Nominative determinism – the theory that we grow into our names – has always fascinated me, perhaps because I feel I’ve been touched by it myself.
Deborah is Hebrew for bee. I’m definitely a busy bee and have adopted bees as my mascot. Two large brass bees live on my desk, keeping me company as I write.
I realised long ago that I could no more marry someone with a repellent surname than I could live in a village with an ugly address. The charming name “Hawkesbury Upton” first drew me to the village where I’ve now lived for nearly 30 years. (Read about that episode here.)
I decided I could do a lot worse than be forever Young.
Always on the look-out for other examples of nominative determinism, I’ve found the world of gardening fruitful. My favourites include Bob Flowerdew and Pippa Greenwood, both regulars on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. When the late Clay Jones was chairman, I was doing battle with a garden with a clay-based soil.
And today I came across a new addition to my list. Just appointed President of the Royal Horticultural Society is one Keith Weed. As a bonus, his mother’s maiden name was Hedges.
After a lifetime of being teased about his name by anyone old enough to remember Little Weed in The Flowerpot Men, Keith Weed’s appointment to a role in which his name will be positively celebrated must feel like a homecoming.
If you’re thinking a weed is bad news in horticulture, let me tell you my favourite gardening saying: “a weed is just a flower growing where you don’t want it”.
I can’t help wondering what has become of Keith Weed’s predecessor, Sir Nicholas Bacon. I’m rather hoping he’s gone to work for the Pork Marketing Board.
I have great fun choosing the names for the characters in my novels. If you’d like to know how the central characters in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series got their names, you may enjoy the following posts from my archive.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 here, buy 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!)
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 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.