Posted in Personal life, Writing

With the Wisdom of Hindsight at the Turn of the Year

Author Debbie Young
Glad to see the back of 2020
(Photo by Laura Young)

One of the most important things I learned in 2020 was that it is very easy to lose perspective when so much of my life feels out of control.

When a flurry of friends shared end-of-year posts in which they realised 2020 had been more rewarding than it had seemed at the time, I recognised the same was true for me.

At the end of 2019, I was sure that 2020 could only be better. Quite apart from political and environmental disappointments (no need to go into those here), the old year had brought me two major health crises. Two scary dashes to hospital with breathing difficulties just after Christmas had led to a new diagnosis of asthma, on top of a year-long debilitating flare of my rheumatoid arthritis that was not responding to treatment.

Thwarted Plans

I had lots of exciting plans to look forward to in 2020, including the annual Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival that I run in my home village, The Selfies Awards ceremony at the London Book Fair for which my novel Secrets at St Bride’s was shortlisted, and some interesting speaking engagements at various writing retreats and conferences around the country. Then along came the pandemic.

That annual rail pass I bought in January 2020 is about to expire unused.

Confined to my home by the need to shield due to the immunosuppressants I take for the arthritis (thankfully new ones from February 2020 brought a vast improvement), I felt thwarted, and I struggled to write as much as I thought I should be writing, given the lack of distractions. As a last resort, I set up an unfinished novel on pre-order on Amazon, the deadline forcing me to work flat out to finish it.

Cast Away

Even so, I felt like a castaway, marooned and powerless – a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, albeit with a regular supermarket delivery slot, cats in place of goats, and a husband and daughter instead of Friday for companionship. So while I was hardly deprived, sometimes I couldn’t stop my gaze lingering on the horizon, hoping for signs of rescue. Although one might think this would have been the perfect time to write my planned travel memoir, Travels with my Camper Van, after several false starts, I set it aside, disappointed that it had stalled.

A Surprisingly Productive Year

However, with the wisdom of hindsight that New Year’s Eve brings, I now realise that in 2020 I was far more productive than I had been in 2019, when I published just one novel, Secrets at St Bride’s.

By contrast, in 2020, I wrote two more novels, Stranger at St Bride’s and Murder Your Darlings; the first two in my new series of Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads (c. 20% novel length), The Natter of Knitters and The Clutch of Eggs; and the first Sophie Sayers prequel, a short story Christmas Ginger, featuring Sophie’s Great Auntie May.

array of two new novels and two new novellas
New fiction in 2020

As I’ve done every year since 2010, I also wrote 10 columns for the Tetbury Advertiser and 12 for the Hawkesbury Parish News.  In addition I completed the first two articles in a newly commissioned series of eight for Mslexia (the magazine for women who write), a short non-fiction guidebook for the Alliance of Independent Authors, plus various blog posts for my own blog and as a guest writer on other sites.

By anyone’s standards, that’s productive.

Writing in Captivity

Only now as I’m writing this post does it occur to me that prison has proven a famously fruitful workspace for writers. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur were all written in jail. (More examples are in this Guardian article, though not all are such great role models – Marquis de Sade, I’m looking at you!)

Buoyed Up for New Year

So as I ditch my old 2020 calendars and diaries, I’m going to focus on even more ambitious productivity goals for the new year:

cover of Travels with my Camper Van
Look out 2021, here I come!
  • a new Sophie Sayers novel, Murder Lost and Found
  • a new St Bride’s novel, Scandal at St Bride’s
  • a new trilogy of May Sayers short stories, May Sayers Comes Home
  • in time for Christmas 2021, The Wendlebury Barrow Christmas Compendium of short seasonal stories
  • a third Tale from Wendlebury Barrow (haven’t decided which from my bulging ideas book yet)
  • Travels with my Camper Van, now jumpstarted

So look out, 2021, I’m coming for you!

Whatever your plans are for the new year, I wish you a peaceful, healthy and happy one full of whatever your heart desires.


