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Monday, 30 December 2013

Balance

My earliest memory is of lying in my pram looking up at two very tall conifers wafting against the sky. My mother used to put me outside in all weathers and, as I grew, I spent a lot of time in our garden, making the shady space underneath the broad sweep of those lower conifer branches into a little house, or cycling around the lawn on my bicycle, bouncing a ball against a wall, playing with our dogs; the adventures were endless. When I look back over my life, then and since, many of the happiest pictures which come to mind are from being outside.

My father fostered in me a love of gardening. I had a small semi-circular patch of earth at the edge of the vegetable garden. It was backed by a privet hedge and a tall, lanky, pear tree. Here I could plant exactly what I wanted. I still love my garden and feel my father's hand on my shoulder, his voice in my ear as I decide on which vegetables and plants to grow.

Last year life was hectic. Despite finally getting a greenhouse, planting some long-awaited autumn fruiting raspberries and being really pleased with my broad bean crop, I didn't get outside enough. Looking back, my life lost a degree of balance. There were friends and family who I didn't see as much as I would have liked. Too many things were done in a rush. There just didn't seem to be enough time to go around. So my resolution for 2014 is to try and restore some balance to my life. I am going to begin by getting outside more. Hopefully my garden, my friends and family, my writing and my whole life will benefit.

Thank-you for reading and wishing everyone health, wealth, love, luck and happiness for 2014.

Friday, 20 December 2013

All shall be well

'All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well'
 
Julian of Norwich




For several of my friends and family 2013 has been a difficult year. Sometimes it is hard to know what to say or do when someone is going through a hard time. Words and even actions can seem to be inadequate. I do know that there are some inspiring people out there, those that bear their trials with grace and fortitude and teach the rest of us to be grateful for what we have.

The above quote has come into my life a couple of times over the last few weeks. I like it for its simplicity and message of absolute hope. 
 
 Not much is known about Julian of Norwich. She was an English anchoress who lived from 1342 - 1415. An anchoress is another name for a hermit, someone who has retired from the world in order to pray. Her name probably derives from the cell in which she lived, which was attached to St. Julian's Church in Norwich. When she was thirty and still living with her family Julian became seriously ill. As she lay on her deathbed she experienced a series of visions of Jesus. When she recovered, Julian wrote about these visions in a book which eventually became the Revelations of Divine Love. This is believed to be the earliest book by a woman in the English language.

Thank-you so much to everyone who has read this blog over the past year. It is incredible and humbling to see my stats and realise that there are people reading from Alaska, China, Russia, Malaysia, Poland to name a few, as well as many from the U.S. I would like to take this opportunity of wishing you all a very Happy Christmas wherever you are. Julian of Norwich was noted for her optimism and joyful outlook on life and I sincerely hope that for you in 2014 all shall be well.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Writing Support

I have been undecided what to write about this week. I had two other posts which occurred to me, one after the other, and then something else reared its ugly head. It made me cross and it's important so the other topics have been pushed aside.

I have been lucky during my writing life. Not many people have tried to undermine my confidence. I can probably count them on one hand and there are many, many more who have supported and encouraged me. But the ones who knock you down are the ones who force you to question the value of what you do and the quality of your work. If you are not in a good place they can make you thoroughly miserable. I was reminded of this when speaking to a group of lovely, talented writer friends this week. A couple of them were talking about their work not being respected, which in effect means they are not being accorded respect themselves. The reason was this, because what they choose to write, (and are very successful at), isn't deemed 'serious' or 'literary' enough. As writers we have probably all had people who have undermined our confidence, some completely inadvertently. But when it is done by other writers, that is something else. That is unforgiveable. Other writers know that the words don't just flow on to the page and that your self-esteem can plummet when a piece of work is not going well or a rejection letter pops into the inbox or on to the doormat.

Writer friends, whether individuals or as part of a group, should be supportive, encouraging, motivating, inspiring, generous. That is not to say everything should be sugar-coated. If you want to improve your work, criticism should always be welcome, as long as it is given from a place of kindness, from wanting the best for the other person. Some people, I'm afraid, see other writers as a threat, especially if they occupy a similar genre. But everyone is unique and as a result we all have something different to offer. So choose your writer friends with care, do not read your work out to anyone who you do not trust and do not let anyone, anyone, make you feel small or as if what you are doing is inferior. Treasure those who support you in your ventures and feel proud of what you have achieved.

Thank-you for reading and I hope you have a lovely week.


Saturday, 7 December 2013

Wheat Free/Dairy Free Coffee Cake

Baking and writing seem to go so well together, as does eating cake and writing! All of that measuring, sifting and mixing is very soothing. It seems to be the perfect antidote to winding down after doing a stint of writing. It coaxes your mind gently away from your story and back into the real world.

I have to confess to eating cake every day, usually in the afternoon with a cup of tea. A few years ago, when I first became wheat intolerant, my cake eating became more difficult. Now, thanks to much more awareness, most tea rooms serve a form of gluten/wheat free cake and the gluten free flours for baking at home are much improved too. I particularly love making cakes for other people to share and a couple of weeks ago I made this cake for my eldest son's birthday. My daughter is dairy intolerant (that is still a problem when eating out) so this cake is not just wheat free but dairy free too. This recipe is an adaptation of Delia Smith's all in one sponge and I think it tastes just as good as a cake made with butter. If you try it, I hope you agree.



Coffee and Walnut Cake

4oz self-raising flour (I use Dove's Farm)
1 tsp baking powder (gluten free)
4oz soft margarine (Pure sunflower or soya spread)
4oz caster sugar
2 large eggs
2-3 drops vanilla essence
2oz finely chopped walnuts
1 tbsp. instant coffee mixed with 1 dessertspoon hot water

For the icing;
2oz soya/sunflower spread (at room temperature so it doesn't split)
3oz icing sugar sifted
2tsp instant coffee dissolved in a very small amount of hot water.

