Angels on Oil Drums – one of my favourite short stories

In my Ideas Store column in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I am telling the story behind the first short story I ever sold and how it was inspired by my childhood.

I will post the full story behind the story here (and separate the fact from the fiction) after the magazine has been out for a while, but in the meantime, as promised in my column, here is the short story. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! It still makes me laugh and brings back such vivid memories.

ANGELS ON OIL DRUMS

The day King George VI died was a strange one. At school, Mrs Perry put a vase of snowdrops on a purple velvet cloth in front of the picture of His Majesty and told us to pray for Princess Elizabeth. But I thought this was a bit unkind to Princess Margaret so I prayed for her as well.

And at home, things were even stranger.  Mum wasn’t in the kitchen like she usually was when we got in from school.  Instead, she was in the garden. Crying  By the washing line.

She didn’t seem to notice that only half of the best green tablecloth was on the line.  The other half had knocked over two of  Dad’s brussel sprout plants and was trailing in the dirt. She stood, one hand on the line, the other in the blue gingham peg bag I’d made her in Home Crafts last term. It was as if she’d got half way through pegging out when she’d frozen, like we do in the playground when we’re playing Statues.  Only this was no game.

Her face was lifted towards the sky and  I thought at first she was watching the rooks squabbling in the tops of the beech trees behind our cottage – until I saw her puffy eyes, her red nose and the tears glistening on her cheeks.

‘Mum?’  I dragged the wet tablecloth off the brussel sprouts, knocking over another one as I did so, ‘Mrs Perry told us and I’m sad too.’

‘For goodness’ sake, Jenny, what do you want to go creeping up behind people like that for?’ She dropped the other end of the tablecloth as she turned her back on me and rummaged in her apron pocket for her hankie. ‘And what are you on about?  What did Mrs Perry tell you?’

‘About the King, of course.’ The tablecloth, which smelt of soap powder and brussel sprouts, was cold and slippery as I tried to brush off the worst of the dirt.  The brussel sprouts, I was glad to see (because I hate them) were beyond my help.  ‘Isn’t that why you’re crying?’

‘I’m not crying. I don’t know where you get your daft ideas from, really I don’t. Run along indoors and see what your brothers are up to before they wreck the place.  I’d no idea it was that time already. Don’t stand gawping at me, child.  I’ve got a cold, that’s all.’

She was bent over the big stone sink in the scullery, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows, rubbing away at the tablecloth when our dad came home. I was glad to see him.  I didn’t know what was wrong with Mum, but I knew she didn’t have a cold and, to be truthful, I didn’t think she was that upset about the King, either.

‘Are you all right now? Or -?’ But he got no further because as he started to speak, she turned the tap on so hard, water hit the tablecloth and sprayed out like a fountain. I was watching from behind the pantry door and knew she’d go mad, because she hated mess and the scullery floor was like the swimming baths.

Instead, she spoke in a fierce whisper. ‘It’s all very well for you to say “we’ll manage” and “what’s another mouth to feed?” but I can’t go through all that again, Fred. Not now, with the twins about to start school.’

‘It’ll be different this time.’ Dad said, ‘Our Jenny’s of an age now where she can help out –’

‘Indeed she will not.’  I forgot to breath.  What did Dad think he was doing?  I could tell, even without seeing her, she had her lips pressed together so hard there’d be little white lines in the corner of her mouth.  Didn’t he know when she was like that it was best not to argue?

‘She’s a sensible girl-‘ he began.

‘Jenny will have homework to do when she goes up to the Grammar School come September.  She’s a bright girl and Mrs Perry says she should do well.  There’s going to be more in her life than getting married and having babies.  I’ll make sure of that.’

And then, on this strange day, the strangest thing of all happened.  Our Dad, who never, ever raised his voice, especially not to Mum, shouted, ‘I’m sorry your life turned out so badly.’ Then he wrenched open the back door and stomped out.

The windows rattled as he slammed the door behind him and Cassie, our dog, who’d been asleep in front of the Rayburn woke with a start and hissed.  Poor Cassie hasn’t barked since the day she was tossed into a blackthorn hedge by a bad-tempered Friesian heifer.  The shock and shame of it had put an end to her career as a cow dog – and to her bark.

The best she could manage was a hissing croak, like someone trying to shout and whisper at the same time. Usually, we had to try hard not to laugh at her because Mum said dogs had feelings too and how would we like it if everybody laughed at us?  But that day, nobody laughed at Cassie

………………………………..

Although I hated to hear Mum and Dad row, I was thrilled to hear Mum call me a bright girl.  I’d no idea I was in her good books and decided that when she’d calmed down a bit, I’d ask if Rosemary Dinsdale could come to tea. More than anything in the world – except, of course, passing for the Grammar School –  I wanted to be Rosemary’s  best friend. Yesterday she’d fallen out with Sheila Grant, so this was my best chance ever. 

Rosemary was small, neat, and pretty and Mrs Perry must need new glasses. Why else would she have chosen Sheila for the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the School Concert?  As I told Rosemary, anyone could see she looked far more like a Sugar Plum Fairy than Sheila ever could.  And what did it matter if she got muddled and tripped over her own feet sometimes? Even Sugar Plum fairies did that now and then, I supposed.

Rosemary was everything I longed to be.  She was an only child, with silky blonde plaits that reached halfway down her back. She lived next to the church in a big house with lots of windows, a swing in the garden and a proper lawn.  Even the flowers grew in well-behaved rows and there wasn’t a brussel sprout or raspberry cane in sight.

I, however, had straight, mousey hair, cut in what Mum called a “sensible” style, with a fringe like a bookend. Our farm cottage had tiny windows, thick walls and no room to move, with me, Mum, Dad, my three brothers (that’s Peter and twins Antony and David) and, of course, Cassie, as tightly packed as Mum’s bottled gooseberries.

As for our garden, there was a square of grass the boys had turned into a football pitch, Dad’s vegetable patch, a hen house, some apple trees with a washing line strung between and a forest of out of control raspberry canes where the hens would hide when it was time for them to be shut in for the night.

But what I admired most about Rosemary was how every day, at break, she’d have two chocolate digestive biscuits wrapped in a snowy paper napkin. What, I wondered, must it be like to live somewhere where they had chocolate biscuits all the year round and not just at Christmas when Gran turned up with her tin of Peak Frean Family Assorted?

And as I was thinking of Christmas, that was when I got one of my Really Great Ideas.  I often had them, as my brothers knew to their cost. 

But this was The Best Yet.

…………………………………….

‘A St George’s Day Pageant.’  I told Peter as we walked home from school next day. ‘That’ll cheer Mum up. Remember how she enjoyed the Christmas one at school?’

‘Sounds daft to me.’ Peter swung open the farm gate that led to our cottage. ‘Who’s going to be in it?’

‘Well, me.. and you..’

Peter snorted.  But I ignored it.

‘- And the twins..’

Peter snorted again.  ‘They won’t –’

‘… And Rosemary Dinsdale.’  That was the best bit. Nobody else from school, and especially not Sheila Grant, would be asked.  I’d have Rosemary all to myself and when the Pageant was the huge success I knew it would be, Rosemary and I ‘d be best friends.  For ever.

‘Rosemary Dinsdale?’ Peter’s snort turned into a yelp of laughter, then a cry of pain as I thumped the top of his arm. With my knuckles. Hard.   ‘That hurt.’  He rubbed it and glared at me.  ‘I’m not going to be in your stupid Pageant. Nor will the twins.  It’ll be just you and that stuck up Rosemary Dinsdale.’

But of course it wasn’t.  Peter had forgotten how “persuasive” I could be.  He was no match for me, any more than Anthony and David were.  One of the few advantages of being the eldest in a family of four.

Rosemary, however, was gratifyingly enthusiastic.  Especially when I assured her it would be the easiest thing in the world to include a Sugar Plum Fairy in a Pageant about St George.  Everybody knows dragons and fairies go together.  

………………………………………

The Pageant was planned for the Saturday nearest St George’s Day. The final rehearsal had gone well and even the weather was kind.  It was a perfect Spring day, when the sun shone from an achingly blue sky and the air fizzed with the scent of May blossom and the sound of birdsong.

The transformation from back garden to theatre was amazing. We didn’t have enough kitchen chairs so Dad had laid out bales of hay which we’d covered with blankets.  Mr and Mrs Dinsdale were both working and couldn’t come but we still had a good audience. There was Mum, Dad, Gran –who’d only brought Rich Tea biscuits seeing as it wasn’t Christmas so I was praying Rosemary would forget I’d promised her the pink wafers- the Vicar, Mr and Mrs Robinson who own the farm and a thin, anxious man with a shiny suit who’d been hoping to sell Mum some yellow dusters and a floor mop.

For the stage, Mum had let us bring out the hall rug to cover the grass and we’d draped a pair of grey blankets across the washing line for the backdrop and I’d placed four of Mum’s big enamel jugs stuffed with crab apple and cherry blossoms along the front. But best of all -so good, the Vicar said they were “astonishing”- were the two angels with long golden hair and outstretched wings who smiled down on the audience.

The music began.  I’d based the pageant around  a stirring hymn about Saints resting from their labours (Allelulia!).  I made a fetching St George and Peter did his best as the dragon.  His cries when St George’s sword thwacked across his back were very realistic.  It was fast, colourful, action packed and going very well, until…

Until the angel on the left fell off his oil drum.  And the one on the right started to cry and said he wanted to get down, too.

I nearly cried too. I’d worked so hard to get those angels looking right.  I’d got Dad to bring across a couple of empty oil drums from the farm and stand them, on end, either side of the stage.  Then I’d scrounged a pair of old sheets and draped them over the twins and their drums.  I’d even unravelled lengths of the yellow twine that was used to bind hay bales and fashioned them into beautiful golden wigs.  

And I’d bribed them with my Toby Twirl Annual and the remaining half of my Easter Egg, both, fool that I was, given in advance. They’d eaten the chocolate and I couldn’t bear to think what they’d done to Toby Twirl.  Now they were about to ruin the entire Pageant by walking out.

I stopped the music. Rather, I stopped singing – Rosemary and Peter had given up several bars earlier – and brandished my sword at the remaining angel.

‘Antony, you stay right where you are. Mum, please make David come back.  He’ll do it if you tell him he’s got to.’ Then I turned to the rest of the audience and with a flourish St George himself would have been proud of announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen.  The show goes on.’

But as I launched in to the next part of the hymn, about the dawning of yet more glorious days when Saints triumphant rise in bright arrays  (Alleluia!),  Antony’s cries to get down soared above everything.  David decided to make a run for it, shook off his sheet and binder twine wig and dashed across the stage as the Sugar Plum Fairy made her sensational entrance.  

She launched into her famous pirouette, when mid-turn, her foot got caught  in discarded angel trappings.  My warning cry came too late as she flailed about and grabbed the nearest thing to break her fall. Sadly, that was the backdrop.  There was a crack like a shotgun going off and Mum’s washing line lay on the floor, with Rosemary buried beneath a tangle of white sheeting, binder twine and grey blanket. 

Cassie suddenly remembered she was a cow dog and starting rounding everybody up, her croaks getting louder and louder until, she made a weird throat clearing honk and out came a full throated bark.  A miracle. Cassie had recovered her bark.  It rang out above Rosemary’s muffled screams and Antony’s sobs.

Everyone else, including me, was frozen in shocked silence.  Then Peter went across and helped Anthony down and I shut my eyes.  Mum was going to be furious.   

