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Take a Leap

There are about 5 million people in the world who have their ‘real’ birthday every fourth year on 29th February.  People born on 29 February are sometimes known as “leapers” or “leaplings.” The odds of being born on a leap day is often said to be 1 in 1,461. (4 years have 1,460 days plus 1 day for the leap year). This makes most leaplings feel unusual and extremely special.

I was reminded about this recently, while sending a card to a friend of mine in Canada who will be 13 on 29th February this year.  She has just become a teenager and also she has two adult children, three grandchildren, a PhD and other senior qualifications, a successful company that she started up and a lovely home, from where she travels worldwide to lecture.

Today, on 29th February I was amused to listen to Eddie Mair, who is the presenter of PM on BBC Radio 4 who was reporting about listeners who have been asked during the month of February whether they’d be prepared to take advantage of this extra day to do something different. Apparently, there are a lot of people out there who are prepared to use this distinctive date to take a leap.  Here were some of them (I have borrowed them from the PM blog):

One man said,” I resolve to speak Mandarin all day long.”

Another said, “I have often meant to take a roof tour of Lincoln Cathedral but never got round to it.”

After six years one woman will finally decide the wording for her husband’s headstone.

Some people are at last scattering the ashes of loved ones, having put it off for years.

There’s a woman taking up the hula-hoop after more than 50 years.

Another woman intends to have some chocolate today – her anorexia has been a problem for years.

A man who suffers panic attacks will try to make a bus journey.

A woman in her sixties has decided she will get a tattoo.

This set me thinking – what can I do?  It is already evening and I am at home.  Since I am a writer, the only thing I can think of is to write a blog on 29th February and end it by wishing all the Leaplings an extraordinarily Happy Birthday. You are a rare breed  – so celebrate!

 

Dear Magpies

Creating a book and getting it out into the world is a little like having a baby – though it usually takes far longer. It grows more erratically and more slowly and its birth involves many people of different skills.  But both baby and book are hugely fulfilling.

The idea for my new book, Dear Magpies, to be published on 18th November 2019, had been floating around in my head for months before I started the research for it. As a lifelong writer of letters, I had always wanted to write an epistolary novel – one that is written as a series of letters or diary entries. This book, about a woman searching for her long lost grandchildren, lent itself to the form and so I worked out my plot and worked on my characters. The writing the first draft took over a year, after which I planned to re-read, reflect and then start on the edit.

However, I got a time-consuming job and work on the book came to a halt whilst I got to grips with a very different working life, one that took all my energy and commitment. I didn’t revise or revisit my draft manuscript for eighteen months – which was not ideal, but at least I could see more clearly what needed to be changed. Then began the PEP stage – pruning, editing and polishing.  What a marathon! I took advice from a few people who had read my manuscript and I must have done at least seven edits.

Then followed the publishing which took many more months. My publishers, SilverWood Books, so helpful, efficient and sensitive, have been responsible for getting my book into print.  And so, about five years after the initial idea, last week the first copy arrived at my home and into my hands. My ‘baby’ had arrived – it was a good moment.

Dear Magpies

I love the front cover, designed by my publishers, with the silhouette heads of the teenage grandchildren, Tom and Lottie, who flew off into the pale blue yonder and, like magpies, stole the peace of mind of their grandmother, Josie, who writes them letters she cannot send.

The big question – “Will it please the reader?”- has yet to be answered and I will have to wait until after publication to know. It pleased me to write it, though at times the progress was painful. Now my child has reached maturity and is about to leave home and make its own way in the world. I wish it well.

 

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy

Magpies are magnificent. Distinctive by their black and white plumage, they are intelligent and inquisitive – and more superstitions surround magpies than any other wild bird. The most common one is that it is unlucky to see a lone magpie but two magpies can bring joy or mirth. Some people when they see a single magpie say: ‘Good morning Mr Magpie and how is your lady wife today?’ By addressing him in this respectful way and referring to his wife, you are implying there are two magpies which bring good luck and joy rather than sorrow, according to the nursery rhyme:

“One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a girl, four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret never to be told,

Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss,

Ten for a bird you must not miss”.

These large and noisy birds belong to the Corvidae or crow family and do not migrate in winter. Once mature they mate for life and the female lays its eggs in April. They are powerful, resourceful birds and exist all over the world. Their name is derived from the French word ‘pie’ which means black-and-white or pied. They are indeed birds that you cannot miss seeing.

Folklore has it that magpies are kleptomaniacs and steal shiny things, resulting in their reputation for trickery and deception. However, there is no evidence that anyone has ever found anything silver or shiny in a magpie’s nest. This might be because their nests tend to be high up in tall trees!  It is clear from the well-known rhyme that magpies can represent both good and bad omens and opposites.