Grease and line two 18cm (7") sponge tins. Pre-heat oven to gas mark 3, 325F (170C)

Sift flour and baking powder into a bowl, holding sieve high to air the flour. Add remaining ingredients and whisk with an electric whisk until combined. The mixture should be soft and drop off a wooden spoon when lightly tapped. Gluten free flour tends to absorb more liquid so you may need to add a few teaspoons of warm water here and then whisk again until you get the right consistency.

Divide mixture between tins and bake on centre shelf o the oven for about 30 minutes. When cooked leave in the tin for about 30 seconds before turning on to a wire rack to cool. Sandwich with butter cream. If you want butter cream on the top of the cake as well just double the quantity of icing ingredients but I prefer just to fill the middle. Then finally decorate with walnuts, sift with icing sugar and enjoy! Enjoy whatever you are doing this week and thank-you for reading.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Finding your writing voice

Many years ago, before I was published, I attended some classes at a local adult education college in Leicester. At the time, the classes covered novel writing, writing for radio, short story writing and article writing, but there was only one session on writing for children. How times have changed! But one thing which was mentioned and which comes up from time to time, is that publishers want to read a manuscript where the author has a distinctive 'voice'. They want the reader to be able to pick up a book and say this is by Eva Ibbotson for example, without having to know who the author is. All of those years ago, when first starting out, I understood the concept but wasn't sure how to find my writing voice. In the end it was quite simple - patience and practise.

Maybe some people find their writing voice straight away but for me it has been a twisty road and involved a lot of work along the way. But the more you practise, the better you get to know yourself and the style of writing which you feel comfortable with.

I believe the writing voice emanates from the authentic you. It is all those parts of your personality, some of which the outside world may not see, coming together, and expressing themselves on the page. It shows up as the length of the sentences and chapters, the words chosen, the words rejected, the mood and rhythm of the text. It is in the spaces, the pauses, the full stops. It is ethereal, mysterious, precious. It cannot be forced and whilst imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, trying to emulate someone else will not work. Your writing voice may be shy and need to be coaxed out of you, even rewarded with praise or treats for a passage well written. Developing your own writing voice demands a degree of confidence and a consistency which is not always easy to find when you are at the beginning of a writing career. But it is worth the wait.

Paradoxically, I don't think discovering your voice necessarily makes the writing process any easier. I feel that Last Chance Angel is a good reflection of my writing voice, but it was not an easy book to put together. In fact it was the hardest thing I have written so far. Then there is the question of having different voices if you write different genres. If I write some young fiction my voice will obviously not be the same as for my teenage books.

After many years of writing, I also lost my voice for a time. I am the sort of writer who needs life to be on an even keel and when, a few years ago, several crises occurred, I lost a sense of who I was and, as a result, I definitely lost my writing voice. It took some time to get it back.

I also think that this is a journey without a destination. As you grow, as your writing evolves, so does your voice and that is how it should be. But, at its very core, your writing voice must still reflect the genuine you. Whether you are just starting out or have been writing for a long time, it is important never to forget that.

Thank- you for joining me this week and belated Thanksgiving wishes to my U.S. readers.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Pansies and promotion!

My parents were great gardeners so it is no surprise that I have always loved flowers. I first got the opportunity to show just how much aged 18 months, when I snapped the heads off all my father's newly planted night scented stocks. I think he had planted about 100 of them in a very large bed just inside the front gate and needless to say I was not popular! So I find this time of year very difficult, all of those dark, mainly flowerless garden days ahead.

The geraniums are all packed into the greenhouse.


As there is no heating in there, may have to be brought into the house or go to my husband's office, if it gets very cold. The dahlias are looking extremely sad and are ready to be dug up for their tubers to be stored in sand until next year. The fuchsias are still going as is a fantastic little rose underneath my dining room window which I bought  reduced years ago and it has repaid me more than I can say.


But there is not much more still in flower so, in search of some cheer we set off for the garden centre last weekend. It was the most miserable weather but the sight of all those plants does lift the spirits and we bought some wallflowers to put under the dining room window and pansies to fill some of the pots.

The French name for pansy is pensee and means thought. The Victorians loved this flower. The pansy is from the viola family and the plants are symbols of togetherness, tender attachment, concern and compassion. A gift for a friend would often contain an image of pansies, as might a gift from a lover and photograph albums often depicted the flower on their front cover. Apparently they are good flowers to have around you when you want to remember with fondness people who have died. The pansy was also a favourite flower of Queen Elizabeth I and appears embroidered on a pair of gloves from that time.



White pansies mean 'let's take a chance' which seems apt. As a writer you are taking chances all the time. You never really know, at least I don't, whether a story will work out and if it does, whether anyone will see in it what you do.

Apparently the Knights of the Round Table consulted the pansy to find out their fate by interpreting the number of rays from the centre of the flower. Seven was considered to be lucky. The pansy is also known as Heartsease because it was thought that by carrying it you would ensure the love of your sweetheart.



Violet pansies mean 'modesty', hence the term 'shrinking violet' and this is also a bit apt this week. One of the things I find more challenging about being a writer is all of the promotional stuff, but I am absolutely thrilled to report that Last Chance Angel has been short-listed for the Essex Book Awards. You can read about the books which have been nominated on their blog here and more about the awards themselves here.

My final pansies are lemon yellow.


This is the colour of new ideas, of cheerfulness, hope and optimism. Apparently it helps with decision making, clarity of thought and helps us to focus.

Who would have thought that three trays of pansies would contain so much information?! This weekend I shall enjoy planting them and next week I'm going to talk a little about finding your writing voice. I hope you will join me again. In the meantime many thanks for reading.




