The Baker’s Missing Breeches

The George Inn, Southwark. The only galleried coaching inn left in London.
Photographer: User:Justinc Attribution: CC BY-SA 2.0,

When a Folkestone baker fell foul of a confidence trickster it was not so much a case of the wrong trousers as the missing ones! But what really happened … and who was telling the truth?

Fascinating, dangerous and dirty, 18th century Southwark was Kent’s gateway to London. The trial of Mary Smith offers an insight into a bustling commercial hub that was also a refuge for thieves, fraudsters and highwaymen, revealing the kind of trap that awaited unwitting ‘countrymen’ such as Folkestone baker William Hutchins.

When William visited Southwark in 1781, he could not have foreseen the unfortunate consequences of his trip. After many uncomfortable hours either in the saddle or bouncing over potholes in a badly-sprung carriage, he probably alighted at one of the twenty-three coaching inns in Borough High Street. He may then have taken a draft of ale at The George Inn which still survives, much as William would have seen it, with its unique first-floor gallery.

The George Inn, Southwark, 1889 Public domain

The reason for William’s visit to London is uncertain. Perhaps he had come up on business, intending to sell his wares in Borough market or to visit one of the corn-factors who operated from the collection of buildings known as Bridge House. He might even have been looking for work. However, while business may have been his primary motive, he also appears to have made time for some carousing in the local ale-houses. By the time he ran – literally – into Mary Smith, he had been in Southwark for several hours and was somewhat the worse for wear.

“About eight at night, I was coming out of a cook’s shop, and ran full-but against this woman,” William recalls.

There followed a brief exchange in which William claimed to know the woman and in which she subsequently offered to put him up in her room. William accepted, claiming that he went to sleep almost immediately. Later, when questioned if he had been “in liquor”, he made a partial admission: “Not so much in liquor but I knew what I did.”

The rest is farce. William awoke next day to find that he had been relieved of his breeches, coat, waistcoat, stockings, neck-cloth and handkerchief as well as fifteen shillings. He had been left only his shoes, buckles, shirt, hat and a second pair of stockings “tied up in a twist” that had been accidentally dropped by the thief.

In an embarrassing state of undress, William was about to send for new apparel, when an old woman appeared at the lodging carrying his lost garments. With unusual generosity, Mary Smith’s boyfriend and partner-in-crime had sent the clothes back. His reason?

 “D— it! I don’t mind robbing a man, but you don’t leave him stark naked.”

Initially, when the local justice caught up with Mary, she admitted pawning the stockings and neck-cloth in The Strand. However, by the time the case came to trial at the Old Bailey, she had changed her story, claiming that William had claimed to know her from Maidstone – a connection that she denied – and had followed her home. In order to get rid of him, she had thrown his clothes out of the window.

By now, William had become a reluctant witness, claiming that he would have been willing to drop the case had he only been able to get his neck-cloth and stockings back. (Oddly, he made no mention of the breeches!) However, faced with a £40 fine if he failed to prosecute, William had no choice.

The Coffee Room at The George Inn By George Percy Jacomb-Hood. Public domain.

Still insisting that he had known Mary previously, William seemed almost desperate to excuse her. He suggested that the neck-cloth and stockings might have been dropped by the old woman who returned his clothes “in a confused manner” and that the old woman might even have taken his 15s.

However, when asked if he had been sufficiently sober to identify Mary as the woman who had been in the bed-room with him, William’s gallantry suddenly deserted him. His reply?

“Yes; but she looked better by candle-light than she does now by daylight.”

Convinced of Mary’s guilt, the judge added injury to William’s insult, sentencing her to a whipping and three months in prison.

Did either of the protagonists learn their lesson? Did William, chastened by his experience, ever return to London? And did Mary, the aspiring seductress and thief, become an honest woman? Sadly, the records are silent.

Postscript: While there is no evidence that William visited The George, the images above illustrate the type of coaching inn that was commonplace in contemporary Southwark.


The Trial of Mary Smith from Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online

John Noorthouck’s A New History of London (publd. 1773): ‘Book 3, Ch. 1: Southwark‘ (at British History Online)

‘Borough High Street’, Survey of London: volume 22: Bankside (the parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark) (1950), pp. 9-30 (at British History Online).

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Desk Envy: Why Writers Get Jealous

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Do you suffer from ‘desk envy’? I experienced it recently after reading a series of author interviews. In each article, the worthy scribe described their favourite writing venue. For instance: “I sit by my pool in the Algarve with a G&T” or, “at the kitchen table in my French farmhouse with a large cup of coffee”.

