For want of an egg … the birth of an un-domestic goddess

Arguments break out over the strangest things. I once heard a famous actress describing how a domestic row had been sparked off by a milk bottle. A milk bottle? Well, I can do better. My trigger was an egg.

It’s not so much the object that ignites the row, but the circumstances. In this case, it was Christmas – the first with the man who was to become my husband. I was going to treat him to a traditional Christmas. The best he had ever had. Single-handedly, I was going to make the puddings, cook the cake, fill the stockings and decorate the tree.

It was all going to be perfect: a Nigella-fest of soft lighting, glittering decorations, mulled wine and wonderful food. I pictured myself at the centre of the festivities: a calm, unflappable Maitresse d’, conducting proceedings which would, naturally, run like clockwork.

But life’s not like that. Organising Christmas is like trying to restrain a rushing torrent. It has a habit of swamping you. It was a discovery that nearly cost me my future marriage.

I remember it well. I was in the kitchen stirring, measuring, chopping and generally busying myself with preparations for the Christmas cake. I don’t even like fruit cake but I had to make it. It was traditional. Following my Good Housekeeping recipe to the letter, I had just started to add the wet ingredients to the dry when I noticed that I was an egg short. Perhaps I could get away with two eggs rather than three.

“What do you think?” I shouted upstairs to where my boyfriend was trying out a new drill.

“Well, if the recipe says three, it means three,” he replied, unwisely.

So, I asked him – quite reasonably – to nip along to the shops and get some more eggs. He was reluctant. His excuse being that he hadn’t quite finished drilling the socket/widget/thingy that was so important.

“But I need it now!”

“Well, you’ll have to wait.”

I marched around the kitchen harrumphing, checking my watch every thirty seconds. I couldn’t go to the shops myself because, by this time, I was encrusted in flour, egg and candied peel disgorged by the food-mixer. Unlike Nigella’s perfect make-up, I was covered in an unbecoming pebble-dash which had spread all over my face and up into my hair. I would need a full hose-down in the shower and a clean change of clothes if I was to go out. He had to do it.

There was still no movement upstairs except for the incessant sound of drilling. I tried to picture what our bedroom wall would look like when he’d finished. The only image that sprang to mind was the aftermath of a mafia shoot-out.

Trying to rein in my rising temper, I decided to warm the oven. It was new, shiny … and obdurate. I got the lights to work, but no heat. It didn’t matter how much I fiddled, nothing worked. Finally, in a fit of pique, I pressed all the buttons at once. There was a sort of ‘pop’ and all the lights in the house went out.

A voice drifted down from the darkened stairwell.

“What’s going on?”

Trying to hide my mounting panic, I decided that attack was the best form of defence.

“It’s all your fault,” I shouted. “I’m going back to my mother.”

And so I did. With a bowlful of raw, half-mixed Christmas cake sitting on the passenger seat beside me. That egg – or the lack of it – nearly ended our relationship.

Since then, I’ve abandoned all Nigella aspirations. The perfect Christmas is a mirage; a last vestige of childhood. But having rejected this bit of adult make-believe, I’ve actually begun to enjoy myself. I buy mince pies and cheat with the bread-pudding mix. (The packet variety is brilliant).

However, I’m not completely cured. This Christmas, we’re going to make a cake – together. So, I’m off to buy eggs and hide the cordless-drill!

Photo: Broken Egg by Jorge Barrios

Posted in 12 days of Christmas, bread pudding, Christmas, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, cookery, cooking, Food, Humour, mince pies, Nigella, Relationships, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writer’s Stop! 10 tips for getting back in the saddle

We hear a lot about Writer’s Block but never about Writer’s Stop. In my view, you’re far more likely to experience a Stop than a Block to your literary endeavours.

Just about anything can constitute a Stop. Illness, bereavement, looking after a sick or elderly relative: these are just some of the events that can hinder progress. At such times, you are too tired, distracted or unwell to concentrate on plot, characterisation or the intricacies of editing. Life gets in the way and you simply have to stop.

