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Friday, 15 May 2020

The Healing Garden

These are surreal and difficult times for so many people. And like many others my garden has been a sanctuary. Gardens have always played an important part in my life from when I was tiny. For me they symbolise many things especially freedom, hope and healing and gardening itself  can teach us valuable lessons in acceptance.

One of the flowers I love the most is the paeony. 

Over the years my gardens have been a museum of memories - plants or cuttings generously given by friends and family. Many of those people have gone now but their spirits live on and the plants they entrusted to my care are a continual source of comfort.  

My grandparents, as I have written here before, were a big influence in my life. Their love for me was unconditional, their home a place of calm, a nurturing space, a sanctuary during some troubled times. 

Here they are in their own garden on their wedding day, 1st August 1931.

A part of their garden was walled on two sides, well almost three really as the house stood on the East side. Against the wall which faced West were paeonies, big and blowsy from being blissfully happy with their situation, the red brick wall intensifying the heat and protecting them from wind at the same time.

How I loved those flowers, their beautiful deep reddish pink colours, the pleasing round shape of them in bud and then the absolute joy of them opening; their velvety glistening petals nestled together like the layers of a ballerina's skirt. I would have loved a skirt like that, to feel it swishing against my legs as I swirled along the uneven slate blue path which circumnavigated this part of the garden. How I wished that the paeony flowers would last the whole year round!

And today perhaps I love paeonies even more for the gift of the happy memories they inspire. The paeonies in my cottage garden today are direct descendants of those in my grandparents' garden. When I look at them I feel immensely grateful for what I was given. They remind me of the ebb and flow of life. They restore me, relax me, remind me how lucky I am to have had such love and we all need more of that especially at the moment.

I hope that you have a green space in which to find some peace and tranquillity, a space to restore and invigorate you. Thank-you for taking the time to read my blog. I hope to return to it more regularly going forwards! Stay safe.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

When Can You Call Yourself a Writer?

It took me ages to be able to call myself a writer. It was probably about five years after my first book was published that I managed to answer a question about my occupation with those four small but loaded words; "I am a writer". And, despite being traditionally published, despite having my first children's book taken from the slush pile by Puffin, I felt like a massive fraud. I think this is partly because most people are so interested in writers, impressed even and thank-goodness they are. But then they ask the inevitable questions, "What have you written? Should I have heard of you?" For the majority of writers, apart from the famous ones obviously, the answer will be no. And then you will have to watch barely disguised disappointment cloud their features and suffer the subsequent air of embarrassment which cloaks you both.

Recently my daughter and I attended the Romantic Novelists' Association Conference at Lancaster University. I've been a member of the RNA for several years, since my YA novel, Last Chance Angel, was short-listed for an award. At the moment I am writing an adult romance and my daughter, Lottie Lucas, has her first book, Ten Things my Cat Hates About You, being published with Harper Impulse in December. I'm also a member of the Leicester Chapter of the RNA. We meet every month to exchange industry news, celebrate personal writing achievements, offer support where needed, drink, eat and have a good chat about the state of the world! All writers need groups like this. Lottie and I had never been to a conference before though and it seemed like a great opportunity to listen to some great guest speakers, get some professional feedback on the book I'm writing, (more on that in a later post), meet up with old writing friends and hopefully make some new ones.

In the queue for tea I bumped into another YA writer who I've met several times before. We chatted briefly before I asked her how work was going. "Oh, I'm not writing at the moment," she said.
And immediately I could feel her emotions as she stood next to me - because most of us who are writers will have been there too. We will have experienced periods when, for various reasons, we are unable to write. These periods of time may be long or they may be short but, in my experience, the feelings are the same - guilt, a sense of not being yourself, of being a little lost, disappointment with yourself, shame even, the thought that you may never write again and, one of the worst for me, the belief that you are letting down all of the people who have supported you over the years of toil. Amongst these people are the lovely readers buying your books and following your path as well as friends and family who have acted as sounding boards for first drafts, provided nutritional and emotional sustenance when you are up against a deadline or offered a shoulder to cry on when a plot or character just will not behave in the way you want it to.