Friday, 15 November 2013

A Winter Warmer

This week we had our first frost. Crunchy grass underfoot and curls of breath rising up into the air. Darkness is coming early. Lights need to be switched on at about four o'clock in the afternoon. Winter feels as if it has arrived and this week I cooked an old favourite. I cut this recipe from a newspaper years ago and cooked it regularly as it is one of my son's favourites but it's funny how you suddenly forget about recipes and that is what had happened to this one.

But this week my son was at home for a brief break and I was looking to make something out of store-cupboard standbys. I suddenly remembered this recipe and it contains ingredients which I usually have to hand. The sausages I used are from Marks and Spencer because their premium range is wheat free but you could use any good quality ones.

Campfire Casserole
(Serves 3/4 depending upon how hungry you are!)

1 tbsp. sunflower oil
8 thick sausages, cut into thick slices
1 onion finely chopped
2 potatoes cut into chunks
3 carrots cut into chunks
300 ml (or slightly more) hot chicken or vegetable stock
420g can chopped tomatoes
1tbsp Worcestershire sauce
420g can baked beans
salt and pepper

Crusty bread to serve or garlic bread is nice.

Method: Heat the oil in a large casserole, add the sausage slices and cook for 7/10 minutes, stirring occasionally until brown all over and cooked through. (I usually take the skins off the sausages before cooking or you might find they shrink and need removing at this stage which can be fiddly).

Add the onion, potatoes and carrots to the pan and cook for 5 minutes, stirring until the onion has softened..

Stir in the hot stock, chopped tomatoes and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 15/20 minutes until the potatoes and carrots are just tender.

Stir in the baked beans and heat through. Season with salt (you might not need any due to the Worcs. sauce) and pepper and serve with crusty bread.

My husband said that this is a good warming meal for a winter night and he's right. It is. As it's cooked all in one pot there's hardly any washing up to do afterwards which always goes down well.
I should have taken a photograph to show you but I'm afraid we ate it all before I remembered!
If you give it a try I do hope that you enjoy it.

Many thanks for reading and I hope you have a good week.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Explore. Dream. Discover.

This week I have completed a picture book text and sent it off to a publisher. I've never had a picture book published despite having some near misses. One manuscript was accepted three times by three different publishers and eventually fell through for a variety of reasons, some of which I still don't really understand. Sometimes I say to myself that I won't bother again, that it's better to concentrate on other things but, as I said the other week, if you have an idea, it's madness not to try and see what could become of it. And it is still one of my dreams to have a picture book published. I also found this quote a couple of days ago which seems so true.

'Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do, than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.' Mark Twain.

Also this week we went to a fireworks display. I've always loved fireworks, although in moderation. I do think they should be reserved for one or two nights of the year as animals and my cat in particular find them so stressful. When I was small and living in a thatched cottage, with farms on either side, we were unable to have fireworks in our garden. But I had a friend who lived across the field at the back of our house, on the outskirts of the village. Her parents used to have wonderful fireworks parties. I remember holding jacket potatoes wrapped in foil between my gloved fingers, and as I released them, the steam rising into the chilly night air and warming the tip of my cold, cold nose. I remember the tussocky, frosty grass and the chill coming up through my wellington boots as my friend and I looped our sparklers up and down to write our names. I remember the stars in the inky sky and the tall silhouette of the hedges surrounding the field and I remember standing around the bonfire, hearing the flames crackle and watching the colours dance, orange, yellow, red as I bit into a hot dog drizzled with tomato ketchup. And of course I remember the fireworks, the sense of wonder as they exploded and bejewelled the sky.



But above all I remember the glow. When I look back at this scene it is bathed in a golden glow, not just from the warmth and reflection of the bonfire but from the friendships, the laughter, the sharing, the sense of community as people from the village gathered together. There was a real sense of belonging and, spectacular as our public displays of fireworks are these days, they cannot hope to emulate that. Also back in the day there was the unpredictability of it all; would the fireworks go off, would the wooden stick from the rocket fall back down and land on someone's head or would, in my husband's case, the Catherine wheel whirl free of its mooring, land in the tin of remaining fireworks and cause the most awesome display but mean everything was over in the space of a couple of minutes?! This unpredictability added a frisson of excitement which is also missing I feel, but maybe that is just me getting older and of course thankfully it is a lot safer these days.

So as I explore my memories, I dream of one day owning my own field and maybe even holding my own fireworks party there. But in the meantime maybe I have re-visited a memory which I can incorporate into one of my books.

Thank you for reading and may you get the chance to explore, dream and discover this week.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Looking at Light

It's probably not surprising that I've been thinking a lot about light recently. When in New England we went from the city to the countryside, from the coast into the forest. Most of the days were blessed with big blue skies and bright sunshine but a couple were cloudy and one was rain-filled.Whilst staying in lovely Lenox we visited the Norman Rockwell museum. His last studio, which he described as his best, was moved to the grounds of the museum from the nearby town of Stockbridge where he lived. The studio faced North as apparently this is the best light to paint by.

Talking of painting, at the end of the summer my daughter and I were browsing in a charity bookshop when she picked out this book for me.


Who could resist a book called Creative Freedom? The various artists talk about distinguishing light and shadow, the way light in a church filters through frosted glass. They talk of blending and softening, of light washes, of the ambiguity of light. The language is beautiful, uplifting, inspiring and thought-provoking for any kind of artist.

It's also that time of year when we move the clocks forward by one hour in the U.K. which means darkness falls before five o'clock in the afternoon. I don't like the cold but I like those dull, heavy days of winter even less.  We live in the city so our night time darkness does not have the intensity I remember from my childhood in a small village with barely any street lights. But about ten days ago, at two o'clock in the morning, our area had a power cut. Strangely, we awoke just as the lights went out. Looking out of the window the street was bathed in a soft blue-grey mist. It looked like a painting from Picasso's blue period. This was not the all enveloping darkness of the countryside but it was unexpected and I felt on edge. Why had it happened? How long would it last? Would all the food in my freezer de-frost?! Fortunately it didn't last long but it was enough for me to consider even more about the effect of light on our moods, the way it can lift or drag down, comfort or frighten.

I am working on my next teenage novel and I know that light is going to play an important part. In some way the nuances of light will afford my main character, Chloe, an opportunity to change her life. I am not sure how or when or where this will happen and that is exciting because it is making me more alert. I am trying to take more time to notice the way light changes from one moment to the next, the way it ripples through old glass or reflects off water. I am looking beyond the light and into the shadows, trying to capture that feeling of standing on the cusp. It is like crossing a bridge.



And one day I will have the answer to my question about Chloe and how and where the light or maybe even lack of it will transform her. Maybe it will emerge little by little or maybe it will suddenly be there all at once. That is the glorious thing about writing fiction - you just never quite know what is going to happen next.

I hope you have a good week and that it brings you whatever you are hoping for. Thank-you for reading.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Best Laid Schemes o' Mice a' Men...

My Mother, bless her heart, was a bit of a pessimist. 'Never make plans' she used to say, 'because if you do something will come along to upset them.' She did have a point and I've never been a long-term planner, possibly because of her words of doom, and maybe to my detriment. But you can't go through  life not making any plans at all, can you? So these were my main plans for the week:-

1. I had planned to write about light for this blogpost, as some of you may have noticed, because my first paragraph was posted by accident, earlier in the week.

2. I had also planned to get down on paper the first five thousand words of my new teenage novel which has been composting in my brain for a few weeks.

3.  We have a wedding coming up so I planned a trip into town to buy some new shoes to liven up the dress which I have decided to wear.

Then three things happened, (it would be three wouldn't it?!) and my Mother's words came back to haunt me.

Firstly, I picked up a cold on the plane on the way back from New England. If I had managed to escape the swirling germs of the man coughing permanently for 6 hours and the woman sneezing every fifteen minutes I would have an immune system of the sort I have obviously lovingly cultivated in my husband with home cooked food and palmfuls of vitamins. Why it hasn't worked for me too I don't know. Anyway, the cold and accompanying cough have confined me to barracks. But for a writer that's no bad thing. Who needs knock 'em dead shoes when you're sloping around in your dressing gown every day? And it's all the more time to get on with that novel except...

Secondly, and unexpectedly, I had an idea for a picture book. I was one day into my teenage novel and it was going well, so the logical part of my brain told me to carry on with 'the plan'. This was sound advice because I do keep saying that I'm not going to bother with any more picture book texts. I send them off, get nice comments back, but there's always a but at the end of the letter. BUT this picture book idea was taking over my thoughts, pushing the teenage novel out of the house, to the top of the garden and beyond. My heart was overruling my head and saying you shouldn't ignore a gift like that. Then, by chance, I read a post, recommended on Twitter, saying just the same thing. You can check it out here at Victoria (V.E.) Schwab's blog. Someone else was validating my thoughts. It was a sign! So I put the novel aside and spent a day on the picture book. Did I feel guilty? A little. But I enjoyed myself no end.

Thirdly, I had some upsetting news, completely out of the blue. This news was far more upsetting for the people concerned but its ripples affected me and will continue to affect me in the future. Unpleasant things happen to good people, people who don't deserve them and I find that hard to come to terms with. This news has jolted me out of my comfort zone and is making me re-assess the direction I am going in.

Thank-you for reading and next week, all being well, and in more ways than one, there will be light!

Saturday, 19 October 2013

New England

We have been away on a much awaited holiday to New England so I haven't posted my blog for a couple of weeks. It's always a little bit worrying when you look forward to something for a long time - the worry being that it may disappoint. Well, I'm happy to report that it didn't. The trees were fabulous, especially up in New Hampshire and Vermont. The places we stayed in were beautiful and the people so welcoming and polite. The whole place was also spotlessly clean. So here is a taste of what we got up to in fourteen action packed days.

Here we are in Boston's beautiful park on our first day. It was 81 degrees.


We walked The Freedom Trail and had a really fun time at the Boston Tea Party museum even though, being British, we were effectively the enemy! Here is Mr. G. getting into the swing of things and about the throw a carton of tea overboard. Huzzah!

 
 
After a couple of days we headed for Rockport where nearly all of the houses were already bright with decorations for Halloween.
 
 
 
 
 
But of course we really went to see the trees. This was taken from a boat on Squam Lake, New Hampshire, on a rather cold, cloudy day, but they were still stunning, although my photograph is a bit misty.
 
 
 
 Whilst staying in Lenox we visited Edith Wharton's house. She had a rather sad life but this house where she lived for ten years is extremely elegant and doesn't possess an aura of unhappiness.
 


 
In Mystic we went to an aquarium where we saw Beluga whales, sea lions, penguins and these pretty fish.
 
 
 
At Cape Cod we hired bikes and cycled along the coastal path from Falmouth to Woods Hole and the following day we took the boat over to Martha's vineyard where we hopped on the shuttle bus and visited genteel Edgartown and the pretty Wesleyan houses in Oak Bluffs.
 
 


On our last day we stopped off at Plymouth to board a replica of The Mayflower.


I find it difficult not to write but, apart from a few notes for my next novel on the plane over, I didn't write a thing. And it's really done me good. I've come back awash with motivation and inspiration from all of the sights and sounds of this particular part of the U.S. And I did get the chance to fulfil one of my most important wishes, which was to sit on a porch in a rocking chair, stare at the sea, and just think.

 
I hope you've had a good couple of weeks too and that over the next few days you get the chance for some valuable thinking time. As always, thank-you for reading.


Friday, 27 September 2013

A Migraine Message

I had my first migraine when I was about ten years old. I remember coming home from school and lying on the sofa with its dark green linen covers scattered with a pattern of pink cabbage roses.
My mother had to close the curtains because the light hurt my eyes. Then I was sick. And that was the start of a lifetime of living with migraines, although for years no-one put a name to them. When I was at boarding school I used to end up in the sanatorium at the end of every term with 'exhaustion'.
Looking back, they were actually migraines although the term exhaustion wasn't completely wrong.

Last week I had a migraine which stole two days from my week. It was the first one for some months. Migraines can rule your life. I have to be careful of bright lights. Driving in autumn when the sun is low can be a problem. When I go to watch Leicester Tigers on a dull day or in the evening I wear sunglasses to cut out the glare from the floodlights. I know I probably look weird but I don't care! A couple of years ago I went to see Strictly Come Dancing at the De Montfort Hall and spent most of the time looking at my lap due to the huge glitter ball on stage which seemed to be sending out pinpoints of light right in my direction.

There are many suggestions as to the cause of migraine, cheese, chocolate, red wine, hormones and more recently I read that a sudden change in temperature could contribute. My migraines used to be at their worst in the spring when the weather can fluctuate a lot. A year or so ago I cut down on the amount of dairy in my diet. When I get a migraine one of the things I really can't bear is the smell of milk. I've never actually liked the taste of it either and had a tiny amount in my tea, but I do love cheese. Anyway since cutting down, the migraines are less frequent and more bearable. Sometimes I don't even have to go back to bed. I do however have to slow down. But instead of feeling frustrated that my plans have to be put on hold I now acknowledge that the migraines are my body's way of trying to tell me something about myself and the way I am living my life at that time. So I take the enforced pause with as much gratitude as I can muster through the pain, and see it as an opportunity to reflect and to re-assess. My migraines may have improved as a result of cutting down on dairy but I do know that it is also stress which causes them to rear up. Whoa! they say. STOP! You're taking on too much, putting yourself under too much pressure. They are always right.

It has been a busy, exciting and in some ways challenging year. There has been precious little time to stop and smell the roses. I have been writing virtually non-stop and to deadlines for nearly two years now and however much you love something it does you good to have a break sometimes. The latest migraine was definitely the result of exhaustion so, despite having an idea for a new book, I am not going to write anything for a while. I shall just mull things over, potter about and, as the wise and inspirational Julia Cameron advises, 'fill the well'.

I hope you can find time to potter, smell the roses and fill the well this week. Thank-you for reading.
















Friday, 20 September 2013

Bedtime Stories

My father was a solitary man in many ways and didn't have much patience with small children.
Despite this he was the one who read me a bedtime story - every night if possible. From what I can remember we started off with Beatrix Potter stories and A.A. Milne poems, moving on to Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows. I remember my father sitting on the edge of my bed wearing the dark navy pinstripe suite and crisp white shirt he always wore for work. He would smell vaguely of ink and machinery because he owned a printing factory and sometimes there would be oil on his cuffs. The kitchen was directly below my bedroom and in a sixteenth century cottage there isn't much soundproofing so I could hear my mother preparing their supper but, as soon as my Daddy began to read, those sounds of everyday life would disappear and I would be transported into a magical world. Not just the world of the story but to a place where, just for a while, I had my father's precious time and attention all to myself.

According to a report in the paper last week bedtime stories are in decline. Only one in five parents get a book out every night and, shockingly, a third of parents never read to their young children. I'm afraid it gets even worse; a quarter of a million children aged up to seven years do not own any books. So why, when seventy-five percent of the parents surveyed said they had received the gift of bedtime stories themselves, is this tradition not being carried on? Thirteen percent blamed a lack of time and nine percent said they were too stressed. This makes it sound as if they consider reading a bedtime story to be a chore, something they HAVE to do, not a joy, not a chance to spend a small portion of time feeling close to and connected with their child.

My husband and I took it in turns to read to our children. Curling up on the sofa to watch television together is good but it's not the same as reading a book. With a story you can pause to discuss what is on the page, look at the pictures, ponder over the words. Good stories have a beautiful rhythm which relaxes and soothes away the cares of the day, not just for the child but for the parent too. That little person snuggles up next to you, warm and fragrant from a bath, their trusting form tucked up next to yours. It should be a sacred time, a time to prioritise above all others, a time to send a child to sleep happy, feeling safe and secure. Sometimes their eyes will close as they listen to the sound of your voice. Sometimes your eyes may droop too but it doesn't matter because you are together in a special place, a place which will not stay the same for long. Before you know it bedtime stories will become a thing of the past. They are too important a part of childhood to be neglected and I feel sad that many parents and children are missing out. As a family we had many favourite stories but these are three of them.

This is, on the surface, such a simple story but look deeper and it is incredibly cleverly put together.
If you've never read it I urge you to do so especially if you aspire to writing picture books.



The next one is an absolute classic. You could never tire of it.



And finally 'Sniff, sniff, sniff, where is Wiff? Where did that little dragon go?' I can still remember the words all these years later. Such fun!


Thank-you for reading. I'd love to hear about your favourite bedtime stories. In the meantime, it's the first week of Autumn in the U.K. I hope it's a good one wherever you are.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Pangs of Regret

I have always loved cycling. I can remember my father teaching me how to ride a bike without stabilisers. We lived in a thatched cottage on a village green and I went around and around that large expanse of grass with him by my side, ready to catch me if I fell. And then suddenly he wasn't there and I was free. I can still remember the elation, the pride in myself, the sense of achievement. What I didn't realise was that the sense of freedom would remain with me every time I got on a bike.