In the meantime, if you haven’t yet read my new short story Christmas Ginger, which was published on 24th December 2020 exclusively on Helen Hollick’s Discovering Diamonds blog, you can read it here for free, for a flavour of my planned 2021 short story trilogy, May Sayers Comes Home

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Stranger than Fiction

In my last column of the year for the Tetbury Advertiser, I reflect on the strange year that was 2020.

Irrationally fond of round numbers and irrepressibly optimistic, this time last year I was convinced that 2020 would be the antidote we needed to the rigours of 2019. Before 31st December 2019, given ‘2020’ in a word association test, I’d have automatically replied ‘vision’, alluding to the optician’s measure of perfection.

graphic of an eye
So much for 20-20 vision

I was also excited at the prospect of a new decade. Could we look forward to our own ‘Roaring Twenties’ – the heady days of economic growth and prosperity that followed the Great War? (Preferably without an equivalent to the Great Crash of 1929.)

photo of four flappers dancing
The shape of things to come – a new Roaring Twenties? (Image: public domain)

Back to the present day, and that neat and tidy number has morphed into a curse. It’s become the standard response on social media to anyone’s report of misfortune.

Car broken down? “Well, it is 2020.”
Washing machine flooded? “2020 strikes again.”
95-year-old film star dies peacefully in his sleep? “Aargh, 2020, what are you doing to us?”

Of course, it’s not 2020’s fault at all. It’s simply the power of association. But who would have foreseen this time last year that so much turmoil and tragedy could be wrought by a microscopic virus and a larger-than-life political leader? (More than one political leader, depending on your personal point of view.)

Neither of these news tsunamis would pass the credibility test I apply while writing fiction. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said while watching the news this year, “If I put that in one of my novels, readers would complain it didn’t ring true.”

To be fair, I stopped trusting in 2020 early in the year, when I read this piece of anti-fraud advice:

“When signing documents in 2020, write the date in full, rather than abbreviating the year to ‘20’, or tricksters will be able to add any further two digits of their choice to suit their nefarious needs. A will dated simply ‘1/2/20’ could easily be changed to ‘1/2/2000’ or ‘1/2/2025’, thus pre- or post-dating a legitimate current document, with life-changing consequences for the beneficiaries.’

Now there’s a great starting point for one of my mystery novels. The only thing is, would it be a hit with my readers? I’m not sure I should take the risk this year. After all, it is 2020.

Roll on 2021 – and I wish you all a very happy new year!

firework of the numbers 2021


IN OTHER NEWS

cover of Stocking Fillers by Debbie Young
12 short stories that are the perfect antidote pre-Christmas stress

But hang, we’ve still got to get through Christmas 2020 first! If you’re finding the preparations particularly stressful this year, with the added challenges of catering for Covid, here’s a little treat that will lift your spirits and put you into a festive frame of mind…

My collection of warm, witty short stories set in the run-up to Christmas will make you laugh and count your blessings.

“A fabulous festive treat! I’m not normally a short stories reader but I adored this little book. So well written, such an interesting mix, and perfect bedtime reading. Put me right in the mood for Christmas. Loved it.” – Jackie Kabler

Just 99p for the ebook or £4.99 for the paperback (or local currency equivalent worldwide), it’ll make you fall in love with Christmas all over again.

 * * * Buy the ebook here * * * Order the paperback here * * *

 

 

 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Plus Ca Change

My column for the December 2018/January 2019 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of the December issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole magazine online

Crossing to France via the Channel Tunnel the day after Remembrance Day fills me with fin-de-siècle melancholy. This is likely to be the last time I set foot in mainland Europe as an official European. This column is no place for politics, but I mention it because it’s just part of a general end-of-year yearning for time to stand still.

When I was younger, I used to look forward to welcoming each New Year. Now that my parents are in their eighties, I’m conscious of the growing likelihood of less welcome changes as each year goes by. I hanker after reminders of my younger days, when I had less sense of my own mortality, or of anyone else’s.

Plus C’est La Même Chose

Second-hand books in the editions I enjoyed as a child are comfort reads. I enjoy knowing from memory what will appear on the next page before I turn to it.