For these reasons I chose this emblematic bird to feature in the story and the title of my new book: Dear Magpies which is a novel about a woman who is searching for her lost grandchildren, to whom she writes imaginary letters about her dramatic past and her present life. She addresses them as ‘magpies’ – an endearing nickname she once used when they were babies – when she writes to the two children whom she has not seen for ten years but who are now in their teens. Her current situation is sad and solitary but not without hope for happiness.

Dear Magpies is to be published in paperback by SilverWood Books on 18th November 2019.

Slog through Snow, Blog into Spring.

This time last week it snowed.  Snow can be a big problem for elderly isolated people and stranded motorists but I defy anyone, when they open the curtains on the first morning after snow has fallen, not to gasp with wonder at the purity and beauty of the white blanket and the soft blotting out of normal sounds as if the volume of the world has been turned down. Magical!  Roald Dahl wrote in one of his final books, ‘The Minpins’, published posthumously : “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”  I celebrate other marvellous things in my life at this time – books, snowdrops, chocolate, poetry, wine and a loving man.

Whilst trawling back through my archives in this blog, I realise that my first post was in November 2008 – so I’ve been writing blogs about every other month for over ten years.  What was I up to at that time?  It seems that I was doing book signings for my collection of short stories called ‘Madness Lies and Other Stories’ which had been published in the summer. It was my first book and it took a couple of years to create the stories, so clearly I have been writing fiction for at least twelve years.  Though for much of my life I’ve been scribbling stories,  doing magazine articles, writing letters and keeping diaries.

So what am I doing now? My fourth book, ‘Dear Magpies’ is completely finished after many edits, which took over a year because I work in the property business. (I have to find time for creativity in between dealing with leaking roofs and blocked drains.) The novel, which is a story about a woman with a tragic past searching for her lost grandchildren, has been sent out to a number of publishers and agents, who take forever to respond – if at all. It is a waiting game, full of hope and disappointment, but I will get it published – because it’s good. Various editors and friends of mine have read it and tell me so.

Yesterday’s weather was dire – poor visibility, depressing rain and a chill wind.  But today the sun is shining – and my spirits lift. How simple and irrational humans are! With our elevated intellect that lifts us above instinctual animals and mere plants we wilt in the cold and dark but become optimistic and energised in the sunlight.  Creative talents, buried in the winter gloom, are beginning to stir and send up green shoots through the damp grass. Nature stirs. The urge to write is rising, inspiration lifts up her head, ideas sprout, words will uncurl. As Robert Frost says in his poem ‘Prayer in Spring’, we are “in the springing of the year.”


	

Role Reversal

A year ago I retired from a long-term part-time job, which gave me plenty of time for writing. I intended to transform my life and re-brand myself as a full-time professional writer.  So why have I written so little and had no time to edit my fourth book, the first draft of which was completed over six months ago?  Much essential PEP (pruning, editing, polishing) is still to be done.  The reason for the delay is that during the summer there’s been a significant change in my role and occupation.

After a working life of several decades, and some years later than normal people, my DBH (dearly beloved husband) is to take AIR (active inspirational retirement).  The DBH has decided to ‘boot himself upstairs’ and become Non-Executive Chairman (NEC) of the family business, whilst I have been promoted to the position of New Executive Director (NED). Board meetings will no longer be held in our bathroom at 0630 every weekday morning, but will now happen on 29th February.  AGM’s will become DGM’s (Decadal General Meetings). Junior directors are invited to be present but discouraged from participation. The NED knows that discussions with the NEC about business will be limited to the hours of 1045-1115 and this only on the third Wednesday of each month.

This means that the POL (pattern of life) had changed here at home in Dorset.  We endeavour to be more organised and yet more relaxed.  To clarify how this is achieved, one asks:  what does the DBH mean by ‘active’ retirement?  This DOS (daily operational schedule) will give you some idea:

0630-0730 The NED gets up, does household tasks, eats breakfast and is at her desk by 0800.

0830-1000 The NEC wakes up, listens to Radio 4, drinks tea, reads, rises, showers, and descends.

1010 The NEC has his breakfast, reads the paper, and prepares for the day.  At 1120, he goes outside to the rear lawn to practice his putting with the aim of improving his handicap at clockwork golf. The cats, Oscar and Ella, (O&E) are banished from the rear garden at this time as they have a habit of racing after his golf ball and batting it away from the hole.  Family and friends (F&F) are allowed to observe but not permitted to make comments. (If weather is inclement, the DBH practices snooker in the games room, to improve his chance of winning against his son).