But when I opened them, she was laughing.  In fact, everyone was. And she didn’t seem to mind about her washing line.  Or that I’d left Antony screaming his head off on top of an oil drum. Or that David was hiding in the raspberry canes.  Or that Cassie, having remembered how to bark had now forgotten how to stop. Everyone was laughing – even Anthony now he was safely back on earth.

Everyone that is except for me.  And, of course, Rosemary Dinsdale.

Again, it was Peter who helped her up. I couldn’t move. Her wand was bent and the binder twine wig had caught on one of the spikes of her crown, so that it covered half her face and wound itself like bindweed around her silken plaits.

 ‘I hate you.’ she screamed at me.  ‘You and your stupid pageant.  Can’t you see they’re all laughing at you?’ Her small grey eyes narrowed with spite.  ‘At you – and your stupid dog, of course. Can’t you make it stop that awful noise? Wait until Sheila  hears about this – this rubbish. Everyone at school will laugh at you.  I’ll make sure of that.’

‘And I’ll tell them how you tripped over your own feet and brought everything crashing down.’  Peter said.  ‘How it was you they were laughing at, not Jenny.  Some fairy you turned out to be.  Fairy elephant, more like it.  Our Jenny’s worth a dozen of you, Rosemary Dinsdale.’

She turned on him, her crown jammed so far down on her head it pushed her ears out, her eyebrows down and made her look like a demented elf.  ‘How dare you talk to me like that,’ she hissed and reached out to grab him, ‘You little –’

‘Leave my brother alone,’ I waved my sword at her.  ‘And you can say whatever you like at school.  I don’t want to be friends with you anymore, anyway.’

I was surprised to find that I meant it and was going to add that Mrs Perry had been right and that she couldn’t dance for toffee, but I didn’t.  Because it was true. She couldn’t dance for toffee.  Or sing either.  In fact, she wasn’t much good at anything. Except looking pretty.  And, of course, the chocolate digestives, which she never shared anyway. 

I looked at Mum.  She was still smiling. Dad had his arm around her and they were looking at each other the way they used to.  Maybe, just maybe, things were going to be all right.

So the Pageant had worked after all.  It had cheered Mum up and Dad too by the look of it. Cassie had recovered her bark.  And of course, by Christmas, the new baby would have arrived.  

And that was when I had another Really Great Idea.  

A Christmas pageant, in the barn this time, so the twins could stand on the raised bits instead of wobbly oil drums.  And then, of course, there’d be a real live baby for the starring role. Maybe Sheila Grant, who everybody knows is a much better dancer than Rosemary Dinsdale, would like to be Mary. 

Oh yes, it was all going to be so beautiful.    

the end

The Day The Music Died – a short story and a painful memory

On this weekend just before Valentine’s Day, it’s quite appropriate that I should be writing about what Shakespeare described as ‘The Food of Love”.  I’m talking about music, of course.

Music has always played a very important part in my life.  I think I was born singing – although I fancy my mother probably had another word for the noise I made!

My father was always singing and to this day, I swear he made some of the songs up!  I can remember him and his sister around the piano in my grandparents’ house singing Silver Threads Among the Gold and “A Rose in a Garden of Weeds”. Then there was “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch. That would always make me cry.  (Unintentional pun there – sorry!) But I have never been able to track down the words to Where’s my other flippin’ sock? That one’s down to you, Dad.

One of my earliest musical memories was one Saturday morning. I was about five and was doing my chores, part of which involved sweeping the broad concrete paths that divided our house from the one next door.

I was beyond thrilled when our next door neighbour called out to me from her kitchen window and gave me sixpence for ‘singing so nicely that it cheered her up.’  Dad, however, suggested she’d probably paid me the money to make me go away.  And he may well have been right.  I went back on several consecutive Saturdays, sang my heart out but never received another sixpence.

I longed to learn to play the piano.  We’d inherited the one that belonged to my grandmother and it took pride of place in our sitting room but was only used to display family photographs.  I would sit at it for ages, peering at the sheet music, learning the words but failing to make any sense of the notes.  But with six children to feed on a farm worker’s wages, there was never any money left over for luxuries like music lessons.

So when I started grammar school, I was thrilled to see Music on the timetable.  Was this, then, my big chance?  Alas, no. Looking back on it, I think the elderly music teacher looked back longingly to the days when she taught at a private school.  She certainly didn’t teach the majority of us anything about music, preferring to address herself only to those girls who had private music lessons, so most of what she talked about went way over my head.

However, there was one thing she did that I loved  She ran the school choir and I couldn’t wait to join. I tried and failed several auditions but eventually she must have grown tired of saying no to me and allowed me to join.

I can still remember some of the songs we used to sing, like The Ash Grove, Barbara Allen, many of these lovely old songs which are now in danger of sinking into obscurity.  I can still remember them now (don’t ask me where I put my car keys yesterday though!) One of these was an arrangement of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. I still know all the words to that – and often sang it to my boys when they were little. What was I thinking?  They must have hated it because it does have rather a disturbing ending!

When my children were young, we were lucky enough to move to a village near Wells and I joined the cathedral’s Oratorio Society.  And rediscovered my love of singing.  

But this time, I had better luck.  The conductor – and my fellow altos – were very patient and I learned so much, including how to read music.  The first piece I sang (or, I confess, mimed to for a lot of the time) was Bach’s St Matthews Passion and as soon as I heard it, it was like coming home.  Like I’d just found something I’d been looking for all my life.

I learned more about music that first season that at any other time in my life and I was totally hooked on choral music.  The thrill of being in a large group of singers, with an orchestra, in that lovely building never left me.  I stayed with the society for many years and enjoyed some memorable moments, one of which stands out and still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.  

We were doing Britten’s War Requiem and it had involved some long and difficult rehearsals.  We always had a final afternoon rehearsal before the evening performance.  These would be with the (professional) soloists and orchestra and could be quite hard, intense work.

This particular afternoon, the tenor stood up to sing ‘Move Him Gently Into The Sun” but instead of singing it towards the nave of the cathedral, he turned and sang it to us, the chorus!  It was so moving and we were so touched by his gesture that there was hardly a dry eye among us and when it was our turn to sing, we were all choked up. At least it got all that emotion out of the way in time for the evening performance and maybe that was why he did it.  But it was a wonderful gift and a memory I treasure.

I enjoyed my time with the society so much that even when they introduced auditions I kept going and managed to scrape in.  Just like I had at school.

Then life intervened and things happened and I stopped going.  By the time I rejoined several years later, much had changed.  Gone was the kindly, gentle conductor who carried out the auditions in a small private room well away from the eyes and ears of other people.

Instead, I was warned that the auditions would be held after rehearsal, but we were never told which one.  So, one evening, at the end of rehearsal, he suddenly announced that those who were hoping to join should stay behind for the auditions.

It was a nightmare.  While everyone else was chatting, milling around and putting chairs away (this all took place in the main body of the cathedral) we lined up.  Those who were better prepared than me had brought their own music and we waited in turn.  This took me.right back to those school music lessons when everyone else seemed to know what they were doing and I hadn’t a clue.

By the time it was my turn, I was rigid with fear. I explained that I didn’t have any music (maybe I should have taken my chances with ‘Where’s my other flippin’ sock?!) so I’d sing what we’d been rehearsing that evening and I got about three bars into it and just gave up.  I walked away. And cried all the way home.

Many years later a choir was started in our village.  No auditions necessary.  So I joined and it was great fun.  But then I developed asthma which involved (and still does) a lot of coughing and so I gave up.

Until lockdown.  When the lovely lady who runs the choir started a virtual choir on zoom.  This was the sort of choir for me, I thought.  I can sing and no one can hear me.  So I joined and rediscovered my love of singing.  My sort of choir.  Although I had no intention of joining the real one when things got back to normal.

Then a few months ago, the village choir was allowed to meet for real – and, because I have some very ‘bossy’ friends, (in the nicest possible way) I went along.  We meet in the village hall, with all the door and windows open and everyone bundled into multiple layers of clothing so that we look like a choir of Michelin men.

And we’re singing songs by Katie Perry, the Beach Boys and lots of other people I’ve never heard of (I hadn’t heard of Katie Perry either but I’ve just googled her).  And it’s the best fun. 

So it might not be Bach.  It might not the splendid surroundings of Wells Cathedral.  But the thrill I felt that first time when we sang together, in harmony, was as great as ever.

And no auditions.

And, if, as I believe, that no experience, however painful, is wasted on a writer, below is a short story I wrote a few years ago which drew very heavily on that nightmare of an audition.  It still makes me hot with embarrassment just thinking about it!

The Day The Music Died

Maggie stood tall, straight-backed, her throat almost closed,  her eyes over-bright. Her only thought was to get away without having to speak to anyone. Without having to see the pity and embarrassment in their eyes.

Too late to wish she’d never come.  Too late to wish she’d never let Lindsay talk her into it.

“It’ll be good for you, Mum,” Lindsay had said. “You used to love choral singing – and look, it says here the Cathedral Choral Society is looking for new singers, especially tenors.”

“But they’re male voices,” Maggie said with a smile, knowing Lindsay didn’t share her love of classical music. “I’m an alto.  Or, rather, I was.  Who knows what I am now?  I haven’t sung for years.”

“Then why not give it a try?”

Maggie felt quite guilty about the way her dear, well meaning daughter, who had more than enough to do looking after a young baby, worried about her. Even now, more than a year after John’s sudden, shocking death from a massive heart attack, Lindsay kept finding things for Maggie to do, as if a succession of non-stop activities could somehow fill the un-fillable hole in Maggie’s life.

But this time, maybe Lindsay had got it right. Maggie used to belong to the Cathedral Choral Society years ago but had to give it up when the demands of her job and family had made it difficult to attend the weekly rehearsals. When she saw they were doing Bach’s Mass in B Minor this coming season her heart did something it hadn’t done for a long time.  It gave a little lift of joy.  Bach was one of her favourite composers and she knew she’d enjoy singing those wonderful soaring choruses again.

John used to shake his head at her, puzzled and laughing, as she tried to explain how she got almost as much pleasure from looking at Bach’s music, with its undulating lines of musical notation rippling across the pages, as she did from hearing or singing it.

Going into the cathedral for the first rehearsal of the new season was like meeting up again with an old, dear friend.  She’d forgotten what a thrill it was to walk through that magnificent building, darkened except for the lights in the rehearsal area.  She’d always loved the feeling of belonging, of having the place to herself (at least, her and the other hundred or so members of the Choral Society) now the tourists had gone home.

She loved, too,  the deep shadowy corners, the sonorous echoes, but above all the feeling of reaching back across the centuries as the music she was helping to make soared heavenward into the cathedral’s highest places, the different voice parts weaving in and around each other like ribbons around a maypole.  

It felt good, too, to take her place among the altos again Not that she knew any of them now.  And she certainly didn’t know Simon, the conductor, a young and ambitious man who was, according to the woman on her left, destined for ‘great things.’

As the rehearsal got under way, she realised he was a much more exacting task master than his predecessor.  James had been a soft spoken, gentle man who coaxed the music from his chorus.  Simon, on the other hand, demanded the highest standard right from the very first rehearsal.  But, to her surprise, Maggie found that as her confidence returned, she actually relished the challenge.

“You do realise there’s an audition, don’t you?” the society secretary had explained.  “Simon likes to do it after rehearsal.  Probably in a week or two.  Is that ok?”

“That’s fine.”  Maggie remembered all too clearly when auditions had been introduced, back in James’s time.  Everyone had got very agitated and worried about it, but in the end, it was all done very calmly and kindly.  A bit of sight reading and a  few easy scales to show you weren’t tone deaf which Maggie had managed with ease.

Simon, however, did things differently.  

On the third week, during the break for notices he announced he would be holding auditions after that evening’s rehearsals and would those this applied to please stay behind.

Her first instinct was to put on her coat, hurry out and not come back.  Particularly when she realised the auditions were not going to be like last time, when one by one they were called into a private room, with kindly James urging them to relax and telling them it was nothing to worry about.

Instead, they clustered around the piano in the middle of the rehearsal area, which was still bustling with people chatting in small groups, or busily putting the chairs away.  She stood in line with the other hopefuls, all of whom appeared much better prepared than she was. 

 She felt her first moment of panic when the first singer opened her mouth.  She had a beautiful soprano voice and gave a near perfect solo performance, her clear pure voice rising above the hubbub of one hundred plus people making their way home.

As, one by one, the line grew shorter, each voice was the same stunning standard as the first.  Maggie grew more and more uneasy, a sick feeling in her stomach, her hands clutching her music as if it were a life raft and she had just leapt off the Titanic.

She’d decided she was going to sing the Dona Nobis Pacem  chorus they’d been rehearsing that evening.  It was something she knew well and figured that at least she wouldn’t make a complete fool of herself by losing her place. 

There was no encouraging smile from Simon, seated at the piano.  Just a one bar introduction, during which Maggie forgot all she ever knew about breathing, still less about pitch.  What came out of her mouth was the kind of sound her dog made when someone stepped on his tail.

“I- I’m sorry,” she stammered.  “I – I’m a bit nervous.  I forgot to breathe.  Do you mind if we start again?”

He didn’t exactly sigh and look at his watch.  But she could tell from his body language it was a close run thing.

This time, Maggie forced herself to relax and focus on the music.  The beautiful, beautiful music that had made her cry the first time she heard it. The beautiful, beautiful music that deserved the very best of voices.

She was half way through the seventh bar when her throat, which had been getting tighter and tighter, finally closed over completely and she gave up.  Simon played on for a few more bars then, when it became apparent she wasn’t going to join him, stopped and looked at her.

“That’ll be a no, then?” Maggie said, trying to make it sound casual, like it was no big deal.  He nodded and she walked away, back through the still lingering groups of people.  She walked briskly, shoulders back, her head held high, not looking at anyone. Not wanting to see their pained expressions – or worse still, their pity.

…..

And that was the day the music died for Maggie.  She’d sung all her life, from as far back as she could remember.  She sang when she was happy and sometimes when she was sad.  She sang when she was driving and when she was out walking the dog. She sang when she was working and when she was playing.

Until the night of the audition when something inside her, that little kernel of joy that was everything music meant to her, shrivelled and died.  Like a frost stricken rose.

After that, she never sang again.  Not even Happy Birthday to Harry, her little one year old grandson who was born three months after his Grandad John died. Instead, she just mouthed the words as her daughter and son-in-law sang.

…..

“So I was wondering, Mum, if you’d mind looking after Harry tonight?” Lindsay asked a couple of weeks after the audition.  “Unless it’s your rehearsal night?”

“No.  I decided not to go after all,” Maggie said.  “I didn’t really enjoy it that much, you know.  My voice isn’t what it was.  And it’s – it’s not so good coming home to an empty house.  I’m still not used to that.”

“I understand,” Lindsay said quietly. “But what a shame.  I thought you loved it –”

“What time do you want me tonight?” Maggie cut in.  She wasn’t exactly thrilled about being asked to look after Harry.  Not that she wasn’t very fond of him.  He was a dear little chap, with a smile to melt your bones.

But, the truth was, she wasn’t very good with babies.  Never had been, when she came to think about it.  John was always the one who could calm Lindsay and her brother down when they were little.  He was one those people who was completely at ease with small children.  Not awkward and over anxious like she was.

He’d have made such a lovely granddad.  They’d have made lovely grandparents together.  But on her own, she wasn’t much good.  And young Harry was teething, which meant he was far from being his usual sunny self.

Add to that the fact that she’d never actually looked after him on her own before.  Rob’s mother, Jenny, was a much more hands on grandma than her and Maggie was quite happy to stand back and let her get on with it.  But Jenny was away visiting her other son that week.  So it looked as if, as far as Lindsay was concerned, it was Maggie or nothing.

Lindsay and Rob hadn’t been gone ten minutes when, to Maggie’s dismay, she heard the first fretful wailings coming through the baby monitor.  She left it for a few moments, hoping he’d go back to sleep.  No chance.

By the time she got to his room, his cries had all the volume and passion of the Hallelujah Chorus in full throttle.  His little face was scarlet, his cheeks glistened with tears.

She picked him up, jiggled him around a bit the way she’d seen Lindsay do, offered him a bottle, changed his nappy, even tried to interest him in his toys.  But it was no good.  Nothing she said or did had any effect.  The screaming got louder and shriller, and he was pushing at her with his little fists.

“Oh John, where are you when I need you?” she thought desperately.  “If you were here, you’d know what to do. But then, if you were, he wouldn’t be in this state in the first place.”

She felt like crying along with Harry – and it would have been a toss up whose wails would have been the loudest.

Then, a long forgotten memory tip-toed into her head.  She cradled the unhappy baby in her arms, took a deep calming breath and, very softly, very gently, began to sing.

And amazingly, Harry stopped crying, looked up at her and smiled.

So she took another deep breath and sang some more.  And she didn’t stop singing until Harry gave a little sigh and finally went back to sleep.

Puff the Magic Dragon wasn’t exactly Bach.  But it was a start.

Where does contemporary romance author Nina Kaye get her ideas from?

I am thrilled to welcome contemporary romance author Nina Kaye to my blog this week.  I recently read Nina’s novel, Take a Moment and loved it.  But before we get into the interview I’m going to copy my Amazon review of her book so that you can see what I’m talking about.

This is a stunning book and I loved every single page. It made me laugh, it made me cry – and it made me think.

It’s the story of Alex who has the perfect life until she is suddenly struck down with MS and it tracks her brave attempt to regain some independence and build a new – and very different – life for herself.

It’s a very honest, unsentimental account of learning to live with a debilitating and life changing illness and is told with humour and compassion. I loved everything about this book – including the descriptions of Birmingham. It sounds a fabulous place and has made me want to go there.

Me

Welcome to my blog, Nina and thank you so much for a really great read.  How would you describe your genre?  And do you write series or stand alone?

 Nina

My books are probably best described as contemporary romance.  Take A Moment, is marketed as a heartwarming romance, which I think suits it perfectly. I write standalone novels, however I do have a two-parter at the back of my writing closet that I hope will see the light of day at some point.  

Me

Tell us what inspires you most.  Is the characters? Settings? (I loved the Birmingham setting in Take a Moment, by the way.) Or are you inspired by books you’ve read?

Nina 

My inspiration often comes from my personal experiences and what’s going on around me. I like to write about things I’ve had some experience of to give them extra credibility, but I also apply a good bit of imagination. For example, Take A Moment, is inspired by my own experience of long-term illness, my love of karaoke and music, and a city that I’ve gotten to know and become very fond of (Birmingham). 

For characters, I tend to take traits from people I know or encounter and characters I see on screen. I never base them entirely on family, friends or acquaintances as they might then recognise themselves in my work – and I’m not sure that would go down so well. I also don’t tend to take my inspiration from other books in case I create something too similar. 

Me

You certainly succeeded.  I’m not sure I’d join you in the karaoke but you’ve made me want to visit Birmingham!  So, how did you writing journey start? 

Nina

I’ve spent most of my life as a ‘frustrated creative’ – someone who wanted to follow a more creative path, but who fell into a ‘safe’ career. I dreamt of being an author from a young age, when I was devouring the likes of The Babysitter’s Club and Point Horror. At 17 years old, I even flirted with writing outside the classroom when supposedly studying for my exams.

Fast forward nearly 20 years and it was my life-changing illness that got me on the path to becoming a serious writer. In 2014 my body essentially ‘broke’, and I spent months rehabilitating from a raft of confusing and debilitating neurological symptoms. During this time, I turned to writing to support my cognitive and physical rehabilitation, and the silver lining to all of this is that it led to me achieving my dream of being a published author. 

Me.

Take a Moment is your second published novel. Tell us a little about your first.

Nina

My debut novel, The Gin Lover’s Guide to Dating, was actually the second book I wrote. It’s about Liv, whose high-flying career goes off the rails and she finds herself working at a glitzy new gin bar to pay the bills. She’s determined not to let romance distract her while she tries to get back on track, but with a hot colleague and a mysterious online follower in the mix, her dating life gets quite shaken up. It’s actually a story with some poignancy and themes of hardship, as well as finding love and a new beginning – and there’s a good dollop of humour along the way.  

Me.

It’s on my To Be Read pile and I’m looking forward to reading it.  But back to Take A Moment for a bit.  What was the inspiration behind it?

Nina.

The main inspiration for Take A Moment is my own experience of living with a life changing illness. When I became ill, my body failed me in incomprehensible ways: I experienced uncontrollable shaking and tremors, difficulty walking, loss of balance, faltering speech. My vision and hearing were distorted; I lost my ability to concentrate, couldn’t find words, could barely eat and I would fall flat on my face several times a day. That was only part of the picture. 

I was eventually diagnosed with a condition called Functional Neurological Disorder (FND). Simply put, my nervous system isn’t working properly and there’s a problem with the messaging between my brain and my body. It isn’t a degenerative condition, but it can be as physically debilitating and life limiting as MS and other neurological diseases, and it’s a condition for which there is no known cure. 

I’ve managed to reclaim my previous quality of life to a certain extent, but I’ve been left with chronic symptoms. These include pain, cognitive difficulties, fatigue, and a nervous system that’s stuck in high alert. And I still occasionally have acute flare ups of the symptoms I mentioned earlier.

When I started writing Take A Moment, I wanted to raise awareness of neurological/chronic illness as well as tell a good story. It was my way of giving a glimpse into the experiences of people with debilitating chronic conditions – because no one can ever really know what that feels like until it happens to them. I chose to write about a character with MS so that it wasn’t too close and because many of the symptoms I experience overlap. It was important to me to get across what it feels like to have your life suddenly shattered, while at the same time keeping the story light and humorous. 

My main character Alex’s experiences are drawn from my own: losing my independence and feeling suddenly vulnerable, concern about being unreliable, being treated differently, and facing professional barriers. Too often the focus is on what people can’t do rather than what they can – and I’ve gained some incredible strengths and insights through having lived this experience. I wanted to show this through my story: that being differently abled is not the end, it can almost be a new beginning, provided the right support is in place. 

On the positive side, some people can surprise you. In the organisation where I work now, I have hugely supportive managers who let me manage my health situation my way, while also allowing me to be the ambitious person that I am. Characters like Emmanual and Matt in my story are a reflection of the wonderful people in my life who have both supported me and cheered me on.      

Me.

You certainly succeeded in your aim, Nina.  I loved the way Alex’s strong character shone through.  She was never the stereotype ‘brave girl fighting against the odds’ , although she was brave and she certainly did a lot of fighting.  But you didn’t shy away from depicting her darker, weaker moments and this was what made her character so believable and compelling.  

It was, as I said earlier, not only a really good read with a strong storyline and well written characters, but it was also very thought provoking. I am so looking forward to reading more of your work, so what is next?

Nina.

My next standalone novel, One Night in Edinburgh, will be published 23rd June and I’m really excited to share it. It’s about a woman who suddenly finds herself single on Hogmanay (that the Scottish term for New Year’s Eve in case anyone’s not familiar). It’s another heartwarming romance, this time set in and around Edinburgh’s waterfront – a bit lighter and more humorous than Take A Moment, but it still gives a nod to the harder realities of life. 

Me.

Definitely something to look forward to then!  Thank you so much for answering my questions with such patience and honesty.  

Final question, three things we might not know about you.

Nina.

  1. My favourite karaoke song is Don’t Cry for Me Argentina – the faster Miami mix by Madonna, not the version from the musical.
  2. I have 18 different types of gin in my drinks cabinet (that I go through very slowly – just to clarify)
  3. At my day job, I chair a network for colleagues with disabilities and long-term health conditions. 

Author Twitter / Facebook / Instagram handles: all @NinaKayeAuthor 

Buy Links: 

Nina

I wasn’t sure what you’d look for in terms of buy links and what the reach of your blog is so just went for Amazon UK/AU/US/CA to cover the English-speaking countries.

UK https://amzn.to/2UScXm3

US https://www.amazon.com/dp/B099MLS9ND/

CA https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B099MLS9ND/

AU https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B099MLS9ND/

And here are some additional UK links for the paperback in case you want to include any of these: 

The Works – https://www.theworks.co.uk/p/contemporary-fiction-books/take-a-moment/9781800324732.html

Blackwells – https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Take-a-Moment-by-Nina-Kaye/9781800324732

Waterstones – https://www.waterstones.com/book/take-a-moment/nina-kaye/9781800324732

Author Bio:

Nina Kaye is a contemporary romance author who writes warm, witty and uplifting reads with a deeper edge. She lives in Edinburgh with her husband and much adored side-kick, James. In addition to writing, Nina enjoys swimming, gin and karaoke (preferably all enjoyed together in a sunny, seaside destination). Nina has previously published The Gin Lover’s Guide to Dating and has also been a contender for the RNA Joan Hessayson Award.

Where does author Morwenna Blackwood get her ideas from? (edited)

First, I have to start with an apology.  To you, my readers who are no doubt waiting anxiously for my latest blog post.  Or maybe not. (;-)

But most of all, I owe an apology to this week’s featured guest. I interviewed Morwenna Blackwood in my Idea Store column in Writers’ Forum a couple of months ago when Morwenna told me about the inspiration behind her series of novels and I wrote at the time that a fuller interview with Morwenna would appear on this my blog.

But then, like so many households, we had an unwelcome visitor by the name of Covid 19 turn up uninvited on our doorstep.  And like many an unwelcome guest, they were extremely disruptive, made a thorough nuisance of themselves and definitely outstayed their welcome, leaving us, when they eventually did go, with our house and our lives in chaos and our heads in a state of total brain fog.

Which is another way of saying that I’m sorry but my fingers, my laptop and my brain haven’t been talking to each other very much lately.

However, all is now behind us (hopefully), we’ve crossed our unwelcome visitor off our Christmas card list and my brain has started to function again.  Or as much as it ever did.

So, in my Idea Store column in Writers’ Forum I told Morwenna how I’d read and throughly enjoyed her novel The Glasshouse, even though it was way out of my reading comfort zone.  I asked how how she came up with the idea for the book which was when I discovered it was actually the second part of a three book series. Such is her skill as a writer that I didn’t even realise that as I read the book and am certainly looking forward to reading the others in the series.

Below is the fascinating and thought provoking quote she gave me for the magazine article.

Morwenna

Once upon a time, when I was sixteen and at college, sitting at my desk in a Communications Studies class, my tutor, Annie, was teaching us about how something and something else were inextricably linked. I kind of missed the point of the lesson because I can’t remember what she was actually talking about, but I’d never heard the word ‘inextricably’ before and fell in love with everything about it.

I remember thinking at the time – I can still see where I was sitting and my old folder! – when I write my books, I’m going to write about a point in time as if affects everyone around it, and the characters will all be linked but they won’t know it. I thought about writing from the points of view of four friends – separate narratives rolled into one. The idea stayed with me, literally, for years, and I wrote a load of stories, messing about with format. As I’m also fascinated by the that fact that perception is everything, even our concepts of reality, I decided to write something based on my own experience of mental illness.

Throughout my life I’ve been in and out of various psychiatric units. In one hospital, I remember a member of staff commenting on the fact that one of the psychiatrists was very good looking – I hadn’t noticed until then! – and I wondered what would happen if a doctor fell in love with a patient or vice-versa; I explored the idea in the piece I wrote for my MA dissertation, and this transpired to be the bones of Glasshouse.

Muse were the inspiration for the band in Glasshouse, ‘Charcot’; along with all the gigs I went to in my teens and twenties. I found the name when I was planning a presentation on ‘Hysteria’ as part of my MA. Jean-Martin Charcot was a French neurologist, who is best known nowadays for his work on hysteria and hypnosis; Freud was one of his students.

Although I had this fairly well-developed story, something told me that I couldn’t begin with it; instead, I wrote The (D)Evolution of Us first.

When I first fell in love, I fell in love hard. I was ill at the time, which exacerbated the situation, and when the relationship began to crack, I couldn’t understand what this lad was feeling, I’m ashamed to say. Elements of Adam and Cath came from that.

In truth, I am a survivor of abuse, and really this whole series of books (the published two, the third that’s in edits, and all the others in my notebooks and in my head) came about because I wanted to try to understand why people do the things they do – what makes someone cross a line. I hope one day to take a course in criminal psychology.

Everyone has their reasons, or, rather, catalysts, and our choices make us what we are to others. As I said, it’s all about perception – that’s why my website tagline is It’s all in your mind. I’ve spent a great deal of my life in existential crisis!

In essence, I got my ideas for this series of novels from my own experience of life, and my attempt to make sense of it.

Me

Thank you so much for that, Morwenna. That’s fascinating and I’m really looking forward to reading more of your work..   But let’s move on to your writing in general.  What inspires you most?  Is it characters? Settings? Or, maybe, books you have read?

Morwenna

I don’t think any one thing inspires me ‘most’. I kind of mash things together in my stories, so inspiration might come from a sentence I overhear walking down the street, or, in the case of Glasshouse, a turreted B and B by the sea. Novels aren’t written in a vacuum, and my personal experience of life pops up in various guises. And as a writer, of course I’m a reader. I love the exquisite and lyrical memoir writing of Horatio Clare, the bonkers stream-of-consciousness and snap-shot tripping of William H Burroughs, the bittersweetness of Jack Kerouac, and the absolutely incredible Dracula, by Bram Stoker, Joyce’s Ulysses, Luke Rhinehart’s, The Dice Man…so many!

Me

So how did your writing journey start?  Have you always written?  And what was your first published piece?

Morwenna

Writing has been the only constant in my life. I can’t remember ever not having written. The first proper story I wrote was about a frog. I was six years old, and I got told off because I wouldn’t stop writing it! It went on for a whole exercise book, and I never finished it! I took my first degree at the Uni of Manchester, because it had a great creative writing element, and wherever I’ve lived, I’ve joined writers’ groups and taken courses.

I self -published a novel – under a different name – when I was 36, but I didn’t have a clue about the industry, and have since taken it off the internet, although it might turn up in a different guise one day! Twenty years after my first degree, I took a Masters in Creative Writing at the Uni of Exeter – my dissertation eventually became Glasshouse. But it wasn’t until I took a course with Imagine, (click on the name for the link) called Novel in a Year, that I was ready to take my writing seriously, and approach agents and publishers. The (D)Evolution of Us was published by darkstroke, an independent publisher, in May 2020. And there’s no stopping me now!

Me

That’s great to hear. And what are your future plans?

Morwenna

Keep going and see what happens! As I mentioned earlier, my third novel is with my editor right now, and I’ll approach publishers when I’m happy with it!

I’m also writing a non-fiction book, and a short story. I have several other novels in the Glasshouse series planned out, and a whole load of possible plots for other works, including a tongue-in-cheek piece called My Boyfriend Invented the Jagerbomb.

Me

That’s certainly an intriguing title!  I’ll look out for it.  Now, how about telling us three things that we might not know about you.

Morwenna

1.  I Have forgotten how to ride a bike

2. I can read music

3. I threw my bra at Jarvis Cocker at a Pulp gig in 1995.

Me.

Hmm. Well, I can still ride a bike and I can also read music. But I have never thrown my bra at Jarvis Cocker or anyone else come to that! So if I tell you it’s never too late to learn to ride a bike, and you tell me, it’s never too late to ….. well, maybe not!

Thanks for a great interview, Morwenna. it was fascinating.

Edited Hot off the press

Since this interview, Morwenna’s third book, Underrated, has become available for preorder. It will be published on February 14

And finally, those all important social media links and buy links

Social Media Links, blog, website etc.

www.morwennablackwoodauthor.com – website and blog

www.facebook.com/morwennablackwood -facebook

www.amazon.com/author/morwennablackwood – amazon author page

@MorwennaBlackw1 – Twitter 

morwennablackwood_ – Instagram

The all important buy links.  

Mybook.to/devolution – The (D)Evolution of Us

Mybook.to/glasshousenovel – Glasshouse

https://my book.to/underrated. Underrated. Publication dated 14/2/22

Author Bio

When Morwenna Blackwood was six years old, she got told off for filling a school exercise book with an endless story when she should have been listening to the teacher/eating her tea/colouring with her friends. The story was about a frog. It never did end; and Morwenna never looked back.

Born and raised in Devon, Morwenna suffered from severe OCD and depression, and spent her childhood and teens in libraries. She travelled about for a decade before returning to Devon. She now has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Exeter, and lives with her husband, son and three cats in a cottage that Bilbo Baggins would be proud of.

Morwenna is the author of best-selling noir psychological thrillers, The (D)Evolution of Us, and Glasshouse, published by darkstroke. The novels standalone but the characters and events interconnect; the third novel in the series, Underrated, is in progress.

 When she is not writing, Morwenna works for an animal rescue charity, or can be found down by the sea.

She often thinks about that frog.

Endings, Beginnings – and waiting for my homework to be marked.

I have recently typed two of my favourite words.  The End.  I have finally finished the fourth book in my Much Winchmoor Mysteries.

Of course, it isn’t the end of the process but merely the end of the beginning as it is now with my publisher.  And ahead of me (always assuming they decide they want to publish it, of course!) are the edits, the blurb writing, acknowledgements and   all the social media and marketing involved in the run up to a book launch.

It is exciting and terrifying in equal measure.

It seems like this book has been hanging around on my laptop for ever.  And, indeed, it has certainly taken longer to write than the previous three.  I started it just as Covid hit and I had a long period when I couldn’t write a shopping list, least of all a murder mystery.  And even when the brain fog began to fade, it took ages to pick up the pieces and join all the bits of the jigsaw together.  (And, as I write this, I am still not one hundred per cent certain that there aren’t any missing pieces)..

But I think I managed to tie in all the loose ends (apologies for the switching of metaphors) even though there was one scene that I don’t remember writing at all.

Usually, I leave the final scene until I’ve written the second, sometimes even the third draft.  And I thought I’d done so in this case and as I was getting closer to the end, I was still dithering about how to end it.

But there, to my astonishment, was the final scene.  And I honestly don’t remember writing it or making the decision to finish it the way I did.  But when I read it through, I really liked it and didn’t change a single word. Having said that, of course, my editor might hate it!

This stage of the book’s journey is very much like being back at school and that anxious wait to get your homework back.

Until then, I thought I would put myself in the hot seat this time and ask myself the dreaded question:

Where did the idea for Murder on High come from?

In fact it came from two very different sources.  The first was a local fundraising event, the other a non-fiction book that I’ve had for ages.

For many years we had a time share in the Lake District and would make the great trek north (from Somerset) every November,  I love the area and have set many short stories, three serials and two of my large print novels there.

I’ve always been in awe of the amazing work done by the Mountain Rescue teams and wanted to write about it so I bought several books as research material.  One of them was Rescue: True Stories from Lake District Mountain Rescue written by John White who for many years was a member of a Mountain Rescue Team.

The book was published way back in 1997 and I probably bought it around that time. One particular phrase stuck in my mind all that time.  He is describing a rescue involving an abseil which almost went wrong and he makes the comment that abseiling is only the second fastest way down a mountain.  

And the other source of inspiration?  That was a fundraising event in my village which involved abseiling teddy bears down from the top of the church tower.  This involved lowering the precious bears extremely carefully down from the top of the tower to their anxious owners waiting below.

And I thought, as I stood there watching all the activity, that it would make a great location for a murder because, as we all know by now, abseiling is only the second fastest way down a church tower.

So my thanks to John White and to the members of my village hall committee for the inspiration behind Murder on High.

So what’s next?  Is there a fifth Much Winchmoor in the pipeline?

There certainly is.   I have a title (Death of a Dame) and a victim but I have yet to settle on a murderer or, even, a motive.  Although I have a few red herrings lurking in the shallows.

I also have a shiny new Scrivener file, just waiting to be filled.  And a pile of real (as opposed to digital) index cards. And, once again, this takes me back to my schooldays.

I used to love the start of a new school year when we’d be given brand new exercise books and a new ‘rough book’.  This was a notebook that was only to be written in in pencil as once the book was filled up, we were supposed to go back to the beginning, rub it out and use it again. By the time the end of term came around, my ‘rough’ book had certainly earned its name and was decidedly rough around the edges. I would like to say that this was all about saving the rain forests, but it was far more likely to be about saving money.

The exercise books, though, were written in ink, as were the teachers’ marks and comments.  So each new school year was a new beginning.  All those C minuses from the previous year wiped away.  A clean slate.  And every year I promised myself that I would work harder and that this year my books would not be marred by C minuses and comments about ‘could do better’.

(My English teacher once wrote “shrunk to this little measure?” on some spelling corrections I was supposed to have done but hadn’t.  She said she’d let me off doing them if I correctly identified the quotation!  I could – and she did!  Please let me know if the comments if you did and I promise not to make you write a page of spelling corrections.)

So now, here I am back at school waiting for my homework to be marked.  And when it does come back, I know it’s going to be littered with red marks, just like my schoolwork was.

But no C minuses, I hope.

Certainly the process of being a published author is very much like being back at school. But I’m not complaining.  I absolutely loved school, apart from the C minuses, of course. So I am in my happy place when I’m writing.

But the marketing?  Ah no.  That’s a bit like me and the dreaded physics lessons.  I never could quite work out what was going wrong and why everyone else just seemed to ‘get it’ and I didn’t.  

And it was physics that earned me all those C minuses.

.

…..and finally, just because I can, here’s a random picture of Duke.

Where do these talented Criminal Shorts authors get their ideas from?

Towards the end of 2020 I was delighted to be included in an anthology collated by one of my favourite Facebook groups and sold in aid of a very special charity.

UK Crime Book Club is a thriving, well run book club on Facebook with a great mix of authors and readers. (As I write this there are 18.7k members, of which over 500 are authors, including big names  and some not-so-big names – like mine.)  

The anthology, Criminal Shorts, is available in ebook and paperback format on Amazon (link here) and was the brainchild of authors Kath Middleton and Will Templeton.  Several times a year UKCBC produces seasonal short stories (eg Christmas, Halloween etc) written by UKCBC members and shared on the UKCBC Facebook page.

“The idea of compiling an anthology first occurred to me a while ago, when the ‘Seasonal Shorts‘ events became so popular,” Will Templeton explains.  “I discussed the notion with Kath Middleton, but between us we dismissed it as being too much hard work! 

“When the idea was raised again in the UKCBC admin group chat it became apparent there was a strong interest in it and we wouldn’t be able to duck out of it so easily. (Just kidding!). 

“The charity was chosen by the admins as one of our author members has a child at the Red Kite Academy, (www.redkitespecialacademy.co.uk) so we felt they would be an ideal recipient of the proceeds.

“The call for submissions brought us a staggering number of stories of a very high quality. This made whittling down the entries to a manageable amount very daunting, assessing originality and ingenuity to finish with a selection to impress the most discerning reader. We hope we have succeeded in creating a unique and exciting book.”

And they certainly succeeded.  The anthology is a superb collection of finely crafted stories and I enjoyed every one.

So I asked the 22 authors involved if any of them would be kind enough to share with the readers of my Ideas Store column (in the UK magazine Writers’ Forum ) where they got the ideas for their stories from and was delighted when thirteen of them responded.  So much so I had way too much material for one issue of my single page column and I had to spread them over three issues!

Also, because of issues of space, I was unable to supply the authors’ links or buy links and am happy to rectify this here. 

I don’t want to make this post too long so I am splitting up the 13 authors who contributed quotes in my column into two posts, with the second being published within the next few days.

………………

Kath Middleton.   Short story: Dark Fires

“I began with the idea of a girl being set up to take the blame for her twin brother’s fire-raising,” Kath explains. “As she was the subservient twin, it would be easy for him to fool her, and make her incriminate herself. As the story evolved, I started to consider the concept of gaslight, so the whole focus changed. Sometimes you don’t write the story you thought you would.”

From Kath’s Amazon author page

Kath Middleton began her writing with drabbles (100 words stories) and contributed a number to Jonathan Hill’s second drabble collection. It wasn’t long before she moved up a size to contribute short stories to anthologies. Shortly afterwards, she progressed to writing longer pieces and her first solo work, Ravenfold, was published to much acclaim. This was followed by the novella, Message in a Bottle. There are now several more publications from short stories to novels. 

Kath likes to put her characters in difficult situations and watch them work their way out. She believes in the indomitable nature of the human spirit (and chickens).

Kath is retired. She graduated in geology and has a certificate in archaeology. When she’s in a hole, she doesn’t stop digging.

website http://www.kathmiddletonbooks.com/

Amazon author page

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kath-Middleton/e/B00H1WWW2E%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share

………………..

Brian Caves.  Short story. Brooks

“The idea behind this was to try an do something different…and I remembered the Francis Ford Coppola film with Gene Hackman as a surveillance operative. It was called The Conversation – superb film,” he says.

“And that’s what started the idea of Brooks, a gun for hire, a cleaner; someone who sorts out someone else’s mess. I thought why not two men in a room having a conversation about sleazy goings on with a Government minister? Brooks would question the minister about his unpalatable habits and actions, each of which is revealed as the conversation progresses. Ultimately, the minister accepts that he has to resign.”

Brian has published two full length novels, short stories and novellas.  He is currently working on follow ups to A Long Way from Home and The Tin Man,  a new full length novel set in the US called Close To The Edge and a book of horror shorts.

The link to his Amazon page i

………………..

Tony Forder.  Short story: Mission Accomplished

“My story, Mission Accomplished, emerged out of pure panic,” he admits. “I had no story, so turned to my most read characters in an act of desperation. My first thought was: what if I send Jimmy Bliss to Ireland to see his mum and [something] happens? My second thought was: what if I send Penny Chandler with him? That was it. I started writing their journey from the airport and finished the entire story in a single sitting.”

It’s a cracking story and a testament to the strength of his characters when an author can just sit down and write an entire story straight off!

From Tony’s Amazon author page

Tony J Forder is the author of the bestselling DI Bliss crime thriller series. The first seven books, Bad to the Bone, The Scent of Guilt, If Fear Wins, The Reach of Shadows, The Death of Justice, Endless Silent Scream, and Slow Slicing, were joined in December 2020 by a prequel novella, Bliss Uncovered. The next book, The Autumn Tree, is scheduled for release on 24 May 2021.

Tony’s other series – two action-adventure novels featuring Mike Lynch – comprises both Scream Blue Murder, and Cold Winter Sun. These are currently unavailable, but will be back in 2021.

In addition, Tony has written two standalone novels: a dark, psychological crime thriller, Degrees of Darkness, and a suspense thriller set in California, called Fifteen Coffins, released in November 2020.

Link to Tony’s amazon author page

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tony-J-Forder/e/B01N4BPT65

His website is www.tonyjforder.com

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Jan Edwards.  Short story.  Down to the Sea Again

“DCI William Wright is a character from my Bunch Courtney crime series,” she says. “Wright was following a lead in my current work in progress that went nowhere useful.  It is referenced in a very minor way in the book’s narrative, but I knew it was never going to fit, no matter how hard I tried.  Trouble was that tentacle of thought simply refused to lay down and be quiet and so ‘Down the Sea’ came into being.”

From Jan’s Amazon author page

Jan Edwards is a UK author with several novels and many short stories in horror, fantasy, mainstream and crime fiction, including Mammoth Book of Folk Horror as well as various volumes of the MX Books of New Sherlock Holmes Stories. Jan is an editor with the award-winning Alchemy Press (includes The Alchemy Press Books of Horror series. Jan was awarded the Arnold Bennett Book Prize for Winter Downs, the first in her ww2 crime series The Bunch Courtney Investigations.

Winner of the Arnold Bennett Book Prize; Karl Edward Wagner award; Winchester Slim Volume award (for Sussex Tales). Short listed for both the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction and Best Collection.

To read more about Jan go tohttps://janedwardsblog.wordpress.com/

Jan’s Amazon page link here

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Susan Handley.    Short story.  Robbed

“My story, Robbed, came from thinking about how someone who has served a prison sentence might feel when they are released,” she explains.

“So many things will seem familiar, yet so many things will have changed. The story starts with Robbie, on his release day, coming out of prison, determined to reclaim his dues and settle a few old scores.”

From Susan’s Amazon page

Susan Handley grew up in England, in the Midlands and despite a love of literature, and crime fiction in particular, she never dreamt of being able to carve out a career as a published writer. But the desire to write never left her and after years of writing by night she has at last been able to share the results of her efforts.

Susan now lives in a small village in rural Kent with her husband and two cats. When she’s not indulging in her love of writing crime fiction she loves walking (the hillier the better), bike riding (the flatter the better) and tending her veggie patch.

Susan has published three novels. A Confusion of Crows is the first to feature DC Cat McKenzie, a one-time marine biologist turned detective. In the second in the series, Feather and Claw, Cat is holidaying on the sunny isle of Cyprus when the death of a fellow guest sees her put her holiday on hold and turn detective. In the third Cat McKenzie mystery, The Body Politic, Cat finds herself investigating the violent death of local councillor. As she uncovers the truth, Cat learns as much about herself as she does the dead man. 

Susan has also produced two short story collections: Crime Bites Volume 1 and Volume 2. Full of bite-size crime stories there’s bound to be something to suit all tastes.

The link is

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Susan-Handley/e/B078YRLWQP?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1623160417&sr=1-1

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Cecilia Peartree.  Short story: The Coastal Path

Cecilia found her inspiration from a series of walks she did with her sister-in-law on the Fife Coast Path.

“In the story I wanted to weave together the walk itself, the uncovering of a secret, and the main character developing as a result of her experiences,” she explains. “At first the walk was the most important thing, but in the end I feel the character development came to be the core of it.”

From Cecilia’s Amazon page

Cecilia Peartree is the pen name of a writer who lives in Edinburgh and has worked as a computer programmer and a database manager. 

She has been a compulsive writer since she first learned to write, and by the age of sixteen she had a whole cupboard full of unfinished stories. 

Cecilia writes the Pitkirtly series of quirky mystery novels set in an imaginary town on the coast of Fife, and the Quest mystery/adventure novels set in the early 1950s. Recently, almost without meaning to, she has also written a short series of Regency novels.

As befits a mystery writer, she is often surrounded by cats while working on her novels.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cecilia-Peartree/e/B005826ULI?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1623160729&sr=8-1

Website. . www.ceciliapeartree.com

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Lexie Conyngham.   Short story: Special Delivery

“I was intrigued by the idea of starting a book with someone walking into a situation he didn’t understand. It seemed a good place to start for a short story, too,” she says. “Apart from that the story was one of those ones that just seems to happen – though I can say that the room in the story that contains only a cistern handle and nothing else was something we found when viewing a house, once!”

From Lexie’s Amazon author page

Lexie Conyngham is a historian living in the shadow of the Highlands. Her Murray of Letho novels are born of a life amidst Scotland’s old cities, ancient universities and hidden-away aristocratic estates, but she has written since the day she found out that people were allowed to do such a thing. Beyond teaching and research, her days are spent with wool, wild allotments and a wee bit of whisky. 

The link to her page is https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lexie-Conyngham/e/B008XH0YQ2?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1623161090&sr=1-1

Read her blog at www.murrayofletho.blogspot.com for some nice veg and occasional insights into Scottish history and wildlife.

………………..

Bill Todd. Short story: Lucky Break

Bill Todd has written seven successful crime thrillers featuring wounded ex-soldier turned private investigator Danny Lancaster.  “For the UKCBC anthology I thought I’d have a shot at a Danny short story which presents different writing challenges.”

A challenge to which the author rose magnificently as his short story, Lucky Break, made me want to read more about Danny Lancaster and I’m now really looking forward to reading the first in the series, The Wreck of the Margarita.  The ebook is currently free on Amazon.   (link here)

Bill’s author bio

I’ve spent my working life as a journalist. You meet a lot of people, see things, learn stuff. For a crimewriter, it’s a plot factory.

I’ve also done a lot of travelwriting. It’s not all cocktails under the palm trees but it is a fantastic job that’s taken me to more than 40 countries, from the white wastes of Arctic Finland to the deserts of Namibia.

People often ask my favourite place. In a world of globalisation, many destinations look the same but Iceland and Namibia are like stepping onto another planet. Go if you can.

I’ve also enjoyed a long love affair with Western Crete, the mountains, coastline, food and people. And I was delighted and surprised to receive the Ed Lacy Gibraltar travel award in 2007.

Another interest is my family tree. I’ve traced the ancestors back to William of Byfield, a farmer in 1600s Northamptonshire, just down the road from Shakespeare.

I love maps. They might seem old fashioned in the age of GPS but they tell stories, make promises. I have a ragbag collection of more than 3,000.

I’m also a fan of interesting cheeses, good beer and wilderness. They’re like Marmite, you’re an empty places person or you’re not.

I have written six crime thrillers and a book of short stories featuring Danny Lancaster, a wounded Afghanistan veteran turned private investigator.

Bill’s Amazon author page. 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bill-Todd/e/B008SA121U?ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vu00_tkin_p1_i0

Bill’s contact details

Bill Todd and Danny Lancaster aren’t hard to find. If you don’t bump into them out and about you can catch them here…

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5804102.Bill_Todd

Twitter: https://twitter.com/williamjtodd – @williamjtodd

Twitter: https://twitter.com/@DannyLancaster3 – @DannyLancaster3

Facebook: www.facebook.com/DannyLancasterInvestigates/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/billtodd_writer/ – @billtodd_writer

Website: www.billtodd.co.uk

………………..

In my next blog I’ll be featuring the other six authors who gave me quotes for my column – and my grateful thanks go to them all.

And, just in case you haven’t done so yet, please check out Criminal Shorts at

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Criminal-Shorts-Crime-Book-Anthology-ebook/dp/B08LH879H4/ref=sr_1_1?

It’s available in paperback or ebook – and as I’ve said before, it’s a cracking read and a great charity.

A meander down Memory Lane and a short ghost story, The Blue Lady

I hope you’ll forgive me for indulging in a bit of nostalgia this week. (Correction: a lot of nostalgia) But in my column, Ideas Store, in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I am writing about the house I grew up in and how it inspired my sister and I to make up stories (usually involving ghosts).   There wasn’t room on my page for the story itself so I’m setting it out below and including some more detail about the story behind the story and the farm where I spent most of my childhood.

The house was an old Manor House, parts of which dated back to the 16th century (picture below) and before you run away with the idea that I am one of the landed gentry, let me explain some of the house’s more recent history.  

It was on a 350 acre farm in South Somerset, set in a stunning location which I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate at the time, mostly because it was in the middle of nowhere and at the top of a very steep hill.  I had to push my bike up with an overflowing school satchel cutting in to my shoulders after a long school day which started with a 2 mile bike ride, a 10 mile bus ride and a 15 minute walk – and ended the other way around in the evening.  (At least in the mornings the bike ride was downhill)  But the bus journey gave me chance to catch up on my homework – and check out the boys from the Grammar School.  (I went to an all girls school)

The farm and manor house was bought by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) back in the 1950s.  The farm had the most up to date machinery money could buy (my dad was the farm mechanic and looked after it all) and the idea was to run a model farm to show the farmers how brilliant ICI fertiliser was and how they could improve their  own farms by using it.  It would probably have been cheaper to have taken out a few adverts in the Farmer and Stockbreeder, I would have thought – but what  do I know?

So, the house, which I now see is a grade 2 listed building, was split up into four parts, one being the farm offices and the other three into dwellings for the farm workers.  It was a beautiful house, with high ceilings, tall mullioned windows  and acres of space.  I am one of six children and we had moved from a very cramped cottage.  I can still remember the joy of moving into that house and have vivid memories of my younger brothers riding a sit-on wooden train that Dad had made for them that first Christmas round and round the huge kitchen/living room.  

I loved Henley (in spite of it being in the middle of nowhere) and was desperately sad when my parents finally moved out, even though by then I’d long since left home.  My parents were still living there when I got married and we had our wedding reception in the farm’s Conference Room.  And, as you can see below, one of our wedding pictures was photo-bombed by  the ICI roundel!

There were six other families on the farm, many with young children so although we were several miles from the nearest town  there was always someone to play with.  I was a very bossy little girl and soon had all the other children on the farm press ganged into appearing in my various plays and pageants.  One of these, a pageant written for St George’s Day involved a lot of galloping around singing “For all the saints who from their labours rest” and precious little story.  This event turned into a complete fiasco when one of my younger brothers refused to be an angel any more and quit his post on top of an oil drum in the middle of the performance. It was the inspiration behind one of the first short stories I ever sold.  It was to Woman’s Weekly and called Angels on Oil Drums.

But the short story I want to feature this week is The Blue Lady, which, like many of my stories had its origin at this time of my life.  My sister and I would make up ghost stories, based on the house and its long history, and frighten each other to death. The Blue Lady was our favourite and the only one we can still remember.  What is interesting about that story is that it has now found its way into the local folklore.  

So when many years later I wanted to write a ghost story I remembered our Blue Lady and incorporated her into the story which ended with what I thought was quite a neat twist.  

THE BLUE LADY

‘For goodness sake, come in and shut the door.’ Jane Armstrong scowled at the woman who hovered behind her in the doorway. ‘I don’t pay you to stand around gawping like a goldfish.’

Elizabeth Parry, a  timid grey woman in her mid-fifties, flinched but didn’t move. ‘I’m s-sorry. – ‘ she stammered as she backed away. ‘I  can’t stay here.’ 

‘What?’  Jane was astonished.  She wasn’t used to people standing up to her, least of all mouse-like Elizabeth.

‘I said I can’t stay here. Oh, Mrs Armstrong, something terrible’s happened here. Can’t you feel it?’

‘The only thing I feel is the urge to slap some sense into you.’ 

Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her thin body and shivered.  ‘It’s like – listen!  Can you hear it?’

‘All I hear is your idiotic babbling.’

‘Up there.’  Elizabeth pointed towards the upper landing.  ‘Oh, please, let’s get out while we can.’

This time even Jane heard the low, rasping noise, like something heavy being dragged across the floor.  She strode to the bottom of the stairs and called up: ‘Who’s there?  Show yourself at once.’

A door opened and a plump, red-faced woman with hair like steel wool leaned over the banisters.

‘My life, you startled me,’ she said.  ‘It’s Mrs Armstrong, the new owner, isn’t it? The agent said you wouldn’t be arriving until this evening. But not to worry.  I’m done here.’

She bustled down the stairs, her blue plastic bucket overflowing  with polishes and dusters

 ‘There’s your precious ghost, ‘ Jane sneered.  ‘A cleaner, moving a bit of furniture.  Am I right?’

The cleaner nodded then peered anxiously at Elizabeth’s pale face.  ‘Didn’t mean to startle you, my dear,’ she said. 

‘So now we’ve solved the mystery of your so-called ghost, Elizabeth, do you think you could do some work?  It is after all what I pay you for.’

But Elizabeth shook her head.

Jane  snorted. ‘Did you ever hear such nonsense, Mrs –er?’

‘Minty. Sarah Minty.’

‘Well, Sarah Minty, this madwoman here refuses to stay in this house,  Says it’s haunted, even though I’ve proved to her the ghost doesn’t exist. She’s losing her mind.’

‘If she is then so’s half the folk in this village.’ Sarah said. ‘She’s not the first to be afraid of Waytown Hall.  Several around here swear they’ve seen a ghost in this house  I’m one of the few who’ll set foot inside.’

‘You’re obviously far too sensible to believe in all that nonsense.’ Jane said.  

‘I believe in the spirits,’ Sarah said quietly.  ‘But I know this one means me no harm, though some think she was responsible for Major Harvey’s death.  He was the old gentleman who lived here before you.’

‘How did he die?’ Elizabeth  whispered, wide-eyed .

‘Fell down these very stairs.  Broke his neck, poor chap. Although I wonder if it wasn’t the spirits from a bottle that did for him rather than the Blue Lady.’

‘What did you call her?’ Jane  asked sharply.

‘The Blue Lady.  Nobody’s really sure who she is or why she walks but –’

‘No one .. except  … me.’ Jane said between wild gusts of laughter that left her gasping for breath. 

‘Mrs Armstrong, remember the doctor said over-excitement was bad for your heart,’ Elizabeth warned,  then turned to Sarah. ‘You’re wrong, Mrs Minty, about the ghost being a friendly one.  I feel intense hatred in this room.’

Sarah frowned. ‘Now you mention it there is something.  It wasn’t like it when I arrived but now… there’s a disturbance in the air,  as if – .’

‘When you two have finished scaring each other witless with your ghost stories, I’d like to tell you mine .’  Jane’s acid voice cut in. ‘It’s not scary – just very funny.  When I was a child, I lived in this house.  My mother died when I was a baby and so there was just me and my father, Charles Maidment.  I dare say you know the name?  There were generations of Maidments at Waytown Hall until my fool of a father sold it.’