Here’s where I let you into a secret. All of this has happened to me in the last four years. An avalanche of ‘stuff’ has knocked me off course more times than I can count – and for long periods, sometimes weeks or months at a time. Just as I return to the book that I am editing, another crisis occurs.

Here’s one example or, rather, several. Since last November, my family and I have clocked up some six hospital admissions, two of which were mine. I now have a pair of gleaming new hip joints but no finished manuscript.

Every time I enter a tranquil patch, I have to start again. Despite detailed notes which are supposed to navigate me back to the last point of departure, I find it difficult to re-connect with my work and get back into the ‘zone’.

Somewhere, in my head, is a small voice screaming for time and space. I am tormented by doubt. Will I ever finish my book? Perhaps I have been struggling with it for too long. Has what started as a good idea just gone stale?

But there is also another voice, one that tells me to keep going. Don’t waste all that work, all that time invested in your book. Otherwise, what’s it all been for? And those people who have supported you, what about their sacrifice? You owe it, not just to yourself, but to them, to get back in the saddle.

Other people may distract you, but they are also the ones that keep you on course. Family, friends and readers can provide the necessary motivation.

Writing is a solitary, even selfish, pursuit so it’s good to cultivate a sense of responsibility for others. If you can’t do it for yourself, then do it for them.

I recently jotted down a 10-point life-raft to get me back on track. I hope it works for you, too.

1) Always back-up your material on a daily basis.

2) Keep a writing/editing diary so that, if you have an unexpected break, you can easily get back to where you left off. This is especially important for editing where you are dealing with a large amount of material.

3) If you are unable to tackle large projects, either write something short – a story or blog – or catch up on vital background research.

4) When trying to pick up the thread after a long break, don’t just launch in. Be organised. Write a To Do list and update it every day.

5) If you feel overwhelmed, you are trying to do too much at once. Break everything up into small, manageable tasks.

6) When getting back to writing/editing, don’t spend longer than one hour a day but make it a daily task. Better an hour every day, than six hours once a week.

7) Don’t expect to get back into the groove immediately. It takes time. Be patient.

8) If you need to rest, especially after an illness or operation, don’t fight it. Recent research shows that down-time is not wasted. You often get your best ideas when resting. Just keep a notepad nearby to jot them down.

9) If writing/editing is too demanding, give some time to planning your marketing/PR campaign. You’ll have to do this at some point, so it’s not a waste of time.

10) If you’ve been out of circulation for some time, write some short notes to key people to keep your contacts warm e.g. festival organisers, bookshop owners, librarians.

Above all, don’t give up. Just repeat the mantra: “Winners don’t Quit”.

 

Posted in Editing, Editing tips, Motivation, women self-publishers, women writers, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stop Press! 10 Top Tips for Writing Press Releases

Got news? If you want to announce something to the world – for example, a new product or an event – then you need to get your story out there. But how?

Even in the age of social media, it pays to write a press release. There is a skill to doing this. So here are some tips to get you started.

Every news story should cover the five essential ‘W’s: Who, What, Where, Why and When (not necessarily in that order). There is also the ‘H’ element that is often key to a news narrative: How. The degree and order in which you cover these depends on the story.

Visualise the press release as an inverted triangle. All key information goes in the first paragraph. You then expand this in subsequent paragraphs with the least relevant information in the last one. This allows editors to cut your text without having to spend too much time on it – a real plus for busy journalists.

In total, your press release should fit onto one side of A4 and not exceed 450 words.

Here are 10 tips for writing a press release and sending it out:

1. First Paragraph: This usually consists of ‘What’. However, if it is a celebrity scandal, it will focus more on Who. The first sentence, or lead, should be no more than 25 words, preferably less. It encapsulates the story. For instance, a local news story may start something like this:

A giant marrow weighing 80 lbs has won first prize in a national competition. (14 words)

You can follow this up with an interesting teaser:

The super-sized veg piled on the pounds by guzzling 20 gallons of beer a day.

