In 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
a set of pressed glass dishes the colour of rosé wine that makes me smile every time I see them
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.)
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!
If you’ve not yet encountered Sophie Sayers, you might like to know that the ebook of the first in her series, Best Murder in Show, is currently free to download from all ebook stores worldwide. 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.
Order from your local bookshop by quoting ISBN 978-1-911223-13-9
Perhaps because I write in the first person and I live in a village in the Cotswolds, readers sometimes assume that my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are partly autobiographical. One of my best friends, who has known me since we were 11, said to me after reading the first in the series, Best Murder in Show, “Sophie Sayers – she’s you, isn’t she?” Today I’d like to explain some of the similarities and differences between us.
First of all there is a disparity in our ages. I’m old enough to be Sophie’s mother, but I was only four years older than Sophie when I moved to the Cotswold cottage where I still live and work today.
Like Sophie, I had previously lived in towns and cities before moving to a village, but I moved here with my husband rather than as a single girl on the rebound from a failed relationship.
Sophie and I are both lucky enough to live in a Victorian Cotswold stone cottage with a pleasant established garden, but Sophie inherited hers. I had to buy mine, paying off my mortgage a few years ago. I envy Sophie her mortgage-free status from such a young age!
Strangely, when I write about Sophie’s cottage, I don’t picture my current home. That might seem the obvious choice, but it’s the wrong size and shape for my story. Mine is a three-bedroomed semi-detached cottage, whereas Sophie’s is a two-bedroomed terrace. (That’s a row house to American-English speaking readers.)
For the internal layout, I picture an amalgam of my maternal grandmother’s 1920s terraced house in Sidcup and my first house, a Victorian two-up, two-down workman’s villa in Tring, Hertfordshire. Both of those houses were brick-built, but Sophie’s is definitely made from the local honey-coloured Cotswold stone, like all the other old houses in her village.
Sophie and I both harboured writing ambitions since childhood. Like Sophie, when I decided the time was right to start taking my writing seriously, I took baby steps rather than plunging straight into writing novels. Having swapped my full-time job for a part-time one to give myself time to write, I committed, as Sophie does, to writing a monthly column in the village community magazine, in my case the Hawkesbury Parish News. This was to force myself into a regular writing habit and to nurture the discipline of writing to deadline and to length.
Unlike Sophie, I volunteered to write a second column for a magazine with a larger readership and circulation, the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, which serves the nearby Cotswold market town.
For both publications, I write about seasonal or topical issues, and they’re generally humorous, ending with a smile even when addressing a serious issue such as Covid-19, but the editors give me free rein as to choice of topic.
Sophie, on the other hand, confines herself initially to writing for Wendlebury Barrow’s parish magazine, in which her column is called “Travels with my Aunt’s Garden“. The great aunt from whom she inherited her cottage was a travel writer and filled her cottage garden with plants that remind her of her favourite places around the world. Each month Sophie writes a seasonal piece about a plant currently thriving in her garden and its exotic origins.
There are many differences between us:
Sophie’s got light brown hair and blue eyes, my natural colour at Sophie’s age was dark brown, as are my eyes.
I’ve never worked in a bookshop or dated a bookseller, although I do love bookshops of all kinds.
Sophie is thriving in her job running the Hector’s House tearoom, whereas my only stint as a waitress was in a tea shop in York while I was at university. I was very bad at it and soon made my excuses and left.
Sophie’s parents live and work in Inverness; mine retired to Bristol after working in London, Frankfurt, Detroit and Los Angeles.
Sophie has taught at international schools, whereas I attended one as a pupil between the ages of 14 and 18.
Sophie is an only child, while I have a brother and sister.
Writers’ Retreat as a Turning Point
But there is one final similarity that unites us: we have both attended writers’ retreats on Greek islands. Mine was on Ithaca, run by author, designer, poet and musician Jessica Bell, an Australian living in Athens. Sophie’s is on a tiny fictitious island just off the end of Ithaca and is run by a specialist company based in London.
Sophie wins her place on her retreat as a competition prize, whereas I attended Jessica’s as a paid speaker.
Yet both Sophie and I returned from our retreats significantly changed.
For me, the retreat was the turning point that made me realise that I really could write novels. Previously I’d focused on short stories, nervous of tackling the larger canvas of full-length fiction. My eighth novel, Stranger at St Bride’s, is due to launch on 1st July.
Sophie enters her retreat questioning not only her ambition to write books, but also the future of her relationship with Hector.
How is Sophie changed by her retreat? You’ll have to read Murder Your Darlingsto find out!
While the coronavirus pandemic hampers foreign travel, writers’ retreats abroad can be only a fantasy. That’s a great shame, because writing is terrific therapy in a time of crisis, even if you write only for yourself.
But here’s news of a different kind of writers’ retreat that you can set up for yourself at home – the new Fictionfire – you may be interested in a different kind of this talk of retreats has got you hankering after taking such a trip yourself.
My friend Lorna Fergusson, an award-winning author, writing coach and editor, has set up this course online at a very reasonable price ($17 earlybird rate until 21st June, $37 after that). This gives you a lifetime access to the course materials.
Lorna also runs free online writing retreat sessions, and having enjoyed a couple of those during lockdown, I know that her course will be of a high standard (and yes, I have already snapped one up at the earlybird rate!) Click here for more information.
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.
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!
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”
Don’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.
A tribute to my maternal grandmother through the medium of forget-me-nots
My maternal grandmother, whom we all called Mam, had simple tastes in flowers: the roses that edged the lawn of her suburban garden; sweet peas grown by my grandfather, Pop, in the vegetable patch at the end of the garden. But when as a teenager I bought her cut flowers, her preference was for freesias.
I suspect I first bought freesias because they were the only ones on the railway station stall that fell within my student budget, but she declared them her favourite.
With the hindsight of an adult, I suspect now she’d have said the same of any flower I gave her, but at the time I took her at her word and ever after I bought her freesias.
“Ah, my flowers!” she would smile, when I presented her with the latest bunch.
I appreciated them too, not just for their exotic fragrance, out of all proportion to the size of the flower, but because they were surprisingly robust, their slender stems having a wiry strength. They were also more dependable. Not for freesias the sulky post-purchase droop of hothouse roses.
But there’s a second flower that I can’t see without thinking of Mam, and that’s the humble forget-me-not.
As any English gardener knows, forget-me-knots readily self-seed and spread. Left unchecked, they’ll carpet a flowerbed in no time. Some people even view them as weeds, defining weeds as any plant that grows where you don’t want it to.
But to my child’s eye, they were enchanting, their tiny flowers like little faces nestling among the furry foliage.
They were flowers fit for a fairy.
The Discreet Charm of the Forget-Me-Not
Forget-me-nots were even more charming than the bluebells that ran wild in the woods behind my primary school. In spring, every classroom windowsill boasted a jam jar full of bluebells, picked on our way to school as an offering for our teacher. No matter how many we picked, there always seemed plenty more.
But in Mam’s garden, the forget-me-not was colonist-in-chief.
As I walked up the back garden path on my weekly visit after primary school, I’d linger to admire them, picking a bunch to present to Mam when she came to greet me at the back door.
I was particularly pleased in the years when she let them run rampant, overflowing the flower bed that ran parallel to the concrete garden path. At the time, I wondered why she looked a little wry when I remarked upon a particularly fine crop.
Only later did I realise that the best crops occurred in the years when she couldn’t find it in herself to keep the garden in order: perhaps the year her beloved big sister Auntie Ev had died, or when my grandfather, Pop, had been very poorly with a stomach ulcer.
Even if these little blue flowers didn’t have their distinctive name, they would, like freesias, ever since have reminded me of Mam.
From Fact into Fiction
And that is why, decades later, writing my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, when seeking a flower to be a motif in her stories, the choice of the forget-me-not was obvious.
In the first book in the series, Best Murder in Show (published three years ago today!), Sophie’s eyes are the colour of forget-me-nots. Without spoiling the plot, Hector Munro, who employs Sophie in his village bookshop and soon strikes up a romance with her, comes to appreciate them too. He pays a special tribute with a forget-me-not theme on Valentine’s Day, towards the end of the fourth book in the series, Murder by the Book. I think Mam would have approved.
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The paperback is also available to buy at its usual price.
I’m pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, The Natter of Knitters, a light-hearted story about a village knitting campaign that goes somewhat awry, with entertaining results.
Here’s how some early reviewers have described it so far:
“Top writing!” “Warm and witty”. “Heartwarming.” “Totally enjoyable and unputdownable.” “Can’t wait for more.”