I never knew that the humble writing nook could be so aspirational, so Homes and Gardens, dependent on décor, atmosphere, and even what one wears.

“Oh, I just slip on a caftan hand-embroidered with gold thread that I bought in a Moroccan bazaar” or “a onesie with fluffy slippers”. Eugh!

Actually, the most important element of a writer’s wardrobe is underwear, preferably the older and baggier the better. Think big knickers where the elastic parts company with the fabric for most of your circumference. Bridget Jones eat your heart out!

Of course, like most writers, I have fantasy writing venues such as a small pavilion by a stream or a venerable library that smells enticingly of old books.

But reality is far more humble.

Like me, I suspect that most writers are nomadic in their habits.

On hot days, you might try working in the garden. However, be prepared to compete with distractions such as traffic noise, wind, wasps and unsightly plants. (I can never resist the temptation to grab a pair of pruning shears).

Libraries work for some. But, unfortunately, not for me. I can never resist the temptation of a quick kip.  Years ago, when studying for law exams in my lunch-hour, I piled books onto the library desk only to end up snoozing with my head on my arm, enjoying a well-earned respite from the office. It certainly beat trying to get 40 winks in a cubicle of the Ladies’ with my head resting on the loo-roll holder!

Some writers work at the kitchen table. But how about all those people plodding in and out for a cup of tea? Or a biscuit? Or, worst of all, a chat? If you’re there, you’re ‘spare’ and therefore available for consultation on problems ranging from blocked drains to homework.

Other authors claim to write reams in coffee-shops. But unless you shamelessly string out one latte for five hours or have a balloon-sized bladder, you’ll have to leave your post at some point to re-order or visit the loo. And how do you do that without having to pack up all your kit and take it with you? On lone visits to libraries or cafes, I spend more time packing and unpacking than working.

When it comes to writing, it’s not so much the location that matters as finding a modicum of peace, a comfortable chair and a desk with sufficient space for your clutter. The best writing spots are also dictated by the type of work.

My favourites are:

  • a lean-to desk under the bedroom window (lashed up by my husband with just enough space for a laptop – ideal for writing without distraction);
  • the dining-room table (ideal for editing with plenty of space for files, plastic wallets, sticky notes etc.) and,
  • the ironing-board (adjustable, portable and perfect for books and research materials).

All of which proves that you don’t need a purpose-built studio or a swanky holiday home – just lots of application and a quiet corner. Wherever you work well is the best place for you.

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Plague, Periwigs and Peccadilloes: the Diary of Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys

Although diaries can be traced back to antiquity, the 17th century witnessed the real flowering of the diarist’s art.

Following the Civil War and the Restoration of King Charles II, a new philosophical movement emerged: the Age of Enlightenment also known as the Age of Reason. It was characterised by a new sense of individuality and a huge surge of interest in science, philosophy, exploration, politics and industry.

Keeping a detailed record of events facilitated both self-awareness and an understanding of the external world.

Two of the most famous diarists of this period – Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn – lived in London and witnessed major developments in thought, politics, science and some of the great historical events in Britain’s history. They were also friends and wrote about each other.

This article focuses on Samuel Pepys, probably the most famous diarist who ever lived.

Pepys had a relatively humble background. His father was a tailor of yeoman stock and his mother was a wash-maid. However, Pepys had opportunities to advance himself and made the most of them. Starting at Grammar School, he progressed through St Paul’s School and secured an exhibition to Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was a hard worker, reliable, efficient and clever. He was the ideal civil servant, eventually rising to the position of Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board after 1660. This was a key post in one of the most important government departments of the day which controlled Britain’s largest industrial concern – The Royal Dockyards.

But what makes him such a compelling writer?

Pepys’s personality has a lot to do with it, especially his humour and his zest for life. But, above all, it is his honesty – especially about himself. Pepys admits to things that most people would not wish anyone else to know. Secrets are an essential element of a diary. And Pepys’s peccadilloes were certainly not intended for publication.

The King’s Mistress Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine

Although married, Pepys describes various amorous adventures. One tells how, being in an ‘idle and wanton humour, he ‘plotted’ with Mrs Lane  ‘to go over the water’, that is, to cross to the south bank of the Thames where he was able to satisfy both his gastronomic and sexual appetites.

It is clear that Pepys was fearful of discovery because he records other encounters in French. This seems rather strange as his wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of a French Huguenot and might have been expected to understand French.

Pepys records their stormy marriage which reached its nadir when Elizabeth discovered Pepys in flagrante with her maid, Deb Willett. There followed many furious sessions with Elizabeth waking Pepys up in the middle of the night: ‘and so to bed, where after half-an-hour’s slumber, she wakes me and cries out that she should never sleep more.’ Elizabeth continues this strategy of attrition until, finally, an exhausted Pepys agrees to dismiss Deb.

It is Pepys’s treatment of women – particularly his long-suffering wife – that is the least appealing aspect of his nature.

However, Pepys has a talent for observation which enthrals the reader and gives a valuable insight into contemporary life. He is fascinated by other people and describes apparently inconsequential details which create a vivid impression of the age in which he lived. We know what he ate – and he loved food. He describes: a strange and incomparable claret, a morning draught with a pickled herring, a good joint of meat and a visit to buy spices from two poor sailors.

Pepys also records various leisure pursuits. These included: playing at ninepins, watching prize-fighting swordsmen, a trip to the fair where he showed his wife ‘the monkeys dancing on the ropes’ and a cock-fight in Shoe-Lane which drew a ‘strange variety of people, from Parliament-men to the poorest prentices, bakers, brewers, butchers, draymen and whatnot’. He takes his wife to the Bear Garden to view a bull-baiting ‘and saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs’. He also records a bonfire party, where he and the other guests are ‘mighty merry’ and ‘flinging our fireworks and burning one another and the people over the way.”

So much for health and safety and the humane treatment of animals!

Pepys loved clothes and describes what he wore in detail including: a black camlott coat with gold buttons’; a belt which cost 55s’; a silk suit ‘which cost me much money’ and a summer suit with ‘a flowered tabby vest and coloured camelott tunic’ with ‘gold lace at the hands’ which he deemed ‘too fine’ for daily wear and which ‘I was afeared to be seen in’.

However, his pleasure in food, fashion and women were sometimes overshadowed by fear. In 1665, Britain was struck by the Plague. It is estimated that, in London alone, nearly a quarter of the population died.  The terror that everyone felt is reflected in Pepys’s diary.

For instance, he worries about buying two barrels of oysters from his usual London shop because they come from Colchester “where the plague hath been so much”. One of his frequent haunts is the oyster shop in Gracious Street and he describes the shop-keeper as “my fine woman of the shop, who is alive after all the plague – which now is the first observation or enquiry we make at London concerning everybody we knew before it.”

Pepys’s love of fashion was also affected by his fear of infection. During the Plague year, he mentions “my new periwig, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it. And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection – that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.”

In the following year, Pepys’s account of the Great Fire of London reads almost like an account of the Blitz. He is incredibly busy, walking around town and helping to make provisions to block the fire. He finds that a most effective way of stopping its progress is for the men from the King’s dockyards to blow up houses. He travels on foot all over the City and records “our feet ready to burn, walking through the town on the hot coals”.

The Great Fire of London

One of the effects of the Great Fire was to destroy London’s financial district. This, together with the Plague, had a drastic effect on the Crown’s ability to raise funds to fight the Dutch and led to a third disaster in 1667 when the Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway, burned many ships in the Royal Dockyard at Chatham and towed away the King’s flagship.

The Dutch invasion caused as much terror – and was a far great blow to national pride – than the Plague. Pepys is unsparing of his criticism of those at court who, he believed, had led the King astray and distracted him from his duties.

Like other members of the Navy Board, Pepys races from place to place, attempting to co-ordinate defence. But it is a useless task. ‘Lord’, he exclaims in frustration, ‘to see how backwardly things move at this pinch.’

Dutch Attack on the Medway, June 1667

He is further infuriated when he reaches Gravesend ‘where I find the Duke of Albemarle just come, with a great many idle lords and gentlemen with their pistols and fooleries.’

Pepys’s view of the court – which was also shared by his friend John Evelyn – is beautifully encapsulated by an anecdote recounted to him by Sir Hugh Cholmley. Several days after the invasion, Cholmley tells Pepys ‘that the Court is as mad as ever and, that the night the Dutch burned our ships, the King did sup with my Lady Castlemayne at the Duchess of Monmouth, and there were all mad in hunting of a poor moth.’

Today, in what feels like a period of great uncertainty, a trip back in time can offer both respite and comfort. After reading Pepys’s accounts of fire, plague, and invasion, our own age resembles a haven of tranquillity.




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Diaries: a Treasure Trove

antique blank camera classic

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I recently gave a workshop during Canterbury Festival on diaries and how they can help writers as sources of both inspiration and research.

If you are thinking of writing fiction in the first person, a diary could provide a convenient framework for your story.

Reading other people’s diaries will also enable you to get a feel for a particular period or personality.

This is the first of a series of blogs on diaries which resulted from my research on that subject.

What is a diary?