N.B.: Never start the first paragraph with a quote.

2. Second Paragraph: Focus on the five “W”s. In general news stories, this is usually Who and Where. However, in major news stories, ‘When’ may be of much greater importance and appear in the first or second paragraphs for instance when reporting a crime or major accident.

To continue our local news story:

Pensioner Fred Bloggs grew the monstrous marrow on his allotment. Mr Bloggs, 76, of Froggett-on-the-Mould said: “I’m thrilled. I’ve been growing vegetables for 20 years but I’ve never had anything like this”.

N.B.: For this kind of story, the second or third paragraph is a good place to include a quote.

3. Third Paragraph: Expand on the details of the story.

Mr Bloggs, who won £100 in the National Squash Growers Competition, fed his marrow on a secret formula whose main ingredient was beer. In the last days before the competition, he slept alongside his marrow on the allotment to protect it from jealous rivals.

4. Fourth Paragraph: More detail (we’re getting into the ‘cuttable’ zone here). You can include another quote or additional, less important details.

“You can’t trust anyone,” said Mr Bloggs. “That’s why I don’t tell anyone the exact ingredients of my liquid marrow feed. Marrow-growing is a highly competitive hobby.”

N.B. If your eyelids start to flicker and you begin to yawn, that’s a good indication of where the editor’s red pen will strike!

5. Fifth Paragraph: Definitely ‘cuttable’ details.

Mr Bloggs will receive his prize at the National Squash Growers’ annual dinner at Binhampton Town Hall on 25 September.

6. Contact Details: Always include the following information at the end of your press release: *website address, email, telephone and name of a contact.

7. Photos: Include some relevant, high resolution photographs. Journalists are hard-pressed for time and the inclusion of a photo not only makes their job easier but makes it more likely that your story will be accepted.

8. Where to send your press release: Do your homework first. Focus on media that will be interested in your story. For instance, The Times may not be interested in a Golden Wedding, but a local paper probably will be. Try local/regional magazines (many of which also have an online edition). Don’t limit your efforts to paid-for press, there are lots of excellent local free papers and magazines and community publications (including parish magazines). Don’t limit yourself to print. Send your press release to local radio and TV stations (including digital stations).

9. How to send your press release: Details of where to send press releases are usually included under the ‘Contact Us’ link on the relevant publication’s website. Send your press release and photos as an attachment to an email. However, it is a good idea also to copy the press release text into the body of your covering email in case the attachment cannot be opened.

10. *Website: Haven’t got one? Then get one now. If you have got one but have not visited it recently, do so again. Journalists can glean a lot of information from websites – it saves them a lot of work. Post relevant information about yourself and your subject on your website, keep it up-to-date and make sure that it is easy to find.

About the author: I am an author of historical fiction. My first book The Devil Dancers is set against the turbulent backdrop of 1950s Ceylon. My second book Barley Bread and Cheese is a collection of short stories inspired by Rochester Cathedral. I am currently working on my third book, a novel which explores an unusual angle of World War II.

To find out more, click here to visit my homepage.

Posted in Barley Bread and Cheese, The Devil Dancers, women writers, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Slobs vs Workaholics: 10 Resolutions for the New Year

Time for new resolutions

It doesn’t matter which category you fall into. Somewhere out there is a resolution that you can keep.

The problem for most of us is that many resolutions are of long duration and require a good deal of effort.

For that reason, I suggest starting off with one of the Slobs’ resolutions. Why?

It’s simple. A Slobs’ Resolution can be fulfilled without stirring from the couch. Bliss.

5 RESOLUTIONS FOR SLOBS

The festive season puts us in a perfect position to feel positive – mainly because it only comes once a year, it consists of unusual excess and many of us are glad when it’s finished.

Eat less: Not a difficult one to keep after Christmas. Any reduction after that mighty binge has got to be an improvement.