The Natter of Knitters is the first in a new spin-off series from my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries called Tales from Wendlebury Barrow. It features Sophie Sayers and many of the key players from my village mystery series, plus the usual intrigue, village gossip and humour, but without the murders! Each story will also introduce a new character from the village. This time, it’s Ariel Fey, an enigmatic loner new to the village who hopes to turn self-sufficient.
Each of the Tales will be a quick read, about a quarter as long as one of my novels. Technically speaking, that makes it a novelette or a short novella.
Why the Short Format?
The idea for this new series came to me last summer when I was writing The Pride of Peacocks, the short novella available exclusively to those who join my Readers’ Club mailing list. (Join here if you haven’t already done so and would like to claim your free ebook!) I really enjoyed writing it, and readers have also been enthusiastic.
More Fun Topics to Follow
The shorter format will allow me to cover many more topics in a shorter time-frame than if I saved every idea for a novel of its own. And I have plenty of ideas, inspired by things I see in real life all around me every day, here in the beautiful Cotswolds countryside, where I’ve lived in a close-knit village for nearly thirty years.
Other topics that I’m storing up in my ideas book include:
wild birds and birds’ nests
a crash-landing of a hot-air balloon
a mysterious field full of poppies
a jigsaw puzzle race
One unifying factor will be that the title of each will be a collective noun, whether one that’s long-established, such as The Pride of Peacocks, or a whimsical one invented by me, as in The Natter of Knitters! (I am having fun!)
I will of course be continuing to write full-length novels as well. The sixth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder Your Darlings, is due out at the end of February, and I’m half-way through writing the second St Bride’s story, Secrets at St Bride’s, with a view to publishing in the early summer.
Ebook and Paperback
The Natter of Knittersis now available in ebook and paperback. Yes, paperback too! Although it’s much shorter than a novel, I know that a lot of my readers prefer paperbacks to ebooks, and I didn’t want to let them down.
So, inspired by the little books you often see by the till in high street bookshops, such as the Penguin 80 series, I decided to issue the Tales of Wendlebury Barrow in a similar format. The size of a picture postcard (6″ x 4″), they are adorably cute, and perfect for slipping into your pocket or handbag to read on the move. They also make great gift ideas, fitting neatly inside a birthday card.
How to Order Your Copy
Paperback: click here to order online. From March, you should also be able to order it via your local bookshop – just quote ISBN 9781911223511 to help them find it on their database. (If you have trouble sourcing a paperback, just send me a message and I’ll despatch one to you myself and take your payment online.)
Ebook:click here to place your order in your preferred ebook format, wherever you are in the world.
Now to Whet Your Appetite with the First Couple of Pages…
1 Flash Bang
A bomb in Wendlebury Barrow?
Clive Wren, the local paper’s photographer, could hardly believe his good fortune. For once he was in the right place at the right time to scoop a news story worthy of the front page. It made a welcome change from his usual tedious assignments, snapping endless staged presentations of giant cheques or forced line-ups of local sports teams, new school classes or old biddies celebrating significant birthdays and anniversaries. This was the closest he’d ever get to his dream of reporting from a war zone, and he was going to make the most of it.
Along with the rest of the crowd assembled around the village green, Clive had jumped at the sound of the explosion. Without missing a beat, he pressed and held down the shutter button to capture a series of photos a split second apart. Thus he recorded the passage of time as charcoal-black smoke emerged from the device hidden in an innocuous clump of grass in front of the old oak tree. Dark tendrils curled up among the branches and reached out to wrap tentacles around onlookers. And on the precise spot where the device had exploded, to everyone’s surprise, there emerged like a genie from a lamp—
But there was no time to gawp. Clive had better call it a wrap and scoot back to the office before any locals shared the photos they’d snapped on their phones, which, via social media, might reach his picture editor before he did. If he was quick, he’d just have time before his next shoot at Slate Green. He could gather the facts later.
AND FINALLY… Enter my Readers’ Club Prize Draw to Win Sophie’s Luxury Scarf
On 14th February, I’ll be holding a prize draw in which one lucky member of my Readers’ Club will win the scarf knitted by Sophie in The Natter of Knitters, in four beautiful floral blues, in a luxury mix of merino, cashmere and silk. If you’re not yet a member of my Readers’ Club, click here to sign up now, and I’ll add your name to the draw.