Last Saturday my husband and I took an impromptu trip to Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire.


 My daughter had discovered late on Friday night that the printmaking course she was meant to be doing was not local after all! So while she went off for her day of creativity, we decided to hire some bikes. Here is Mr. G all ready to set off with his trousers tucked into his socks!



Since those heady days of childhood when a friend and I used to spend hours cycling through pretty Leicestershire villages, sometimes doing nearly twenty miles in an afternoon, I have cycled sporadically. Occasionally, we have taken our bikes to Rutland Water and we have cycled on holiday in France and along the Camel Trail in Cornwall. But every time I sit on that saddle, curl my fingers around the handlebars and place my feet on the pedals it is like coming home.

The bicycle which I loved more than any other was a Raleigh, in a beautiful kingfisher blue colour. It was on this bike that I set off one morning to my grandmother's house thirteen miles away. That afternoon I was due to be returned to boarding school and I hoped that my grandparents would shelter me, but of course they wouldn't contradict my parents wishes. When I finally left boarding school I was sent to a sixth form college in Oxford and my beloved bike went with me. It took me to tea at Browns and big slabs of chocolate cake and cream. It took me to Blackwell's to browse amongst the books and breathe in the scent of printed words. It took me down to the beautiful Christchurch Meadows. One night that bike got me away from a kerb crawler who stalked me on my way home from a meeting with friends. This was the bike on which I had an accident on the Banbury Road and that incident planted the seed for Last Chance Angel. At the time I seem to remember being more worried about the bicycle than about myself.

So why, when it was so loved, when it served me so well, did I abandon it? After I married and my parents moved house the bike gathered dust and cobwebs in a cowshed at my grandmother's farmyard. Then when she died, before I could do anything about it, it was disposed of. I mourn that bicycle to this day. I feel guilty that I didn't take better care of something which holds so many happy memories. I know that whenever I get on a bicycle now I will still feel that wonderful sense of freedom but also it will be tinged with pangs of regret.

So as not to end on a down note here is a favourite dahlia from the amazing walled garden at Clumber.



Thank you for reading and I wish you a very happy week ahead.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

A Good Place to Sit and Think

We have a table and chairs next to our small vegetable patch. It is a secluded space, a good place to sit and think, maybe write a little and plan. Last week I was doing all three in the late summer sunshine when a butterfly landed on my notebook. It was exactly the same type of butterfly which had rested on a nearby plant a couple of days before, and had stayed long enough for me to photograph it.


 
 

It is a Speckled Wood and I could see every tiny detail as it blessed my page, from the fine, painterly white line along its serrated edge to the tiny, coppery hairs on the wings, glimmering in the warm afternoon sun.. On one side I could see its eye, probably watching me as I gazed back, and its almost microscopic mouth which was constantly moving. I could even see the way its legs darkened towards the feet. Before flying away, the butterfly closed its wings completely for a second, as if saying goodbye, as a person in the East presses their palms together before taking their leave. The butterfly left me feeling honoured, peaceful, richer.

Due to their process of metamorphosis, butterflies are symbols of transformation and re-birth. We can relate the stages in a butterfly's life to our own life phases from the egg to the vulnerable caterpillar to the protection of the cocoon when we need it, before emerging from those difficult teenage years unrecognisable and transformed. Last weekend British summertime officially ended. There are signs that things are winding down, that autumn is on its way. I have already walked through my first spider's web, (aargh! but interestingly spiders are also symbols of transformation), strung across the path near the washing line, darkness has been falling by eight o'clock and we have had some wonderful skies.



Autumn always seems to me to be ripe with possibilities. There aren't so many outside distractions and it seems to be a much better time for making resolutions than in January. I am about to begin a new project, another teenage novel which at the moment is still taking shape in my head. As usual, when I begin anything, I have doubts as to whether my tenuous plans will actually extend to form a complete story and if so, whether the end result will be good enough. So how do I balance these doubts with my desire to write? To be honest, with difficulty, but I do tell myself to try and focus more on enjoying the process, rather than scaring myself silly by looking too far ahead to the end product. And from time to time I retreat to my space at the top of the garden and hope that the peace and quiet and maybe even the odd butterfly will bestow inspiration upon me.


I hope you have a special place to sit and think and let inspiration flow. If you do, I'd love to hear about it. In the meantime, thank-you for reading.



Saturday, 31 August 2013

A Matter of Taste


Following on from last week I made the sesame peanut crispies.  I'm afraid to report that they were disappointing, failing to evoke any childhood memories and only attained a seven out of ten vote from the family. (Things need to get at least an eight to be repeated). The main disappointment was that they were not crispy! If I had read the recipe properly in advance I would have realised this and completely randomly was reminded of the Benjamin Franklin quote on Thursday at my writer's group - 'By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail'. Maybe that is a little strong in this case. The baking wasn't a complete failure, as you can hopefully see from the picture...



...and if we had been expecting cake we may have not been quite so harsh in our judgement. But as baking and tasting are subjective and you will be expecting soft, squidgy cake rather than crispy biscuits I'll write out the recipe here. On the positive side, the peanut crispies were moist, not too sweet and did keep very well. They were also quite filling too so would make a good addition to a packed lunch or a picnic.

Sesame Peanut Crispies

30ml smooth peanut butter
75g soft brown sugar
few drops of vanilla essence
75g self raising wholemeal flour
50g unsalted peanuts - chopped
15ml sesame seeds
75g margarine
1 egg - beaten
75g porridge oats
100g chopped dates
45 ml milk

Pre-heat oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4. Grease and line 7in/18cm square tin.
Beat the peanut butter, margarine, sugar, egg and vanilla thoroughly until combined.
Stir in the oats and flour, then mix in the dates, nuts and milk to make a firm mixture.
Turn the mixture into the tin and mark with a fork. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden and firm.
Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then cut into 12 bars and cool on a wire rack.

As I am wheat intolerant and my daughter is dairy intolerant there were three substitutions - Dove's farm wheat free flour instead of ordinary self-raising, soya milk instead of cow's milk and soya/sunflower spread.

Every cloud has a silver lining and as a result of the peanut crispies not living up to expectations, my daughter decided to do some baking herself. These chocolate pinwheels were delicious and another bonus is that the dough keeps well for 3/4 days in the fridge and for up to 6 months in the freezer, ready to slice and bake as you need.



Chocolate Pinwheels

150g self-raising flour
100g butter/margarine
100g sugar
1 egg yolk
1tsp vanilla essence
1 tbsp. cocoa
2tbsp milk

Place butter and sugar in warmed bowl and whisk together until mixture is pale and fluffy. Add egg yolk and vanilla essence, continue to beat until blended. Incorporate sieved flour and milk. Divide the mixture into two and add cocoa to one half, beating thoroughly. Allow chocolate and vanilla mixtures to rest in the fridge until firm enough to roll out. Roll  to the same size rectangles of about 3mm thickness, on a well floured board. Carefully place vanilla sheet on top of the chocolate and roll up lengthwise as for a Swiss roll. Wrap in foil or waxed paper and chill for several hours or overnight in the fridge. Slice into 6mm slices and bake on an ungreased tray in a hot oven, 400F/200C?Gas mark 6 for 7 minutes.

Sit back, put your feet up and serve with a nice hot mug of tea or coffee. That's what we did, with enough cake/biscuits to last for several days!

Thank-you for reading and I hope you have a good week.



Friday, 23 August 2013

Recipe for Happiness

When sifting through my Mother's old recipe books I found this;-



 My husband and sons are fanatical about cricket and I have made many a cricket tea in the past; cheese and tomato, egg and cress and ham sandwiches being obligatory, sometimes with the fourth loaf being made of tuna, salmon or cucumber. Then there are the cakes; flapjacks, Victoria sponge, ginger loaf, chocolate brownies, melting moments, fruit cake. Everything taking hours to make/assemble and being devoured in a matter of minutes. But I wouldn't have it any other way! Cricket has brought many friendships and much laughter into our lives.



I have no recollection of my Mother using The Tea Interval but she obviously did. She was a good cook but a messy one. I can tell which pages she used from the splodges! She obviously made the onion quiche, the apple and cinnamon cake, the tangy lemon cake and the marmalade tea loaf. From the state of the page, the sesame peanut crispies were very popular although strangely I don't remember eating them.

But it wasn't actually the recipes themselves which caught my eye, it was the message on the first page. Here it is:-

A Recipe for Happiness


                                  4 Cups of Love
                                                                                     2 Cups of Loyalty
                                  3 Cups of Forgiveness
                                                                                 1 Cup of Friendship
                                  2 Spoons of Hope
                                                                            2 Spoons of Tenderness
                                  4 Quarts of Faith
                                                                                 1 Barrel of Laughter

                                  Take love and loyalty
                                  Mix thoroughly with faith
                                  Blend it with tenderness
                                  Forgiveness and understanding
                                  Stir in friendship and hope
                                  Sprinkle abundantly with laughter
                                  Add in some sunshine
                                  And serve in generous helpings to everyone you meet

There are many variations of this recipe but they all convey the same message - in my opinion, not just a recipe for happiness, but a recipe for the game of cricket, at its best, and even more than that, a recipe for life itself.

Thank-you for reading and may you be on the receiving end of all of these qualities this week. Next week I plan to bake those sesame peanut crispies. I'll let you know what they are like.

                                  
 

           

Friday, 16 August 2013

Loss

Synchronicity and serendipity are ethereal. They seemingly come out of nowhere and sometimes we miss their signs but occasionally they just land in our laps, refusing to be ignored.

I was already planning to write about my Mother this week when an episode of synchronicity and of serendipity came along to help me. At the moment I am editing my next book for Templar which is about the loss of a parent so I've been thinking a lot about grief. My Mother was only twenty when she gave birth to me so while I was growing up she always seemed young and glamorous. Here we are sitting together on the old well in the garden of my childhood home.



It is eight years since she died and I miss her every single day. Those eight years seem to have passed so quickly and yet it seems like a lifetime since I saw her, heard her voice, hugged her. There are so many times when I long to pick up the phone and tell her about something that has happened. There are so many times when I am cooking that I wish I could ring her and ask her advice. When I go to a garden centre I think how she would have enjoyed it. She knew such a lot about plants, remembering all of their Latin names. The longer I have been without my Mother by my side, the more I wish she was still here. In my mind I have a vivid picture of her standing by her front gate waving to me as I started the engine of my car and set off for home, or sitting in the garden in Summer time serving tea from the silver teapot which I now possess, pouring it into her Crown Derby cups.



And here is the synchronicity. I was thinking about photographing these cups for this blog and I went downstairs one day last week to discover my daughter had taken one from the back of the cupboard and was drinking a cup of coffee from it. As she has never done this before and I hadn't mentioned my thoughts to her is was one of those strange, almost telepathic moments.

My Mother was a great baker. Tucked away in my attic for the last eight years have been her recipe books. I have not looked at them once. Until this week. Suddenly it seemed wrong to keep them in the dark, unused so today I took those books out of their hiding place, flicked open the page and drank in her rounded, generous handwriting. I touched the curls of the pen with my fingers and pictured her sitting on her sofa copying these recipes from a magazine or a newspaper.