And then, this beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, talented woman said these words:-

"I'm not sure how much longer I can call myself a writer."

"You are a writer," I said, and she is. A wonderful writer. "You will always be a writer," I continued.

I know sometimes it can be hard to believe that. All I can hope is that she moved on from our brief conversation feeling a little better.

It has been 4 years since my last book, No Going Back, was published. For some of that time, for various reasons, I have had to put my writing to one side and I appreciate that I am very lucky to have been afforded the luxury to be able to do that. And I too am aware that, even with several books behind me, I am beginning to feel a little uncomfortable telling people that I am a writer. 

But I am still a writer and I think it's important to remind ourselves occasionally of certain things.

You do not have to be traditionally published to call yourself a writer.

You do not have to be self-published to be a writer.

If you form stories within and write them down, whether in the form of poetry or prose, for public or personal consumption, you are a writer.

If you research facts and write them down in an informative and entertaining way, you are a writer.

Whether you are writing at the moment, or not...

Being a writer is not what you do. It is who you are.

As writers we should all be immensely grateful for that. We have been given a gift.

Sometimes it may feel like the wrong gift at the wrong time. Sometimes that gift needs to be parcelled up, tied with a bow and saved, ready to be brought out into the light at the right time. That does not mean we are no longer writers while our work, our creativity is incubating. It means that when we re-emerge our writing will be stronger and deeper for the waiting. And hopefully we ourselves will be stronger too and, when someone asks what you do, you can say "I am a writer." You can say it with confidence and pride and every cell in your body will rejoice. 

Friday, 9 November 2018

A Lull

Lull, quiescence, interlude, rest, respite, becalmed, breather, breathing space, repose, hush, pause.

Time to Smell the Roses

It has been a long time since I wrote my blog. Too long! I never intended to stop but life took over and sometimes something has to give. Sometimes it is good to pause.

While the blog has been on hold much has happened. We have moved from the city to the country where I have always felt that I belonged. We are creating a new garden which is very exciting and are able to take lovely, restorative walks from outside our front door. Our daughter has got married and one of our sons has moved abroad. We lost our lovely cat Lily aged 17, (I still can't bear to delete her photograph from this blog), but now have the joy of Maisie, who this time last year was a stray and living in a cardboard box.

In the midst of what has, at times, felt like an overwhelm, I have tried to create pockets of peace within the busyness. Which brings me to one of my great loves – books!

I think it was Philip Pullman who said “We need books, time and silence.” Wise words indeed.

Once a month, a green and white van stops right outside our cottage. It is packed full of treasure.

That treasure is, of course, books. There is something calming about a space filled with books, whether a library in any form or a bookshop. Inside that van the books are an extra insulation against the outside world, their spines straight and reassuring, their covers often works of art in themselves. And then there is the feel of the paper as you turn the page, the faintest scent of ink and the plethora of words – the promise of stories waiting to be discovered. I emerge from that van, my pile of books clutched close, more peaceful, more hopeful than when I had entered.

Alongside a cup of tea and a quiet space, a good book gives us permission to pause – maybe only for ten or twenty minutes – but that can be enough to restore us a little. This month I have been reading the wonderful Helen Dunmore’s House of Orphans. It is set in Finland at the turn of the last century and features Eeva whose life is caught up in the Russification of her country.

Here is a taste of the way language is used so beautifully to tell this story:-

She’d never liked this wild part of their grounds, but it was what he loved best. The boggy patches down by the stream, the smell of water peppermint, the little yellow irises that flowered there in late spring, the wild mallow and stray forget-me-nots and croaking frogs with their slippery billows of spawn. He would bend down and peer at the threads of life wriggling in the spawn, as tadpoles began to develop.

A few years ago I read In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore. House of Orphans is a book to be savoured and read slowly. Read too quickly and I will miss its nuances, its enriching qualities and those will inevitably ripple outwards into other areas of my life.

So, later on, when the darkness is encroaching and the fire is crackling in the grate, my grandmother’s bracket clock ticking steadily in the background, I shall make myself a cup of tea, take the time to pause and read a paragraph or two - slowly!