1130 NED has finished with responding to the day’s batch of emails and opens the post, including a letter from NAS (the Non-Abbreviation Society), which informs her that she and DBH have been expelled from membership. This causes her no regret and she moves on to deal with more significant matters.

1315 DBH prepares his own lunch, pours himself a single glass of wine and at 1330 commences eating.

1333 approx. NED dashes in from the office, throws some food on a plate, wolfs it down and returns to work at 1400.

1430-1530 The DBH has his PLD (post lunch doze) in situ (in his kitchen chair) or, if fine, outside on the swing chair, during which time birds are forbidden to cheep. Guests and Grandchildren (G&G) are requested to keep silent during PLD.

1545-1715 Three times a week, the NEC works out on the rower, jogger and bike at his Weight Reduction Programme (WRP). On other days he takes a hike round the land. The NED is exempted from this activity but any G&G are encouraged to accompany him. On Saturdays this is obligatory.

1845-1930 The NED metamorphoses into Loving & Sympathetic Spouse (LASS) and prepares dinner. 1900 The NEC now becomes Amazingly Genial Husband (AGH) and pours drinks for her and F&F.  Important: White wine must be no more than 12˚ in temperature and no less than 13% in alcoholic content.  LASS frantically tries to serve dinner on time.

1930-2130 Dinner.  Red wine, which was opened at 1800 to allow it to breathe, is served by AGH.

2140 AGH retires to sofa in Monks Room for PPN (post prandial nap) which may involve sleeping in front of the TV, when O&E are discouraged from jumping onto his lap and flexing their claws into his thigh.

2150-2230 LASS retires to bed, sliding swiftly into sleep.

Anytime from 23.10 until 0140 AGH wakes and goes into PAD mode (perambulation around drive) where, unobserved (except by nocturnal O&E), he muses on life, gazes at stars and hugs trees. Sometimes owls hoot. AGH then quietly locks house and goes upstairs to bed without disturbing sleeping LASS, G&G and F&F.

It is important to remember that timings are rigidly adhered to. The ROOL (rhythm of our life) must be carefully preserved. We have shared this schedule with F&F so that when they come and visit, they will be able to slot in snugly with the new arrangements. My plan to become a full-time DPW (dedicated professional writer) has been placed on hold.  But I live in hope.

 

PEP Talk

It’s been over 4 weeks since I finished my book.  I felt elated even though I knew it was only the first draft.  After 10 months and some 95,000 words, I needed a break from it, and decided not to look at the book for at least a month. The plan was that I would come back refreshed and be more clear headed and prepared for the ‘PEP’ work. PEP = Pruning, Editing, Polishing.  As all writers know this can be a long procedure and a lot of work.  Self-criticism is always difficult but it’s essential. But first I needed some relaxation and time away from my study. Needless to say, I became involved in other work, which has been all-consuming, and I don’t feel as if I have had much respite. It’s said that a change is as good as a rest, but I’m not so sure. I like writing and I can do it at my own pace and in my own space.  I don’t take telephone calls, I ignore the untidy house and I can eat chocolate as often as I like with no one to witness my greed.  Working with others seems quite stressful by comparison. Anyhow, I must soon re-focus on “Dear Magpies” and start the edit.  This week, I went to a lunch in a New Forest Pub with other members of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists and gained interesting insights about other writers’ ways of undertaking the editing process. It’s so helpful to feel I’m not alone in finding the task so daunting. Cutting out the flab in one’s prose is vital, but it does feel like discarding weeks of work and jettisoning beguiling words that seemed so good at the time they were composed.  It has to be done and I must get down to it. Perhaps next week!

Downhill Run

You need to put words on pages to make books. It’s more about quality than quantity but you must have both. And it takes time and hard work. Right now I’m focused on writing a new novel – my fourth book.  It’s zipping along but there have been moments of despondency – and doubt that I’d ever get it done.

Cartoon 1In the early part of 2016 I did planning and research, and began to write in May.  The actual writing is always exciting but it can be daunting when you realize what a long slog it’s going to be and how much there is to do.  It was like being at the bottom of tall wooded hill, gazing upwards. So I bolstered up my confidence and commitment. I galvanized the enthusiasm and energy needed to climb to the top and get back down successfully.  Inevitably I took a few wrong paths, stumbled, was unable to see my way and lost the thread. I wrote for three months until the end of July, when I felt rather bogged down with the large cast of characters and a complex plot. Words became tangled in thickets, blocked by obstacles, and there were moments when I floundered in the quagmire of confusion. I took three months off in the summer to spend time with family and to rethink the work in progress. During the break my only achievement was finding a title: ‘Dear Magpies’.