Elizabeth gasped.  ‘You never said –’ 

‘It was none of your business,’ Jane snapped. ‘I’m only telling you now to end this nonsense.   I used to play with a girl called Margaret who was so gullible, she believed everything I told her. I’d frighten the life out of her with stories of headless monks and weeping children.  But the one that terrified her most was about the ghost who was supposed to haunt this house and how, if she touched you, you’d drop down dead.  Now do you see why I’m so sure your precious Blue Lady doesn’t exist?  I invented her!’

But still Elizabeth refused to stay.  When Sarah Minty left Waytown Hall,  Elizabeth, with one last anguished plea for Jane to come with them, went too.

‘Don’t come whining back to me when you find no one wants to employ someone of your age with no qualifications or reference,’ Jane yelled, slamming the door behind them.

‘Your temper’s as nasty as ever I see, Jane.’

Jane whirled round to stare up at a slender young woman who stood at the top of the stairs.  Her long, blue dress shimmered as she moved.

‘I knew you’d be back,’  The Blue Lady said.

‘Who are you?’

‘You know perfectly well who I am. I’ve been waiting for you. I had to frighten poor Major Harvey into falling down the stairs because I wanted the place unoccupied, ready for you.  Pity, though. He was a nice old chap.’

Jane shivered in spite of the central heating. ‘What do you want?’

‘To ask you why.’ The ghost closed her eyes as if, even after all these years, the memory still upset her.  ‘Why did you push me down the stairs? I loved you and thought we were a normal happy family.’

‘A normal happy family?’ Jane forgot her fear as the years slipped away. ‘I hated you. Daddy and I were happy until you came along.  He used to call me his Little Lady.  He didn’t need a wife and I certainly didn’t need a step-mother.’

‘Yet my death didn’t bring you what you wanted, did it?’  The Blue Lady began walking down the stairs towards Jane. ‘You and your father were never easy in each other’s company again.’

‘Of course we were,’ Jane said defiantly.  ‘Without you around to spoil things, we had a wonderful time.’

‘I know you’re lying because I’ve been watching you all these years.  Watching and waiting.’

 As the Blue Lady got closer, Jane felt a chill wrap around her like November fog.

‘You’ve been alone all your life, haven’t you? Nobody could stand being near you for long.  Your husband, even Elizabeth left in the end.  I made sure of that.  And as for your father -‘

‘I’m not listening -‘ Jane said but the quiet voice went on pitilessly.

‘After my death, Charles sold this house.  He couldn’t bear to be reminded of what had happened here because there was this tiny seed of doubt in his mind.  He saw you – did you know that? He saw you at the top of the stairs.’

‘I don’t believe you.’  

‘He thought your strange, too calm expression as you looked down on my body was the result of shock.  But over the years, every time you went into one of your uncontrollable rages, the doubts grew until he was finally forced to admit the truth.  That my death was no accident – and you were responsible.’

‘He couldn’t have –’

‘He died of a broken heart, you know, Jane.’

‘No!’ Jane screamed.  ‘That’s a lie. You were always lying to him.’

‘I never lie.  Unlike you.  You even made up the ghost story to frighten poor little Margaret.’

‘That was only a bit of  harmless fun.’

‘Your Blue Lady served my purpose well.  I even added my own little touch.  Can you smell violets? I was always very fond of them.  Don’t you think I’m a convincing Blue Lady?’ The gossamer material whispered against her legs as she gave a small twirl. ‘Your harmless fun appears to have backfired on you.’

She laid a hand on Jane’s wrist. ‘Come along now.’

The ghost’s touch had been icy but Jane’s wrist stung as if a red hot iron had been laid on it.  She remembered how she used to frighten Margaret by saying how if the ghost touched you … but it was only a story.  Wasn’t it?

As if she had no will of her own, Jane stumbled up the stairs, her heart beating erratically, frantically as she did so.  She remembered the heart pills in her handbag on the hall table, but instead of turning back to get them she kept climbing the stairs, her breath coming in short, painful gasps,  her eyes focussed on  the Blue Lady.

……..

Two days later, Elizabeth, worried about her employer, called the Police who found Jane’s body on the stairs.  It wasn’t until later that Elizabeth realised the sense of evil that had so frightened her earlier was no longer there. 

Now, there was nothing in the air but a faint lingering scent of violets.

What’s in a title? A Much Winchmoor update – and the Covid ‘culture shock’

2020 has been what I’ve seen described as a ‘train wreck’ of a year and one in which, for the first time ever  in my writing career, my writing mojo completely deserted me and the fourth book in my Much Winchmoor series which had been galloping along at a cracking pace slithered to an ungainly halt.

I know I was not alone in this and there’s a brilliant explanation of why I, like so many suffered from what I think of as ‘pandemic brain fog’ on an excellent blog called The Killzone which I’ve enjoyed following for several years now.

The Killzone is described as ‘insider perspectives from top thriller and mystery writers’  and the article, published in September 2020 and entitled ‘why you don’t feel like writing’ is written by James Scott-Bell, author of some of my favourite how-to writing books, as well as an impressive number of first rate thrillers.

James explains that there is a understandable, biological reason for this brain fog. Your brain, according to  the article he quotes by Peter Olson, (the link is here. https://www.alifeoverseas.com/covid-and-culture-shock-feel-the-same-to-your-brain-and-heres-why/) is suffering ‘culture shock’ and goes on to explain:

“When someone moves to a completely new culture, many of the ‘autopilots’ your brain uses for thousands of small decisions every day become ineffective. In a similar way, your current environment has likely changed sufficiently enough that many of your own ‘autopilots’ are no longer working. When this happens, the next remaining option for your brain is to use a second decision-making process that requires far more effort and energy (glucose) to operate. Your body can only supply glucose to your brain at a certain rate – a rate far below what would be required to use this kind of thinking continually. Thus, additional thinking about routine matters has likely left you with a chronically depleted level of glucose in your brain. All to say: You are experiencing “culture shock”.

The link is https://killzoneblog.com/2020/09/why-you-dont-feel-like-writing.html

Anyway, I’m very happy to say that my brain fog has lifted and my book is now once more racing towards the finish line, thanks in part to a dog called Harvey and a cat called Max.

Some time during the middle of this brain fog I thought it might clarify things in my mind if I could come up with a title for my book which until then had been stuck with the unimaginative working title of Much Winchmoor 4 – which I didn’t think my lovely publisher, Darkstroke, would think a good look on the front cover. 

I don’t usually have a problem with titles – I already have one in mind for the fifth Much Winchmoor which I’m pretty sure is going to be Death of a Dame. (There’s a bit of a pantomime thing going on here)  But I was getting nowhere in my search for a title for MW4. (I blame my culture shocked brain!) 

So I turned to my lovely readers and put out a plea on Facebook, Twitter and this blog (link here) and turned the problem over to them.

I had a brilliant response and was spoilt for choice.  In the end I settled for Murder on High and my thanks go to Jane Odriozola and Robert Crouch who both came up with the same title.  I felt it fitted the theme of my story perfectly which starts off in the village church.  What do you think?  Here are the opening lines of Murder on High plus a picture of the church in my village to set the scene.

Murder on High

The top of the tower of the church of St Oswald in the small Somerset village of  Much Winchmoor was the perfect spot from which to get a bird’s eye view of the place, spread out like a relief map some hundred feet below, where it nestled between the  curve of the Mendip Hills to one side and low lying willow-fringed pastureland and  Glastonbury Tor on the other.

According to the poster on the church noticeboard, it was the perfect spot, too,  from which to launch 35 teddy bears in a week’s time. The proud owners (or, as was more likely, their parents) had each paid £3 to watch their precious bears abseil down off the tower, thereby boosting the fund for the restoration of the children’s play area by £105. According to the poster, it promised to be a fun day out for all the family with refreshments and bric a brac stalls in the church grounds and village hall.

Realisation came in a flash.  Because it was also, without doubt, the perfect spot to commit a murder. 

After all, abseiling is only the second fastest way down a church tower.

The ‘prize’ for coming up with this title was to have a pet of their choice featured in this or an upcoming Much Winchmoor title and I was very relieved when I saw that Jane and Robert had a cat and dog respectively.  If it had been Bearded Dragons or exotic fish, that would have called for a bit of hasty research.

But, after a week of working on these two newest recruits to my Much Winchmoor character list, I feel I’m definitely the winner here because they have both fitted in perfectly and given me some great ideas for moving the story along.  Let me introduce you to them.

This is Max and he belongs to Jane Odriozola.  I asked Jane for a few details of Max’s character – although I think you can see what sort of a character he is, don’t you? This is a cat with attitude.

As soon as I saw his picture and read what Jane had to say about him, I knew immediately where Max was going to fit in the story.  Gran Kingham is a reasonably new character introduced in Murder on High (although she does get a mention in previous books.). She is Cheryl’s mother (Kat’s grandmother) and is, to quote Kat, a ‘total pain’.

A couple of weeks before the start of Murder on High she arrives in a taxi, unannounced, at Cheryl’s house, with her arm in plaster, a towering pile of Louis Vuitton suitcases and an extremely cross cat in a basket.  Gran K has broken her wrist and announces that she will be staying with Cheryl while her arm heals.

I’d been worried that Gran K was in danger of becoming a stereotype.  She is a thoroughly unpleasant, self centred person with no redeeming features and I felt she needed something to soften those hard edges.  After all, no one is all good… or even all bad, come to that, are they?

And then, along comes Max!  A gorgeous, sleek black cat who turned up on her doorstep one morning five years ago and refused to go away.  And while Gran K may not be very fond of her daughter (or if she is, she’s unable to show it), has no time for her son in law, Terry and is constantly disappointed by her granddaughter, (who she insists on calling Kathryn, as she feels Katie – Kat’s real name- is not ‘posh’ enough for her only grandchild), she absolutely adores Max. And the feeling is reciprocated.  She shows Max the sort of affection she is unable to show any of her family, which is quite sad, don’t you think?

The next new character to arrive in Much Winchmoor is Harvey, a little West Highland  white terrier who belongs in real life to fellow crime writer Robert Crouch.  Harvey is no stranger to the crime fiction scene though as he appears regularly in Robert’s excellent Kent Fisher Murder Mysteries (his fictional name is Columbo). 

. Where does crime writer Robert Crouch get his ideas?

http://www.robertcrouch.co.uk

To start with I had a little trouble placing Harvey.  Robert says he’s feisty,  independent and will ‘rebel against the pack leader when he choses’. So how, I wondered, was he going to get on with Prescott, the feisty and independent Jack Russell terrier who definitely sees himself as leader of the pack!  I couldn’t see him fitting in with Kat’s dog walking group.

Trying to find a suitable owner for Harvey actually helped me out of a bit of a plot hole.  As I was working my way through a long list of characters who’d be a good fit for him I came across Fiona Crabshaw, who’s also  appeared in previous Much Winchmoor books.  

Kat’s keen to talk to Fiona about something but Fiona doesn’t trust Kat (they have a bit of previous history!) and is not going to sit down for a girly chat with her anytime soon.  However, Kat knows where and when Fiona walks Harvey every morning and I was thus able to engineer a meeting between Kat and Fiona and finally move the story along.  And I gained a whole new scene and a slight change of direction in the process.

So a big thank you to Max and Harvey and to Jane and Robert for allowing me to ‘borrow’ them.  And rest assured, they will be well looked after.  No animal ever comes to harm in my books.  Humans, yes.  Animals (and children), never!

Where does historical novelist Sally Zigmond get her ideas?