Thank-you so much for sparing your valuable time to visit my blog.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Writing Tips - The Importance of Back-Story

Beatles or Rolling Stones?

I had read out some of my work in progress, an adult novel, and the passage in question focused on my heroine’s seventy-three year old mother. So, Margaret asked, was she a fan of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones? I know all about the importance of back story, how it is vital in shaping your characters and informing your plot, but I couldn’t answer this question. And it made me realise that, in this instance, I didn’t know Dinah as well as I thought I did. It was a valuable lesson.

I’ve also had another reason to think about back-story recently. Last Summer we lost our lovely cat, Lily, after 17 happy years. We were planning to move house with a possibility of having to go into temporary rented accommodation so delayed getting another cat. Three weeks ago, now settled in our cottage in the countryside we adopted Maisie from a local animal aid centre. Here she is stretched out on our kitchen floor. 

Little is known about her history, how long she had been a stray or how old she is, (the vet says between 4 and 12 which is a pretty wide remit!). She had been living outside in a cardboard box for quite some time, fed by a few kind people, before before being taken to the shelter. What we do know is that someone had cared enough at some time to get her spayed, she has possibly had kitten and she is hugely affectionate. However, she is also petrified when the back door opens and scuttles behind the fridge which leads us to suspect there was someone in her past whom she was afraid of and maybe didn’t treat her well. Hopefully, with lots of love and time this fear will diminish. But I am aware that sometimes love and time aren’t enough to heal completely. We are all products of our back-story, animals too.

As for Margaret’s initial question. I can answer it now with complete confidence. Rolling Stones, without a doubt!

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Lizzie Lamb's Clootie Dumpling Recipe

On Wednesday, November 30th, it is the Feast of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland and several other countries, Russia, Cyprus and Greece to name a few.  Although, (to my knowledge), I don't have any Scottish blood, my guest this week does. Lizzie Lamb is a hugely successful romantic novelist and inspiration to all of those who know her so I am thrilled to welcome her to my blog sharing her childhood memories and her recipe for the wonderfully named, Clootie Dumplings. 

    So, over to the lovely Lizzie.

Relax and enjoy!

I only have to unscrew a jar of cinnamon and I’m seven years old again, making my way home from school through the deep snow of a Scottish winter. But I don’t mind the cold because I know that there’s Clootie Dumpling waiting for me. Not Lord Snooty’s Christmas pudding, as dark and round as Guy Fawkes’s bomb - I mean Clootie Dumpling, its bigger, more substantial Scottish cousin, a cross between a Quatermas Experiment and a Desperate Dan pie.  

On Clootie Dumpling day (we simply called it dumpling) the kitchen was a blissful warm fug of steam, redolent with the scent of cinnamon and ginger, like some medieval banquet, the clatter of pots and pans and lots of happy chatter. Just the antidote for dark, northern December days. The dumpling would have been mixed by hand (not wooden spoon) earlier by my mother and grandmother in a huge bowl. No weighing of ingredients for them, everything was done by guestimate and experience.  

The copper would be fired up, filled with water from the immersion heater and brought to boiling point. (We always had lots of hot water because my grandfather was a coal miner and we had a ton of coal delivered twice a year) Then the dumpling cloth would be brought out - my mother swore by a square of linen sheet she’d bought at the Glasgow Barrows. String would be filched from the large hairy ball of twine my granddad guarded jealously and we were off. From my point of view, the best bit was smacking the dumpling’s bottom - for luck - just before it was wrapped in its wet, flour sprinkled cloth, tied at the neck with string and immersed in the copper for three hours. 

Then came the great reveal, the steaming dumpling was taken out of its cloth, rolled onto a large turkey plate and put in front of the coal fire to ‘dry out’ and form a skin. There’s nothing finer on a cold winter’s day than sitting by the fire waiting for the first slice to be ready. We always ate the first slice hot with the top of the milk poured over it. Next day, I’d take a slice to school as my ‘piece’ for break time, wrapped in a ‘loaf paper;’ while the adults ate theirs with a friend's egg, and sometimes baked beans. The poor old dumpling never lasted long as slices were given to neighbours - who reciprocated when they made their dumping - but theirs was never as good as my Mammy’s.   