Exercise more: Likewise. Even a quick canter to the fridge and back equates to a marathon at this stage. Just wiggling your toes is exercise (well, according to me it is).

Keep a tighter control of finances: With all those bills looming, this is a necessity not a choice for most of us.

Learn something new: Unless you’re living in a cave, you can’t avoid it. Everyone watches the news, don’t they?

Stop procrastinating. Ouch! This is getting painful. Never mind. You can read my 10 Tips for dealing with it in a sitting or lying position.

5 RESOLUTIONS FOR WORKAHOLICS

The next 5 resolutions are the tricky ones because they require real effort.

Acquire a new skill: From crosswords to languages, painting to pottery, there is something out there for you.

The trick is to find something that will fire your imagination and hold your interest. (*See suggestions below).

Finish that book/story: Many people begin to write, but few stay the course.

Going the whole distance requires total focus. It is lonely. But if the thought of becoming an anti-social ogre does not fill you with horror, this is the goal for you.

(‘Tis the season for ghost stories so why not read my blog on What Makes a Great Ghost Story and write one yourself? My blog 10 Creepy Choices for a Rattling Good Read also has some suggestions that may inspire you).

Discover a weakness (one of yours!) and tackle it: This is subjective and needs some serious introspection.

Note: This requires peace and quiet, not another spell on the couch in front of the telly!

Banish the cat, dog, bird: Alternatively, banish yourself.

Having moved my PC to a nice light room downstairs, I have also moved into the cat’s range of vision.

My concentration is frequently interrupted by frantic meows for: food, affection, shelter, any damn thing that takes his fancy. I am already planning a removal upstairs.

Make new friends: It’s a sad truth but the passage of a year usually marks the disappearance of one or more friends.

The result? An emotional backlash of grief, anger and loss that can be debilitating. Time to top up the friend-bank.

Get out there and meet new people and, while you’re doing it, enjoy yourself.

The best resolution is to have fun!

*Whet your appetite for learning with a MOOC (a Massive Open Online Course).

These are generally free and offer tasters of subjects including archaeology, history, IT, languages and medicine.

Some of the best-known providers of MOOCs are: edx and Futurelearn.

In addition, the Open Culture site offers links to all kinds of free online courses and resources including MOOCs, language courses, textbooks, movies and a range of other culture-related subjects.

Posted in 2018, Archaeology, Christmas, Courses, Crosswords, Culture, exercise, Festivals, Fiction, finances, Food, ghost stories, History, IT, Languages, Learning, MOOC, Movies, New Year, Painting, Pottery, Resolutions, Short stories, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Plum Pudding, riots and lechery: Christmas in the 17th century

Christmas pudding cartoon in the 1884 Christmas edition of The Figaro

In 1644, the Puritans gained control of Parliament. With Grinch-like fervour they set about cancelling Christmas. At a stroke, the traditional 12-day festival – a prolonged period of merriment and revelry characterised by rich food, dancing and excess – was banned.

The Puritans regarded Christmas celebrations as sinful, ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. Even worse, the traditional decorations of holly, ivy, rosemary and bays were pagan.

To bring the country to its senses – or its knees – Christmas Day was initially turned into a day of fasting and repentance until, in June 1647, it was abolished altogether.

This extremist Puritan attitude was typified by one ‘Praise-God Barebone’, a leather-seller in London’s Fetter Lane who is described by historian Walter Thornbury as “one of those gloomy religionists who looked on surplices, plum-porridge, theatres, dances, Christmas pudding, and homicide as equally detestable, and did his best to shut out all sunshine from that long, rainy, stormy day that is called life”.

So extreme was the Puritan intolerance of Christmas that special constables were appointed to search ovens on Christmas Day and confiscate any food being prepared for the festival!

This went down badly with the people of Kent who – like many of their compatriots – were addicted to the festive season. The matter came to a head in Canterbury resulting in what became known as the ‘Plum Pudding Riots’.

