Thursday, 12 October 2017

Just my Luck

We all have our little superstitions even those of us who say they’re not superstitious (she said, crossing her fingers).

My mum would definitely say she wasn’t superstitious, but she thought bringing pretty hawthorn blossoms into the house would cause something bad to happen – because one time a sad event did follow the blossoms.

Years ago I worked with a girl who believed all her horoscopes in various magazines and newspapers – even when they gave conflicting advice. She had her stars done once, although I can’t remember now what that entailed apart from sheets of that lined computer paper you used to get. Or was that her bio-rhythms? – she had those done too (whatever they were) and she put great store in coincidences and number patterns. We lost touch but I do hope life turned out happily for her.

Perhaps she was hovering in my sub-conscious when I thought of a storyline involving a girl who wouldn’t walk under ladders and who followed her horoscope to the letter. Then when a discussion a few months ago in my writing class led to the superstitions around seeing magpies the two things came together to make a magazine story.

Just my Luck was published in The People’s Friend this week (14 Oct.) with a lovely illustration:

and I got my name on the cover! 

Now that’s what I call good fortune.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Girl in Trouble

I’m delighted to be taking part in Rhoda Baxter’s blog splash today, for her fab new book  Girl in Trouble.

Grown up tomboy Olivia doesn't need a man to complete her. Judging by her absent father, men aren't that reliable anyway. She's got a successful career, good friends and can evict spiders from the bath herself, so she doesn't need to settle down, thanks.
Walter's ex is moving his daughter to America and Walter feels like he's losing his family. When his friend-with-benefits, Olivia, discovers she's pregnant by her douchebag ex, Walter sees the perfect chance to be part of a family with a woman he loves. But how can Walter persuade the most independent woman he's ever met to accept his help, let alone his heart?

Rhoda has asked her blog splashees some very interesting questions:

Rhoda: Both Olivia and Walter undergo changes that they feel are bad, but end up being positive. Have you ever had a blessing in disguise?
Kate: I don’t think I’ve had a dramatic blessing in disguise myself (or maybe I haven’t recognised one) – but my heroine certainly had in Stella’s Christmas Wish. She’s at work in London when she gets a phone call telling her that her beloved granny back home in the Scottish Borders has had a bad fall. As she rushes north it’s impossible for her to see anything good in that situation – and there’s also the reason she left Scotland in the first place – but sometime blessings come very heavily disguised …

Rhoda: Walter thinks hydrothermal vents are beautiful, but no one else does. What is your obscure love/ guilty pleasure, and why?
Kate: It’s not really obscure but it’s a pleasure I’m surprised to find myself having. Since visiting my daughter in rural China where she was teaching English six years ago, I’ve become rather obsessed with that country. So I joined the Scotland-China Association and enjoy the speakers at their monthly meetings, not to mention the get-togethers in Chinese restaurants. I did a Future Learn course on the European Discovery of China – loved it. And I read anything to do with China – my favourite author on the subject is Peter Hessler, an American who went originally with the Peace Corps and then was Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker from 2000 to 2007. Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, his account of travelling around China in 2001 when there were still very few cars on the road, is mind-boggling and very entertaining.

Rhoda: Since The Octonauts comes up a lot in the book – what is the TV programme or book or game that you miss most from your childhood?
Kate: I was brought up in rural Scotland and we didn’t have a television until I was fifteen. In any case, there weren’t the round-the-clock programmes there are now. Not being an outdoorsy type (despite the lovely outdoors around us) I read every minute I could. Luckily for me, my mum didn’t say (very often!) ‘Why are you inside on a such a lovely day?’ and when she did – well, I just transferred myself, book in hand, onto a rug in the garden. I still read a lot but I miss those unguilty hours and hours … and hours, of getting lost in books.

Girl In Trouble is the third book in the award nominated Smart Girls series by Rhoda Baxter. If you like charming heroes, alpha heroines and sparkling dialogue, you'll love this series. Ideal for fans of Sarah Morgan, Lindsey Kelk or Meg Cabot's Boy books. Buy now and meet your new favourite heroine today.


Tuesday, 3 October 2017

A Time to Reap – again

I told in this blog post last year how I wrote a poem called Cousin Hugh, turned the poem into a short story called Jack’s Lad (of which more here), and then turned the short story into a People’s Friend serial called A Time to Reap

What could be next, I asked myself? A musical? A cinema blockbuster??

Well, as to those possibilities, watch this space (but don’t hold your breath).

In the meantime, I’ve put the serial on Kindle:

It’s April 1963 in the Scottish Highlands. Elizabeth Duncan, widowed with two small daughters, is the farm manager on the Rosland estate, the job previously held by her husband, Matthew. Following a hard, snowy winter, her working life is made more difficult by the unpleasant estate factor.  

Elizabeth enjoys support in the small community from family and friends, including her cousin Peggy and local vet Andy Kerr. The arrival of an American visitor at Rosland House unsettles her in a way she hadn’t expected but, after Matthew’s mysterious death, a new relationship has been the last thing on her mind. However, as she dances at the annual estate ball in September, that may be about to change …

And there’s a large-print version for libraries published by Ulverscroft:

In another blog post last year I confessed that I was ignorant about many aspects of farming (despite having been brought up on a farm) and that I'd consulted a cousin (wearing the hat) for advice. He kindly wrote a lovely article for me (and you) on how to make a haystack – now, sadly, a lost art.

 Here’s the illustration The People’s Friend gave the first instalment of the serial: 

And if a musical or a film are ever on the cards you’ll be the first to know.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Six in August

I read six books in August.

Out of Bounds by Val McDermid
My sister passed this on to me. 'There were a lot of things that ran in families, but murder wasn't one of them . . . When a teenage joyrider crashes a stolen car and ends up in a coma, a routine DNA test could be the key to unlocking the mystery of a twenty-year-old murder inquiry’. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss the first three books featuring Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie investigating cold cases (a la one of my favourite TV programmes New Tricks) but I will catch up asap. Fab.

I got a lovely hardback copy of this in the Christian Aid book sale last year. The era appealed to me – the hot summer and drought of 1976 which I remember very well. I chose that year to move from Scotland … to St Albans (and thence to London the following year). My abiding memory of my first summer south of the border is of parched yellow grass in the park where I went in vain to get some fresh air after work. I did write a poem about that; wish I’d thought of writing a novel. Maggie O’Farrell also used this time for her Instructions for a Heatwave.

This is a cleverly constructed story of neighbours and the secrets behind closed doors. A woman from their street goes missing and 10-year-old Gracie and her loyal sidekick, Tilly, investigate (and search for God at the same time). I loved both girls: Gracie, a worthy successor to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (and the book does have its own Boo Radley pariah figure), and physically frail little Tilly – ‘She’d taken the bobbles out of her hair, but it stayed in exactly the same position as if they were still there.’ – can’t you just see her?

Hester and Harriet by Hilary Spiers
Bought in a charity shop – and what a discovery! I loved this story of two widowed, childless sisters (elderly but prefer to think of themselves as being in late middle-age …) who have been living together for the last six years. They reminded me a bit of Harriet and Belinda from Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle (one of my top ten books of all time, so I don’t say it lightly). But this Harriet and her sister face 21st-century dilemmas when they give sanctuary to a mysterious young woman from Belarus and her baby, and a cousin’s moody teenage son also lands himself upon their hospitality.

Rainy Day Sisters by Kate Hewitt.
Another sister novel – or half-sisters actually. I was delighted to win this in a giveaway by the author – I have read several of her books, particularly enjoying the Falling for the Freemans series (and The Vicar’s Wife under the name of Katharine Swartz). This is in her series Hartley-by-the-Sea – a village in a relatively untouristy part of the Lake District. Lucy has been living in Boston but when her life goes awry (thanks in no small measure to her own mother) she accepts an invitation from the older half-sister she barely knows, Juliet, who runs a B&B in Hartley-by-the-Sea. Juliet has her own problems (again, mostly to do with their mutual mother) and it takes various events, some involving other villagers, and revelations for the sisters to begin to understand and to love each other.

Lent by a friend. The setting is the Three Captains’ Inn, Maine, New England. Lolly Weller, the inn’s owner, summons home her daughter Kat along with the two nieces she brought up, Isabel and June, telling them she has an announcement to make. As the weeks go by the problems each of the four women have are revealed and discussed in the context of whatever Meryl Street film they’ve just watched. I thought the ending was a bit rushed and I didn’t find all the relationships convincing (eg Kat’s with her childhood sweetheart – he seemed kind of creepy to me) but as a Meryl fan I found this an enjoyable read.

A Christian Aid Booksale purchase. I have blogged about my collection of girls’ annuals and I’m also a fan of the Chalet School and Abbey Girls series of books, and of Angela Brazil, so I was thrilled – Jubilate! – to find this celebration of schoolgirl stories brought out by Girls Gone By Publishers. It has extracts, stories, illustrations, and articles (one by actor Terence Stamp, whose first adolescent crush, would you believe, was on ‘Dimsie’, the chestnut-curled and leggy heroine of a series of books by Dorita Fairlie Bruce).

Some adverts from girls’ magazines are reproduced. Cricket bats feature in these – and typewriters: ‘Yes, Mary is quite the envy of her friends now her father has bought her a Bar-Let Portable.’ Those were the days.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Bad news and good news

Magazine short story writers got a shock this week when it was announced that the fiction editorial staff of Woman’s Weekly was being reduced from three to one and that only their regular writers could submit to them i.e. they are closing their doors to new writers until further notice.

I’m very happy of course that I am one of those ‘regular writers’ (it was a nail-biting time before I got the email confirming that I was – there are many writers a lot more prolific so I wasn’t complacent.) I wasn’t on the list when the same thing happened at Take a Break and My Weekly so those doors are closed to me. But it is sad that this is the trend – when money needs to be saved in magazine publishing it always seems to be fiction that suffers. 

I do hope that this is not the thin end of the wedge at WW – that they continue to publish their twelve Fiction Specials as well as the weekly issue which has two stories and a serial.

Thankfully The People’s Friend – the world’s oldest women’s magazine (founded 148 years ago and long may it continue) –still has its ‘open door’ policy of welcoming new writers and giving feedback on submissions. Once you’ve had a story accepted you are assigned an editor who will work with you. If a story is rejected they will give the reason (and, yes, ‘regular contributors’ get rejections too) or they might suggest changes, work with you to improve the story. And however many stories you’ve had published it’s always a huge thrill to get an acceptance pinging through the ether!

Between the weekly magazine, all the Specials and the annual they buy 600 stories a year ...

I am delighted to be the guest author again at their story-writing workshops, hosted by Fiction Editor Shirley Blair – in Dundee on 21 September and York on 28 September. I’ll be talking about getting ideas and developing them, with examples from my own work, and about story structure.

If that appeals to you but you’ve never read the magazine or haven’t read it for a while, I suggest you read a few current issues to see the kind of stories they are looking for –feel-good, as they have always been, and now with twenty-first-century situations and relationships.

There’s a booking coupon inside the current issue, dated 19 August, and in the next issue 26 August, and online https://www.thepeoplesfriend.co.uk/2017/08/21/story-writing-workshops-autumn-2017/.

Maybe I’ll see you there?

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Seven in July

I read seven books in July, one I wish I hadn’t.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner
Christian Aid sale purchase. Loved this police procedural. The main character, Manon Bradshaw, is a detective sergeant and what she has to deal with is this – ‘Edith Hind is gone, leaving just her coat, a smear of blood and a half-open door’. How could you not want to find out what happened next? The New York Times, no less, called it: ‘Smart and stylish. Manon is portrayed with an irresistible blend of sympathy and snark.’

I Found You by Lisa Jewell
Read on Kindle. Lily has only been married for three weeks. When her new husband fails to come home from work one night, she is left stranded in a new country where she knows no one.
Alice finds a man on the beach outside her house. He has no name, no jacket, no idea what he is doing there. Against her better judgement, she invites him into her home.

I stayed up very late to finish this. My goodness, it has some extremely dark and harrowing moments. You have been warned.

Alone Through China and Tibet by Helena Drysdale
Christian Aid sale purchase. I am rather obsessed by China (see why here) and wish that, like Helena Drysdale, I saw it before its modernisation began.

She went in 1985 and I travelled vicariously with her. I would not have the courage to do what she did – or the temperament. I like knowing where I'm going to sleep, and even the thought of arriving other than ridiculously early at a station or airport gives me the screaming heebie jeebies.

But I like to think that in some respects that I am more prepared for a journey than Ms Drysdale. I wouldn’t take the hour-and-a-half bus trip to Glasgow without an emergency granola bar. She got on a bus to go through Tibet, a journey of several days in one of the most unpopulated parts of the planet, and she did not take a single thing to eat with her, nor any water. Her fellow travellers were laden with snacks, including tins of mandarin oranges – they fished the segments out with chopsticks. She does not say whether they offered to share with her but after a day or two someone by the roadside ‘made us omelettes’. I’d have eaten my own hand by that stage.

Christian Aid book sale purchase. Another sojourn in China, this one a mere twenty-two years later but in a very changed country. Canadian Mitch Moxley finds himself in Beijing in 2007 as a correspondent for China Daily. He wants to be a journalist, or so he says … he doesn’t actually seem very keen on writing, or working come to that, but he gets up to various shenanigans as twenty-something men are wont to do … But hey, he’s in China so I’m willing to follow him.

Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland
Read on Kindle. I heard about this on the Portobello Book Blog (read Joanne Baird’s review here).

I loved it. Loveday works in a second-hand bookshop in York for the wonderful, mysterious Archie. She lives on her own and doesn’t seem to have any friends or family – her story is slowly revealed. When she picks up a book on the street Nathan enters her life. 

I never intend to get a tattoo but after reading this I’m pondering which first line of a book would I choose if I did. Perhaps it would be the beginning of Lost for Words: A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame. Isn't that lovely?

I’m not going to say what the sixth (e-)book was. If I’d read the first page on Amazon I’d never have bought it – won’t make that mistake again. I kept going thinking surely it will get better but it never did. Banal writing, badly edited (not self-published, shame on the publisher). A young couple’s marriage is in crisis but as we never see them in the good times so what? I could tell you what happened to them but I couldn’t tell you anything about them, they were so one-dimensional. Two hours of my life I’ll never get back.

The Print Petticoat by Lucilla Andrews
Lucilla Andrews was the doyenne of hospital romance and some of her titles have just been brought out as e-books. This one is set a few years after the Second World War in a maternity unit that was evacuated from London and has not yet gone back. Joanna has several men who are very keen on her and it takes a serious and unexpected event to show which is the right one for her.

The 'print petticoat' by the way is a reference to the full-skirted uniform worn by nurses at St Gregory's Hospital.
Lucilla Andrews’ wartime memoir No Time for Romance (highly recommended) became part of a controversy involving Ian McEwan and his novel Atonement.

I was honoured to be asked to contribute an article for the publisher’s website and I chose to write on my favourite books about nurses (fiction and fact), see ‘Florence, Cherry, Lucilla and Me’ here.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Seven in June

I read seven books in June.

Calling Major Tom by David M. Barnett
Read on Kindle. Think of a story where a highly trained astronaut is about to leave on a one-way trip to Mars, his task to take ten years to set up a colony there. However, when he dies before take-off his place is taken by forty-year-old Thomas Major (and yes, he is Bowie fan) who is unqualified for the job except that he is so unhappy he relishes the thought of the forthcoming solitude. Now think of the Ormerods, a family firmly rooted on Mother Earth, where a teenage girl is desperately holding things together for herself, her little brother and their increasingly forgetful granny, terrified that bureaucracy will separate them.

It seems impossible at first that these stories could plausibly coincide. Yet they do, in this cleverly constructed and heart-warming book.

The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty
OK, I cracked. I couldn’t leave my last two Liane Moriartys unread any longer. They lay at the side of my bed saying … go on, you know you want to …
Hypnotherapist Ellen is fascinated by what makes people tick. So when she falls in love with Patrick, the fact that he has a stalker doesn't faze her in the slightest. If anything it intrigues her, and the more she hears about Saskia, the more she wants to meet this woman. But what Ellen doesn't know is that they've already met . . .
Not my favourite, which remains The Last Anniversary, but once embarked upon not to be put down until finished.

Truly Madly Guilt by Liane Moriarty
Some similarity to Big Little Lies – an event at a social function has unexpected consequences and results in someone’s death. Terrific characters – I loved Vin in particular, and little Ruby just jumped off the page.

So that’s where my bingeing has got me … no unread Liane Moriartys; I can only hope she is typing at top speed at this very moment.

Foreign Fruit by Jojo Moyes
On the bright side I found a Jojo Moyes I hadn’t read at the Christian Aid booksale and enjoyed it very much too. Set partly in the 1950s and partly fifty years later, the story centres around Arkadia, an Art Deo House, in a staid English seaside town. Notorious in its early days for its bohemian inhabitants, it falls into disrepair until its transformation into a hotel uncovers past secrets.

Autumn by Ali Smith
Read for Book Group. I must admit, because I thought it would be a difficult read, that I put off starting it until the Sunday morning before the Monday evening meeting – but then found myself completely involved and read the first 150 pages without looking up, finishing it in the afternoon. Her writing is mesmerisingly good. There’s not a plot as such but different stories illustrate the state of Britain in the time of Brexit. It has some very funny scenes such as when Elisabeth is trying unsuccessfully to produce a suitable photograph for her new passport, and when two characters get onto a TV programme called The Golden Gavel (clearly AS is poking fun at Antiques Road Trip). An unexpected treat.

The Making of Us by Lisa Jewell
I loved Lisa Jewell’s earlier books but after I read, and wasn’t very keen on, The House We Grew Up In, I didn’t pick up her more of hers until I saw this one and liked the premise.
Lydia, Robyn and Dean don't know each other – yet.
It would be a spoiler to tell you what these three have in common so I’ll just say that it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for my favourite TV programme Long Lost Family. Loved it. Now I’m back being a Lisa fan with lots to catch up on.

The Boy that Books Built by Francis Spufford
Christian Aid Book Sale purchase. FS had a difficult childhood in some ways – good parents but also a little sister with a very rare medical condition. So he retreated into reading and in this beautifully written memoir he revisits his favourite childhood books. I think he’s a little younger than me but we both grew up before the ‘Young Adult’ book was a thing.

I was a retreater too, if not for the same reason, so I felt we were kindred spirits even if our tastes rarely coincide – for some reason the Narnia books completely passed me by and neither have I read Tolkein or Ursula Le Guin, all of which obsessed him. However, we are a hundred per cent on the same page about Little House on the Prairie; he has a wonderful chapter on the series, and its author, including an account of a visit he made (in order to write a newspaper feature) to De Smet, immortalised in the later books, and now trading on the fame Laura Ingalls Wilder brought to it.