When we moved to England in 1962, we left the copper behind and my grandma hit on the idea of boiling the dumpling up in the twin tub. I don’t know how, but the mixture never seeped through the cloth into the water. Too dense I suppose. Then Mammy found a huge catering saucepan [with handles on two sides] on a stall on Leicester market, and we carried it home - all the way up London Road. That saucepan became the family dumpling pot.  

When we no longer had coal fires, we dried the dumpling in the oven - but that always seemed a poor show, somehow. The making of dumpling and other Scottish treats like tablet, stovies, tatties, sausage and onions, and the traditional peppery steak pie on New Year’s Day passed into folklore when first my grandmother and then my Mammy died. But I only have to unscrew the lid of a Bart’s spice jar to be transported back to those happy childhood days - when dumpling was king.

Ingredients For Clootie Dumpling:
125g suet
250g plain flour
125g oatmeal
250g mixed sultanas and currants
1 tablespoon of golden syrup
75g sugar
2 lightly beaten eggs
1 teaspoon of ginger
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
4 tablespoons of milk
1 tablespoon of flour for the cloth

Cooking Directions for Clootie Dumpling:

1. Rub the suet into the flour and add oatmeal, baking powder, sugar, sultanas and currants and the ginger and cinnamon. Blend together and add the eggs and syrup. Stir well and add just enough milk to firm.

2. If you are using a cloth (cloot), put it into boiling water first then spread onto your table and sprinkle a liberal amount of flour over the inside. Put the mixture into the middle and tie up, leaving a wee bit of space for the mixture to expand.

3. Place an upside-down saucer at the bottom of a deep pan and put the tied cloot in and cover with boiling water and simmer for about 3 hours.

4. If you'd rather use a bowl it will need to be greased before adding the mixture. Leave an inch space at the top for the pudding to expand. Cover with greaseproof paper and tie.

After teaching her 1000th pupil and working as a deputy head teacher in a large primary school, Lizzie decided to pursue her first love: writing. She joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme, wrote Tall, Dark and Kilted (2012), followed a year later by Boot Camp Bride. Although much of her time is taken up publicising Tall, Dark and Kilted and Boot Camp Bride, she published a third novel SCOTCH ON THE ROCKS in July 2015. It achieved Best Seller status within two weeks of appearing on Amazon. Lizzie is a founding member of indie publishing group – New Romantics Press. In November 2014 they  held an Author Event at Waterstones High Street, Kensington, London - the icing on the cake as far as they are concerned. In March 2016, Lizzie was a finalist in the prestigious Exeter Novel Prize for Scotch on the Rocks. And, in November, she will be hosting an author event at Aspinall, St Pancras, talking about writing and handing out prosecco and macaroons.  Lizzie lives in Leicestershire with her husband David (aka Bongo Man) and a naughty parrot called Jasper. She loves to hear from readers, so do get in touch . . . 

Scotch on the Rocks – a contemporary romance set in the Highlands of Scotland

Boot Camp Bride - Romance and Intrigue on the Norfolk marshes

Tall, Dark and Kilted Notting Hill Meets Monarch of the Glen

Take a chance on us - a tapas of novel openings guaranteed to pique your taste buds
Hocus Pocus 14 short story anthology

Lizzie’s Links

twitter: @lizzie_lamb      

Thank you very much to Lizzie for a lovely post and Happy St. Andrew's Day to everyone! 


Friday, 23 September 2016

Judy Bryan's Mars Bars and Memories

A few weeks ago I was thinking of my favourite things and these include reading, writing and

CAKE! So I thought, why don't I combine these three gorgeous things on my blog and ask some

of my lovely writer friends for their favourite cake recipes. So, to get the ball rolling and following

on from my own honey cake recipe, here is the very talented Judy Bryan's recipe for Mars Bar

cakes, with some lovely memories thrown in.

Mars Bars and Memories

When Alex said she was intending to blog about people's favourite recipes, I 

immediately thought of my husband’s grandma. When my husband and I married,

32 years ago, we used to visit her every Saturday morning for a cup of tea and a 

slice of cake. Although she baked a huge variety of recipes, everyone’s favourite

was Mars Bar Krispie slices. Now aged 96, she still makes it when someone calls

in to see her.