I recommenced work with a clear head and renewed zeal in October and finished about a third of the book by the end of the year. By this time some of the clouds had cleared and I could see the top of the hill.  When 2017 arrived, I set myself the goal of getting the rest of  the book finished by 31st March. Quite some undertaking!  I should state that the end of the book is not when you scale the summit of the hill but when you get back down to the bottom on the other side. I hit the top – the halfway point – in January and that was good.  By then I had much of the story told and many words had flowed from head onto page. The horizon was visible so I had a better perspective on how I was doing.  I could now see the ground far below and it looked easy enough to find my way back down to the end of the trek and the finish. So I set off down and disappeared among the trees and pitfalls of creativity.

Finishing postsIn February I discovered I was no longer footsore. On 1st March I found myself at the wheel of a little car which gathers momentum as I head downhill.  I had a month to go and about quarter of the book to write but I’ve worked out how to resolve the various plot lines and bring everything to a conclusion which will surprise and satisfy the reader.  But the going’s still hard and at times the book can be a real pain. Some days the words gush out like water from a tap and other days writing feels like wading through treacle.  Though I still have many thousands of words to compose, the end is in sight, although sometimes I have the illusion that the finishing posts are being moved further away.  So we drive faster, me and my car.  It’s going to be glorious to accelerate through the final paragraphs and sentences. Then the screech of brakes to the final words – and a sigh of relief. The story will be told. My book will be done.

 

Winterborne Slepe

Winterborne Slepe is the name of an imaginary village in Dorset, where much of the action in my new book takes place. Whilst I was searching for an appropriate name, I drove through a small village in the eastern part of the county called Slepe. The name appealed to me, and I hope that the residents of that village don’t mind if I borrow the name, but alter it slightly.  I have also discovered that there are a number of villages and hamlets in Dorset, which are prefixed by the word Winterborne, sometimes spelled Winterbourne. So what does it mean?

A ‘bourne’ is an Anglo-Saxon word for a stream which flows from a spring.  So a ‘winter’ bourne is a stream that flows only in the winter and often dries out in the summer, leaving dry beds or stagnant pools with green marshy grass. Much of Dorset is chalk downland with clay valleys, and in the winter the porous chalk is saturated with rainfall, but in dry summers, the water table falls below the level of  a stream’s bed so it dries out. This is what happens with the water courses in many of the Winterbornes,  but not with all of them and not every year. It rather depends on how much rain there has been.

Bridge_across_a_small_chalk_stream,_Winfrith_Newburgh._I live in a village with the word ‘bourne’ incorporated into the name, but our stream is not a ‘winter’ borne, but runs the whole year round, flowing through many gardens and along the main village road.  It might be a low trickle in the height of the summer but it gathers strength in the autumn, and in the winter I am always surprised how much water hurtles down.  It occasionally floods, when there has been torrential rain.  Now, in glorious May, the stream is in docile mood, dancing past our house chortling to all  the grasses and plants along its banks.

I have been doing research for my new novel all winter and creating characters and thinking about the plot. I have been longing to start the writing process. Earlier this month with the advent of spring,  I began putting words on the page. I set the scene in Winterborne Slepe. It takes time to write a book and I probably won’t finish it before the winter comes, or perhaps not until next spring. But however long it takes me, I’m going to enjoy it because I love writing and telling a story.

And I’ve still got to dream up a title for my book!

 

Moving on to new Work

I woke up the other morning with a bunch of plot ideas in connection with my next book, a novel to be set in Dorset. In the earlier part of the year, I was doing research on the locations and working on the back history of my main characters, but I’ve only mapped out an outline of the story and need to work on this.   The new project was inevitably put on the back-burner whilst I wrestled with the editing process, corrected proofs and worked with the publishers of ‘The Lost Journey Homeward’.  Then I’ve had to get involved in the promotion of the novel, now that it’s published, and I’ve had a number of book signings and events already with quite a few coming up soon. But bubbling up from within my head, like a spring of water that won’t stay below the surface, are ideas and enthusiasm for the book I now want to write.   Get out the notebook.  I’ve another story and it’s a work in progress.

4xF#0 – what does this mean?

Today is the first Friday of September. I plan to write a Flash Fiction and post it on the first Friday of each month, starting in October. What is flash fiction, you may ask? It is sometimes known as micro-fiction and is generally a term used to describe a short story of less than 500 words. I love this pithy, pared-down form of story-telling – where every word must count and there’s no room for flab! I often try for a story in under 250 words – and I’ve heard this referred to as ‘nano- fiction’! Each story has a title and “Travelling with Rats” will be ‘4xF#1′. You will be able to read it here on Friday 4th October. So 4xF = FFFF = First Friday Flash Fiction & #1 = Number One. Got it?