Where does the word ‘diary’ come from? The Online Etymology Dictionary gives a useful definition which it links to the 1580s. This is as follows:

Diary: “An account of daily events, a journal kept by one person of  his or her experiences and observations”, from Latin ‘diarium’ ‘daily allowance’, later ‘a journal’, neuter of ‘diarius’ ‘daily’, from ‘dies’ ‘day’.”

The entry states that a diary, in the “sense of a book with blank leaves or dated pages meant for keeping a daily record of events” dates to c. 1600.

A brief history of diaries

There is some dispute as to who wrote the earliest diary. Some writers claim that it was Marcus Aurelius who wrote his Meditations in the 2nd century AD.

However, others contend that diaries emerged from the Middle East and East Asia in the form of traveller’s accounts of their experiences and observations.

The earliest recorded example of one of these diaries is that of the Chinese scholar Li Ao who kept a nine-month record of a journey made with his pregnant wife through southern China in 809.

However, it is the Arabic traveller Ibn Banna in the 11th century who is generally credited with writing the first recognisably modern diary arranged in date order.

The first English diary

The first recorded diary written in English comes some time later. We do not have the name of its author. He is known only as ‘One of the Suite of Thomas Beckton’. However, it is clear that he was a diplomat engaged in a trip to France and tasked with arranging the marriage of King Henry VI to the Count of Armagnac’s daughter.  His record runs from June 1442 to January 1443.

So far, apart from Marcus Aurelius, we can see that diaries often related to people’s observations of the world and events around them.

But there were other antecedents of diaries and these reflected the purely personal element of this kind of writing. For instance, medieval mystics recorded their spiritual experiences. These are intimate account of an individual’s thoughts, beliefs and philosophy. They record an inward journey rather than an outward one; spiritual rather than physical.

Although she did not write a diary as such, one famous English example is the 14th century mystic Marjery Kempe. Marjery came from a prosperous, middle-class background. After had difficulties when giving birth, Marjery went to confession which turned out to be a very traumatic event. After this she saw visions of Jesus. She visited mystics and made long pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Santiago di Compostela and Gdansk. Being illiterate did not stop her from dictating her experiences to scribes and these writings were compiled into a book. While not a diary, this gives an intimate insight into Marjery’s life, beliefs and travels. It is a forerunner of the kind of personal reflections later recorded in diaries. Marjery combines both the inward and the outward journeys.

To summarise: diaries consist of two main threads:

  1. a) looking inwards – the intimate thoughts and reflections of the writer;
  2. b) looking outwards – observations made by the writer relating to what they see and experience in the world around them.

My next blog will take a closer look at the 17th century which saw the true flowering of the diarist’s art.

In the meantime, consider how a diary might work for you. For instance, I keep an editing diary to help me keep track of the welter of material that I am organising for my next book.

A gardening diary can also prove useful for tracking progress and recording ideas. For instance, can you remember where it was that you meant to plant next year’s bulbs? Or what was it that worked really well – or not – in your garden this year?

A travel diary can also be a valuable aide memoire for remembering experiences and recording places that you would like to re-visit. For writers, such diaries are a valuable source of information for scenes and settings.

Whatever you decide to do, enjoy it and keep writing!

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10 Tips for Survival in the Swimming Pool

Learning to swim 1939

Anyone who has considered taking up swimming for purposes of relaxation should forget it. In my opinion, swimming in a communal pool carries a level of stress equivalent to that of a fighter-pilot in battle mode. Forget those banal signs about ‘not diving off the side’ etc. These are the real rules of pool etiquette:

When someone politely suggests that your five-year old should not be launching himself off the side into – or rather on top of – oncoming swimmers, do not spring to his defence by leaping into the water and attacking that individual. Yup! Happened to me.

I just happened to look askance at said child who narrowly missed landing on my head and dad was in the water pronto to land a crippling kick on my shins. May the powers of darkness rot his budgie smugglers!

Do keep your nails long – preferably filed to a sharp point – for purposes of self-defence and meting out justice to any miscreants like those described above.

Watch out for anyone who casually drapes their bath-robe over the chair where you’ve left your towel/shampoo. Chances are your belongings won’t be there when you get back. (That’s happened to me, too!)

No-one objects to you clocking up your lengths, but don’t be a pool-hog. Swimming over any object that gets in your way – usually another, slower swimmer – is not acceptable behaviour.

Please, please don’t swim in pairs for a leisurely chat. It’s a huge obstacle to other swimmers who usually collide in their attempts to get round you.

Even worse, don’t hang around the end of the pool having a lengthy conference with your mates. It’s really irritating for anyone trying to complete their lengths and who, like me, has an irresistible desire to touch the end just to prove they’ve done it!

Don’t pick up your children by the ankles, swing them around your head and then let go to see how far they travel. This is a swimming-pool not the highland games!

If you’ve never done it before, don’t try to hoist yourself out of the pool. While Olympic athletes may exit with one effortless leap, you are more likely to get stuck mid-way; less Tom Daley, more wallowing hippo. Play it safe. Use the steps.

Beware of anyone who suggests installing ‘lanes’ in your favourite pool because “this is how it was done at my old swimming-club”. Note the word ‘old’. Chances are that person was ejected from their former swimming-club for possessing a high irritation factor. Most casual swimmers are sensible enough to manoeuvre around each other without the need for unnecessary nannying.

If aqua-aerobics begins at 8.30 – and you are not a participant – make sure you leave the pool at 8.20. Otherwise, you risk being swamped by an avalanche of foam objects being chucked into the water and a herd of exercise fanatics who always arrive early to stake their claim.

It may feel a bit unfair to be cheated of an extra 10 minutes but it’s worth it to avoid the shoal of floundering bodies and the assault on your ears from the instructor’s tinny CD player. If, against all reason, you find yourself jigging along to the rhythm, just repeat this mantra: “I came here to swim, not to be cheerful. I hate this pool and everyone in it!”

It always works for me!


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6 Top Tips: How to Stay Calm When Editing

Editing is a well-kept secret – or maybe the skeleton in the cupboard – depending on your view of it. Yet it plays a critical role in whether your book, article or thesis is outstanding or simply average.

Having been a journalist, a professional support lawyer and, latterly, an author, I’ve had plenty of experience of editing. I’ve pruned, re-arranged and developed both my own work and that of other people. By this stage, you’d think it would be easy.

But that’s the thing. Editing is never easy.

I’m now half-way through the first edit of my third book. Editing my first, The Devil Dancers, took me nearly two years. It looks as if my current project will prove equally long.

Perhaps it is my fault for choosing to write historical fiction. Editing in this case involves the additional burden of fact-checking to the ‘nth’ degree. Sometimes, you have to arrange the background material to fit your story, but you have to know your facts before you can do that.

My next book has World War II as its setting and, to make life easier, I’ve arranged the material by year.

This morning, I started reading the material that I have collated for 1940. This is a large section and the thought of tackling it was pretty daunting so I wrote a few notes to myself before I started.

I thought that these might be useful to others embroiled in what can sometimes feel like an overwhelming task so I’ve jotted them down here. Hopefully they will prove useful. Here goes!

Keep an editing diary. This can be a physical diary (mine is a beautiful notebook gifted by a friend) or it can be a digital version. It should include a daily entry of where you’ve got to, the name of the file (especially digital but physical ones count, too – I’ve got at least seven on the go), where it can be found (e.g. the name of the computer/physical folder), the name of the file’s predecessor (especially useful if you are keeping digital versions), a note about the history of the file if it has been re-vamped from an earlier version, and, most crucially, what action needs to be taken next. It is also useful to keep a note of where you store discarded copy as you may wish to re-use it later.

All this may sound so obvious that it seems unnecessary. However, if you leave editing for even a day it is very easy to forget where you were or what material you were working on. Keeping track of what you were doing is essential and saves a huge amount of time and energy.

Break up your editing into logical sections then write a table of contents for each. For instance, this may consist of the document title/number and a brief sentence summarising the contents. This makes it much easier to re-arrange the order of your material and to find it later on.

Aim to edit bite-size pieces, not everything in one go. With hundreds of pages to edit – and many different versions – the entire content will be completely daunting, rather like standing at the bottom of Mount Everest and wondering how to get to the top. By breaking it down into manageable chunks, you will be able to work steadily through it without having a major meltdown. (Small ones are not only permissible, they are unavoidable!)

Identify themes and characters and follow the course of each through the narrative. Are they consistent? What are the gaps? Do they need more work, further development, additional research?

Never re-write immediately. Read through your material and make pencil changes in the margins. Do not action these until later. First re-arrange the order of the material, write/add any essential material, then re-read the whole section. You will often find that the ‘wrinkles’ that you identified on your first reading have either been ironed out or were not ‘wrinkles’ in the first place. I have often drafted new paragraphs only to find that, on a subsequent reading, the original version was better.

One edit will never be enough. Prepare yourself to re-read many times. However, as you progress through various versions, fewer amendments will be required. Towards the end, you will be focussing on small points of grammar and presentation, not huge re-writes. Definitely something to savour!



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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

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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.


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.


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