Over the years I’ve made many trays of it with my children – as toddlers, they used to

stand on chairs to stir in the Rice Krispies, and as they grew up they enjoyed making it

themselves, although most of the mixture was ‘tested’ before it made the tin! As a 

teenager, my daughter even made a batch in the early hours one morning. She couldn’t 

sleep and needed comfort food to get over a boy who had broken her heart.

My husband and I are going to visit her at university next weekend and she’s asked us

to bring the things she’s forgotten: shoes, clothes, phone charger … plus a Tupperware

full of Mars Bar Krispies to share with her housemates. I laughingly mentioned this to my 24-

year-old son, and without missing a beat he asked for a batch when I next see him!

I hope I’m still making it when I’m 96!

Mars Bar Krispie

This is such a simple recipe, but is really delicious.

50g butter

2 Mars Bars

Rice Krispies

Chocolate to cover (1 x 150g bar of milk chocolate)


1) Melt the butter and Mars Bars over a low heat

2) Stir in sufficient Rice Krispies to saturate the mixture

3) Spread into a non-stick baking tray

4) Leave to chill in the fridge

5) Melt the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl over a pan of boiling water (without the bowl

touching the water) or in a microwave on a low setting

6) Spread quickly over the chilled mixture

7) Chill in the fridge, then cut into slices

8) Enjoy!

Judy Bryan is the author of Playground Politics, Beyond the Clouds and Behind Closed


Judy's books are all available on Amazon and you can find them here;-

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Quick Honey Cake

My mother was a wonderful cook and one of her favourite things was baking. We always had cake in the house and she loved trying new recipes. Recently, more than ten years after she died, I have been re-visiting her cookery books, not the ones she bought but the ones she compiled herself; recipes which enticed her, copied out from magazines, newspapers or passed on from friends and family. It is a poignant exercise, seeing her generous rounded hand-writing and the ingredient spattered pages. In some ways it brings her closer; in others it deepens my sense of loss.

My children, now grown, often talk of 'Grandma's recipes' and many have become our own family favourites but I had forgotten about this one. I can't remember whether we were out one day or watching television but as soon as I heard the words 'honey cake', I thought, Mummy used to make that and, sure enough, rootling through her books I found it.

It is a lovely cake, so quick and easy to make and it gets even better after a few days as the honey flavour develops and moistens the sponge. It is equally good with a cup of tea or coffee or served as a pudding, (as I did last week at a family get-together), with soft fruit and ice cream. It also freezes well.

You can use any honey but I used a truly beautiful English heather honey from Littleover Apiary, (available from Waitrose), where, during late Summer, the hives are placed on the moors in the North of England for the bees to do their work. The taste transferred from those flowers is sublime!

So here it is - one of the cakes my mother used to make:-

Quick Honey Sponge

4oz butter or margarine
1 good dessert spoon of honey of your choice
2 eggs (unbeaten)
3tbsp milk
4oz castor sugar
5oz self-raising flour
Half tsp baking powder

Chop up fat and place in warmed bowl with other ingredients. Beat until smooth. Pour into loaf tin and bake for about 20/25 minutes.

That's it! Couldn't be simpler. I'm afraid that I can't tell you what temperature to bake it at as my Mum hasn't specified and I have an Aga. But I'd definitely check it after fifteen to twenty minutes and if it looks as if it is catching a little around the sides just put a piece of foil over the top for the last few minutes of cooking. It doesn't make a large cake, probably about 7/8 medium slices. Last week, when we were a bit of a crowd, I made doubled the quantity and made two, just whisking the whole mixture up together and then dividing it into two loaf tins.

As usual I have to make a few substitutions as I'm gluten free and my daughter is dairy free but it still makes a lovely cake. Instead of butter I used Pure Sunflower Spread. The self-raising flour was Dove's Farm Gluten Free Flour and the milk was Alpro soya milk. If you're baking it for someone who's gluten free don't forget to check the baking powder as well - some of them do contain gluten.

I hope you enjoy it!