At this time, the city had a particularly severe – and humourless – Puritan as mayor who encouraged a mob to “insult and molest” church-goers on Christmas Day. This led to an unseemly brawl which – although quietened by the intercession of three leading citizens – resulted in armed forces being sent in to attack the city. The city gates were torn down and burned, parts of the wall were destroyed and many people – including the peace-makers – were sent to prison.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Christmas celebrations were reinstated and church-going once more became a part of the festive calendar. However, notes from the diary of Samuel Pepys reveal that his attendance at church served a purpose other than that of salvation.

On 3rd December 1665, Pepys noted with evident pleasure that, in church, he sat “very near my fat brown beauty of our Parish, the rich merchant’s lady”.

His entry for Christmas Day reveals an even deeper streak of cynicism. A wedding was held during the Christmas service and, having noted the young couple’s apparent happiness, Pepys remarks: “strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition, every man and woman gazing and smiling at them”.

Perhaps the Puritans had a point!

 

Posted in 12 days of Christmas, 17th century, Canterbury, Christmas, Christmas pudding, Festivals, Food, Grinch, History, Pepys, Plum Pudding, Puritans, Riots | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bulls, Bears, Tippling and Lewder Places: The Thames Frost Fair of 1684

The Frost Fair 1683 – 4 by Thomas Wyke

Over a period of 250 years, the River Thames froze so hard that its icy expanse provided the venue for a special festival: the Frost Fair. The reason for the big freeze was a combination of exceptionally hard winters and the unique, medieval construction of London Bridge which slowed the flow of the water.

Between 1564 to 1814, at least nine Frost Fairs were held featuring sports, food tents, pubs, coffee-houses, all manner of trades (including a seller of insurance) and even a lottery.

Of all of the Frost Fairs, that of 1684 is one of the best-documented thanks to John Evelyn. A courtier, man of affairs and founder of the Royal Society, Evelyn took a keen interest in the world around him, recording his observations in a diary which opens a fascinating window onto 17th century Britain.

On 1st January, Evelyn notes: The weather continuing intolerably severe, so as streets of booths were set upon the Thames.”

Just over a week later, he records that: “I went across the Thames upon the ice (which was now become so incredibly thick, as to bear not only whole streets of booths in which they roasted meat and had divers shops of wares, quite cross as in a town, but coaches and carts and horses passed over)”.

Within days, the Fair had turned into an extension of the City with booths arranged in formal streets with ‘all sorts of trades and shops furnished and full of commodities, even to a printing press where the people and ladies took a fancy to having their names printed and the day and the year set down when printed on the Thames.”

Apparently, these commemorative cards became such a craze that printers could make up to five pounds a day ‘for printing a line only at six-pence a name’. Printers also sold ballads, some specially composed in honour of the occasions such as ‘Freezland-Fair or the icey Bear-Garden’.

Map of the Frost Fair 1683

For travellers, the River provided a convenient highway. After dining with the Archbishop one night, Evelyn made his way home by “walking over the ice from Lambeth stairs to Horse Ferry”.

During the Frost Fair, various modes of transport were seen on the Thames. Coaches provided transport from Westminster to the Temple while sleds glided along on skates.

The River also provided an arena for a variety of sports such as: ‘bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks and tippling, and lewder places; so as it seemed to be a bacchanalia.’

By the end of January, the Fair had grown to such a size that it ‘was become a camp, ten thousands of people, coaches, carts and all manner of sports continuing and increasing’.

However, while the Fair resembled a ‘carnival on the water’, Evelyn notes that it was ‘a severe judgement on the land’ with trees ‘splitting as if lightening-struck, men and cattle perishing in divers places and the very seas so locked up with ice that no vessels could stir out or come in’.

Fuel became so expensive that the poor had to rely on charitable donations to stay alive and the fumes from sea-coal became so dense ‘that hardly could one see cross the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one could scarce breathe’. In addition to these difficulties, Evelyn also notes that there was a severe outbreak of small-pox.