And so I come to the serendipity. Last weekend I went for a walk and called unexpectedly into my friend Bridget's. I came away with a bag of blackcurrants, picked from her allotment that morning.
One of the puddings my Mother used to make over the Summer was blackcurrant tart. As a child it was one of my favourites and I still love blackcurrants. Thank-you Bridget for prompting me to make this. The fruit was delicious, all the more because it had been given so spontaneously and unexpectedly.




 We talk about my Mother often. My children spent a lot of time with her when they were young. They built up a precious bond, one that cannot be broken by death. And in many ways she is all around me, from the plants in my garden to the tapestry cushions on my sofas and the jewellery which I wear. So although thinking of her sometimes makes me sad, I remind myself that I was lucky to have her in my life, that I am lucky to be her daughter, and I am grateful for all the wisdom, love and time that she selflessly gave to me.

Thank-you for reading and I send good wishes for a happy week ahead. If you fancy putting your feet up and indulging in a little light romance my adult novel Every Cloud... published under the name Lucy Cooper, is available as a free Kindle download this weekend.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Holidays

I love holidays. Obviously it's nicer if the weather is good but that's not the most important thing. I love being with my family, having time to talk and walk, to read and dream without the pressures of everyday life. We have been to Scotland, just three of us this time, my husband, myself and my daughter and it was our first holiday for over a year - too long. But it was worth the wait.

These are the things I shall remember from our holiday, the things which will sustain me and inspire me in the months to come.

On the way North my husband and I stopped off at the Tatton Park Flower show. The sight of all those beautiful flowers was the perfect way to put us in a holiday mood.


On the second day we had to pick our daughter up from Carlisle station to we took a detour to Blackwell in the Lake District. This is a stunning Arts and Crafts house overlooking Lake Windermere where, at the end of a dark, oak panelled corridor I entered one of the most beautiful rooms I have ever seen.

 
It was so light and airy and had bookshelves and little seats either side of the fireplace. I could imagine myself sitting there on a winter's evening.
 

 
 
There was also a bigger window seat with stunning views down towards Lake Windermere. You'd never get bored with that view.



Then, on the third day, we reached Scotland where we were staying in a little whitewashed forester's cottage not far from Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway. This also had beautiful views - this time of the Solway Firth.

These are some of the things we did while we were there:-

We attended Scottish night at Kirkudbright, eating delicious fish and chips whilst watching dancing and listening to bagpipes in the square. I don't have any Scottish ancestry to my knowledge but the sense of pride and the way it brought the whole community together brought a lump to my throat.



We walked to White Horses beach and, having it totally to ourselves, lay on the sand in the sun before strolling along the shoreline to collect shells.

 



We watched the birds in our garden, siskins, great tits, two greater spotted woodpeckers who hogged the bird feeder but best of all were the beautiful red squirrels who honoured us with their presence on the fifth day.

We visited Threave Gardens near Castle Douglas which are some of the most stunning gardens I have ever been to. And memories of the cornflowers in the wildflower border will light up the winter months to come.



There was another stop at Tatton Park on the way back, this time for a visit to the house where they had an exhibition of Beatrix Potter's drawings. I have seen some of these before but they never cease to amaze me with their delicacy. They are just sublime!

What made this holiday extra special was the friendliness of everyone we met. If you've never visited Dumfries and Galloway do go. The scenery is stunning with forests and hills, coastline and streams but above all you will meet some of the most welcoming people on the planet. We definitely hope to go back but for now it's back to work and to put some of those resolutions I made into practise.

Thank-you for reading.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Madingley American Cemetery

Sometimes words seem so inadequate. They seem trite, mundane and, despite the tens of thousands in the English language, completely unequipped to describe an emotion, a moment, a place.

A couple of weeks ago my daughter and I went to Cambridge for the weekend. On a blisteringly hot Saturday afternoon we visited Madingley American Cemetery. Emily has been to the vast cemeteries in Northern France so I suppose she was partly prepared. I was not.

You cannot see anything of the cemetery from the road. You walk past the carved eagle emblem and
climb the wide, curving, pale stone steps.



At the top there is a tree-lined avenue.



 A thread of cool shelter. Maybe even a sanctuary for the wave of emotion which cannot fail to overwhelm you at the sight of all of those graves sweeping away in graceful curves to your left.

 
 
I have no connection with any of these people and yet I wanted to cry at the sight of their final resting place. Over 3,800 people who had sacrificed themselves for the freedom of my country and of Europe. Beyond this expanse of white crosses and Stars of David, sits the Memorial Building. Leading you towards it are lily strewn pools, bordered by brightly coloured flowers.
 
 
 
On the far wall are the Tablets of the Missing. The names, reverently carved, of five thousand, one hundred and twenty six people, missing in action, lost or buried at sea, from all corners of the United States.
 
 

 
And where the tree-lined avenue and the canal meet is the tallest flagpole I've ever seen, bearing the stars and stripes, blowing valiantly in the wind, even on this stillest of days.
 
 
 

The raised mound upon which it stands is surrounded by a circle of yellow roses.
 
 
At its foot are the wreaths of remembrance.
 
 
 

 
 
And around the bronze base these words from John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields:-
 

 
To you from failing hands
 
We throw the torch.
 
Be yours to hold it high


Although I felt full of sorrow for these lost lives, Madingley is not a sorrowful place. It is serene, reflective, respectful, beautiful in its simplicity. It acts as a reminder that life is a gift and not to be taken for granted. It is a reminder to be brave and good, to try to live our lives well and to think not just of ourselves but of others, as did all of these American servicemen. It is an encouragement to go away and hold our torches high. It seems to me to be the least we can do.


Thank-you all for reading and a special, heartfelt thanks to all of my American readers. May your week be a good one.