It is my great pleasure to welcome historical novelist Sally Zigmond to my blog this week.  I featured Sally in my Ideas Store column in the December 2020 Issue of Writers’ Forum magazine in which I asked her where she got the idea for her novel, The Lark Ascending, which I had recently read and enjoyed.

She explained how a shopping trip on a snowy January day was the inspiration behind the book which is set in Leeds just after WW1.

“When we lived in Harrogate I often shopped in the city centre and loved its celebrated Victorian shopping arcades.

“One day in a freezing-cold January day I took shelter under the beautiful glass roof of the Queen’s Arcade and shopped until I dropped (well almost). When I emerged into busy Briggate, I realised it had been snowing for a long time but I hadn’t noticed! 

“So there and then, I had the first scene of my next novel, The Lark Ascending, about a shop assistant who worked in the arcade and a strange day on a cold January morning. Only I wanted a change from the Victorian age and settled on the period just after World War One.”

The Lark Ascending is a beautifully told story and deals with some quite difficult subjects that faced people in that post-war era with great sensitivity and empathy.  I can really recommend it.

So I invited Sally to come along to my blog and answer yet more questions from me. And, happily, she said yes!

Me

Welcome, Sally.  And thank you for agreeing to appear on my blog.  Thank you, too, for giving me several hours of reading pleasure from The Lark Ascending.  I don’t often read historical novels but I loved it so much that I’m really looking forward to reading more of your work.

Do you write series of standalones?

Sally

I write historical novels and my published short stories are mainly historical. So far all my novels are stand-alones but the novel I am currently writing could well be the first novel in a three or four-book series.  I shall wait and see!

Me

I’ll look forward to that.  I love getting into a series.  So, what inspires you most (apart from snowy shopping arcades, that is!)? Is it characters?  Or settings?  Maybe even books you have read?

Sally

For everything I write, whether it be a novel or short story, I have to first choose a setting and a historical period. Then the main character(s). Plot comes much later. I think of my character at the beginning and where I hope to finish. Then I start fleshing out how that character (or characters) gets from on to the other. That’s the novel.

Me

And how did your writing journey start?  Have you always written? 

Sally

I’ve always loved reading and writing. English was my favourite subject at school and I studied English Literature at Uni. When my children  were  settled in school, I took various adult education classes. I then spotted one called “Writing For Pleasure and Profit.”  So began a long learning curve.

Me.

Ah, I remember taking a course with a similar title!   Now tell me a little of your future writing plans.

Sally

As I mentioned earlier I am currently writing a novel which may be the first part of a three or even four part serial beginning in the 14th century and concluding in the 16th.

Me

That sounds exciting.  And finally, tell us three things that we may not know about you.

Sally

1      I used to work at New Scotland in Interpol.

2      When I was on a train from Paris to Lyon full of French soldiers we were halted for 3 hours by a bomb scare.

3         Diana Dors once bumped into me on Euston Street in London and almost knocked me flying!

Me

Wow!  Plenty of material for a writer there then!  There’s your challenge for 2021 then – to try and work all three of those things into one story!

Thank you so much Sally for answering my questions so patiently.

The Blurbs and buy links for Sally’s books

HOPE AGAINST HOPE

Stoical and industrious Carrie and carefree and vivacious May lose both home and livelihood when their Leeds pub is sold out from under them to make way for the coming of the railway. They head for Harrogate to find work and lodging in the spa town’s hotel trade. But the sisters fall prey to fraudsters and predators and are also driven apart by misunderstanding, pride and a mutual sense of betrayal and resentment.

Alex Sinclair, a bold and warm-spirited Scot, has eschewed the wishes of his father to become a railway engineer. His companion, Charles Hammond is the dissolute heir to a vast fortune, withheld from him by an overbearing mother and grasping stepfather. Charles bides his time as a physician, a profession for which he lacks both aptitude and enthusiasm.

The futures of both men will become bound up with those of the two sisters.As time passes the sisters overcome their adversities: May becomes the most sought after dressmaker in Paris; Carrie, the proprietor of the most successful hotel in Harrogate. Alex pours himself into new railway projects. Meanwhile, having been almost destroyed through gambling, drunkenness and self-loathing, Charles starts on the long and difficult road to redemption and fulfilment.Carrie and May have now been estranged for several years. But in 1848, the Year of Revolutions the streets of Paris erupt in bloody insurrection while Alex Sinclair is commissioned to bring the railway to Harrogate. 

CHASING ANGELS ( novella)

In 1794, Henriette d’Angeville was born into a French aristocratic family in crisis.Her grandfather was guillotined and her father imprisoned but later released causing the family to live on their memories in an impoverished château. In 836, she was the first woman to reach the summit of Mont Blanc – in a bonnet and petticoats!This novella is a fictional account of her life in which her love of the outdoors and her determination to excel in her climbing endeavours, which made her an object of derision and pity, is examined in a witty and sympathetic portrayal. We see her father, her mother and her younger brother. We see her at school and the circumstances in which she ‘rescued’ her companion, Jeannette, from destitution. We meet the Protestant ladies of Genevan society and the men of Chamonix who accompany her on her expedition.Starting close to her death, Henriette looks back on her life and her great achievement. Full of humour and love, Chasing Angelstell the story of a truly remarkable woman

THE LARK ASCENDING

Leeds 1919. The war is over but young Alice Fields, who hates her job in an old-fashioned shop, isn’t celebrating. However, her life is about to change when a rich customer leaves behind an expensive fur stole and Alice makes great efforts to return it. Dark secrets bring not only money but misery, too. During the contrasting worlds of the roaring twenties and the General Strike, love and deep friendships bloom like poppies on the devastated battlefields over which the lark rises again. 

Social Media Links, blog, website etc.

My blog needs attention and more time! Sallyzigmond.blogspot.com

Twitter. @sallyzigmond

 Facebook. sallyzigmond

Buy links

The Lark Ascending

Hope Against Hope

Chasing Angels

Author Bio

I was born in Leicester, moved to Lincoln then back to Market Harborough. Leics where In attended senior school. I studied at what is now Queen Mary |University, London where I met my husband. We moved to Yorkshire where my two sons were born. Now retired, we live in Middlesbrough with stunning views over the Cleveland Hills. 

Where does psychological thriller writer Charlie Tyler get her ideas from?

I am delighted to welcome to my blog psychological thriller writer, Charlie Tyler whose debut novel, The Cry of the Lake, was published earlier this year. Here’s the book’s blurb

A gruesome discovery unravels a dark trail of murder and madness

A six-year-old girl sneaks out of bed to capture a mermaid but instead discovers a dead body. Terrified and unable to make sense of what she sees, she locks the vision deep inside her mind. 

Ten years later, Lily is introduced to the charismatic Flo and they become best friends. But Lily is guilt-ridden – she is hiding a terrible secret which has the power to destroy both their lives. 

When Flo’s father is accused of killing a schoolgirl, the horrors of Lily’s past come bubbling to the surface. Lily knows that, whatever the consequences, she has to make things right. She must go back to the events of her childhood and face what happened at the boat house all those years ago. 

Can Lily and Flo discover what is hiding in the murky waters of the lake before the killer strikes again?

Me

Hi Charlie and welcome to my blog.  I really enjoyed your book.  It was a fascinating read and very cleverly constructed. You certainly know how to crank up the tension! Congratulations on a very accomplished debut novel.

So, the question I ask everyone.  Where did you get the idea from? (I’m sure that should really read ‘From where did you get the idea?’ but it just doesn’t sound right.  Or is it just me?)

Charlie

Lakes, ponds and fishes are all things which spark my imagination. My inspiration came from seeing a photo of a rickety boathouse, complete with a long, wooden jetty, leading out onto a lake. 

I remembered being a child and fishing by the edge of a pond, collecting tiny creatures in jam jars and lining them up along the bank. I imagined a small girl lying on the jetty, catching minnows, and being told by her older sister that a mermaid lives beneath the surface of the lake; a mermaid called Myrtle who can only be seen at night when there is a full moon. 

If that had been me, I would have been out the very same night, searching for the mermaid and that’s what led to me creating the main incident for the book. I envisaged the girl arriving at the water’s edge, but rather than seeing a mermaid, she witnesses a terrible crime. 

Unable to process what she has seen she buries it within her mind. I built up the rest of the story around the fallout from what happens years later, when this memory is forced to rise to the surface again.

Me

Great answer!  My older sister used to tell me stories like that.  They used to frighten the life out of me.  In fact, come to think of it, they still do.

So, what inspires you most?  

Charlie

I am completely obsessed and inspired by water – lakes, rivers, ponds, though, curiously, not the sea.  I daydream about lakes – maybe it’s because I’m often driving through Rutland Water.  I also spend a lot of time out walking my dog.  My house borders onto fields and quite quickly I can get to the canal, so I’m frequently out, marching along the towpath, passing through various small, chocolate-box villages which feed my description for an idyllic village life.  

Sometimes, on my walks I see things and store them away for later use, for example, a couple of years ago I was walking through fields with my husband and daughter and we came across a fenced-off, rectangle of slime which we later found out was King Charles’s Well where he supposedly watered his horses when he came back from defeat at the battle of Naseby.  Fast forward a couple of years and the well makes an appearance in The Cry of the Lake; I remembered it and thought it would make the perfect place to hold a village fete.  

For bookish inspiration I look to anything written by the amazing Agatha Christie.  How I wish I’d come up with the plots for ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ and ‘Then there were none’ – pure genius.  I also adore Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series which I think has a perfect blend of description and mystery all cleverly tied up with two characters I’ve grown to care about. 

Me

Great to meet another Agatha Christie fan.  She’s the reason I love reading and writing crime novels.  How did your writing journey start?

Charlie

I have been writing now for over a decade.  I’ve written various different things, including a contemporary romance, a children’s book and a YA.  For a couple of years, I was signed to a big literary agency, but sadly the book submitted was never sold.  Not put off by this, I did a six month online Creative Writing Course which kept me going, but it was only this year that I signed with Darkstroke and they published The Cry of the Lake in July 2020.  

Me

And what are your future plans? 

Charlie

Whilst The Cry of the Lake was doing the rounds, I was already three-quarters of the way through another novel which is set in a girls’ convent school.  Two bodies are discovered, hidden in the crypt of an Abbey, but the police cannot make any headway into how or why they got there.  They have to send in an undercover policewoman to try and engage with the girls and figure out what secrets they are hiding.

Me

Sounds great!  I am really looking forward to reading it.  Thank you for some great answers and now, to round it off, please tell us three things we may not know about you.

Charlie

I am terribly squeamish and find writing murder scenes absolutely horrendous.  Sometimes just the thought of what I’m writing about makes me cry – I’m such a big baby.

I adore spicy food, but if it’s too hot I get a nosebleed which isn’t great for my dinner companions.

My absolute favourite type of fiction to read is historical.  Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is the perfect match for me.

Me

Thank you so much for answering my questions so patiently, Charlie.  There’s just one thing I wish I’d asked you but didn’t.  What’s the name of your gorgeous dog?

Social Media Links, blog, website etc.

The all important buy link.

https://www.charlietyler.com

https://mybook.to/thecryofthelake

Author Bio

Charlie signed with Darkstroke in May 2020 and The Cry of the Lake is her debut novel.

Charlie is very much a morning person and likes nothing more than committing a fictional murder before her first coffee of the day.  She studied Theology at Worcester College, Oxford and now lives in a Leicestershire village with her husband, three teenagers and golden retriever.