A keen gardener and horticultural author, Evelyn was dismayed at the toll taken by the severe weather on wildlife and vegetation, noting that birds, fish and exotic plants died and deer parks were destroyed.

On a personal level, the greatest loss to Evelyn was the destruction of many items in his garden at Sayes Court.

He records that: ‘I found many of the greens and rare plants utterly destroyed; the oranges and myrtles very sick, the rosemary and laurel dead to all appearance’. The one spark of hope was that his cypress tree was ‘likely to endure it out’.

The first sign of a thaw came on 4th February when, despite a new freeze, all the booths on the Thames were taken down. More welcome news came a few days later when the sea-ports were once more accessible to ships, Evelyn noting gleefully that: ‘After 8 weeks missing the foreign posts, there came abundance of intelligence from abroad’.

After six weeks of extreme weather, the great freeze was over. However, many souvenirs of the Frost Fair remained including ballads, printed cards, pictures and a map cut in copper ‘representing all the manner of the camp and the several actions, sports and pastimes thereon in memory of this signal frost’.

Sadly, Frost Fairs are a thing of the past due to warmer winters and the construction of a new bridge in 1831. However, they are not forgotten and visitors to London can see a depiction of the Frost Fair in the pedestrian tunnel under Southwark Bridge on the south side of the Thames. This consists of five large slate slabs engraved by sculptor Richard Kindersley. This impressive artwork includes a rhyme inspired by handbills printed during the Frost Fairs.

 

Posted in 17th century, Diarists, Frost Fair, History, John Evelyn, London, London Bridge, Pepys, River Thames, Royal Society, Sayes Court, Southwark | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

10 Creepy Choices for a Rattling Good Read (+ 4 great films)

While not all the books on my top 10 Creepy Choices are ghost stories,  I think you’ll agree that they all deliver a certain frisson. For good measure, I’ve also added four films that never cease to get my heart racing, even though I know what will happen next (or, perhaps because I know!)

Having read quite a few of these stories while researching a recent workshop on writing the supernatural and sinister, I was surprised to spot several key themes common to both ancient and modern works such as Beowulf (7th century) and stories by Susan Hill and Henry James.

For instance:

  • An isolated house in the marshes haunted by a child and its mother
  • A stranger who arrives to confront them
  • A number of terrible deaths

In fact, there are even links with the film Alien if you think about it.

What also occurred to me on a  re-reading is how cleverly Henry James plays with our perception of the truth in the Turn of the Screw. Interestingly, a friend confirmed what I thought about this story. On a first reading, you accept it  at face value. However, on a second, more critical reading, you begin to pick up on the many contradictions that James has deliberately planted in the text. No wonder that this work is still a subject of heated debate.

While Donna Tartt’s The Secret History may not seem an obvious choice, it’s the only one that caused me to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I dreamed that I was one of the participants in the events described by the narrator. That’s really getting under the skin of a reader!

I’ve listed my top 10 spine-tinglers below (in no particular order) along with four films that always have the power to scare me, even though I know what’s coming.

What would you add to the list?

Books:

  1. The Woman in Black                            Susan Hill
  2. The Mist in The Mirror                        Susan Hill
  3. The Turn of the Screw                          Henry James
  4. The Bloody Chamber                           Angela Carter
  5. Frankenstein                                         Mary Shelley 
  6.                                     
  7. Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook                M.R. James
  8. The Signalman                                     Charles Dickens
  9. Beowulf                                                 Seamus Heaney
  10. The Day of the Triffids                       John Wyndham
  11. Hawksmoor                                         Peter Ackroyd
  12. The Secret History                             Donna Tartt

Films:

  1. Alien
  2. The Blair Witch Project
  3. The Birds
  4. Psycho
Posted in Angela Carter, Books, Charles Dickens, Donna Tartt, Fiction, ghost stories, Halloween, Henry James, John Wyndham, M. R. James, M.R. James, Mary Shelley, Myth, Peter Ackroyd, Seamus Heaney, Short stories, Susan Hill, Vampires | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments