’s holiday!

In the meantime, if you fancy a taste of a writers’ retreat, you can do so not online, but via the pages of my latest novel, Murder Your Darlings, set on a remote Greek island. It’s full of fun and humour about writers, writing and reading, and I hope it’ll provide you with a welcome escape and a change of scene from wherever you are locked down right now.

Available in paperback from Amazon and in ebook on all the usual ebook sites.

Click here to order your ebook.

Click here to order the paperback.