I rescue from a charity shop a battered bear of comparable vintage to my own childhood teddy. What misfortune befell his owner that this creature should be consigned, appropriately enough, to a branch of Barnardo’s? I don’t want to answer my own question.

photo of two teddy bears
Galloway (left), adopted from the Dumfries Barnado’s shop, with my childhood Teddy

Vintage. You know you’re getting old when artefacts from your childhood are classified thus, as I’m reminded when I scour the internet to replace the Parker Lady pen I had for starting big school. This diminutive black lacquer, gold-trimmed fountain pen (so much classier than a cartridge model, don’t you think?) was just the right size for the hand of an eleven-year-old girl.

My quest isn’t only down to nostalgia. I wish to right a wrong done to me when I changed schools at the age of 14. Another girl stole my pen and claimed it was hers, despite clearly being perplexed as to how a fountain pen worked. As the new arrival, I wasn’t confident enough to contradict her. In a life of few regrets, that’s one of mine. I’m hoping she didn’t just throw it in the bin when it ran out of ink, as we did with the orange plastic Bic biros bought from the school shop. (Plastics recycling had yet to be invented.)

photo of vintage Parker Lady Pen
A design classic – so glad I was able to track one down again

Et Voilà!

On eBay, I find the perfect replacement: a Parker Lady pen so treasured by its owner that he kept it in its original box. I hope it will comfort the seller, the son of the late owner, that this precious pen will have gone to a good home, though I can’t help wondering why a man bought a Parker Lady pen in the first place. A lost love who never received his gift? Perhaps one day I’ll write the story of what might have been.

So as the year turns, don’t forget to cherish the old as you ring in the new.

I wish you a peaceful and contented Christmas, treasuring and treasured by those that you love.

Posted in Events, Writing

It’s Not Quite Over Yet… Festive Oxfordshire TV Readings Now Available on YouTube

A quick shout-out for  my festive TV appearance before the 12 Days of Christmas are over!

Photo of four authors on TV studio sofa
Festive readings on That’s Oxfordshire TV with Mari Howard, Thomas Shepherd, Lynne Pardoe and me.

In our household, we have a strict rule that the Christmas decorations don’t come down till 12th Night, which we reckon is tomorrow, 6th January. I know there are various theories on when Christmas starts and finishes, but that’s the one we stick to – even though I’m often itching to declutter well before then, and make the house feel a bit more springlike. (Yes, I know we’ve still got a long way to go before the first day of spring on 21st March, but I hate January and February, and like to pretend they don’t exist.)

That Jackanory Moment

However, this attitude is to my advantage today, because it means I can just about get away with sharing with you the videos of two pieces I read on a regional television station for Christmas, when, along with Mari Howard, Lynne Pardoe and Thomas Shepherd, three author friends from the Oxford Authors Alliance, I was a guest at Talk Oxfordshire. We each read short stories or passages from our books with a festive flavour, and they’ve just put the tapes up on YouTube where those outside of the station’s reach.

I did two readings – one non-fiction, one fiction – and you can view them both by clicking the images below.

In the first one, I’m recalling one of my favourite memories from my childhood Christmasses, which features in my essay collection Young by Name: Whimsical Columns from the Tetbury Advertiser 2010-2015.

In the second, I’m reading “Do You Believe?”, a lighthearted short story about a shrewd little boy’s visit to Father Christmas. This is one of the twelve short festive stories in my collection Stocking Fillers.

I’m planning to add more readings soon, so to hear them as they appear, you might also like to subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Finally, as I brace myself to clear away Christmas, I’d like to share a quick anecdote from my great-niece (3), who finding that the Christmas tree and decorations in her house had been taken down overnight while she slept, asked “Where’s Christmas gone?” When told it was over now that January was here, she said crossly “Go away, January!” I know how she feels.

 

Posted in Personal life

Flu Fury

(My column for the January issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News)

Baby Laura asleep in winter fur hat
My daughter Laura demonstrating at an early age that sleep is the best medicine

When, like a less powerful cousin of the Grim Reaper, flu stalked the village before Christmas, I was one of its victims. The first half of December passed me by in a blur.

It’s only when you’re on the mend from a nasty bug that you realise how poorly you’ve been, and what bad decisions you’ve made while unwell, e.g. being fobbed off with an unnecessary prescription for penicillin by the GP’s triage system. Continue reading “Flu Fury”