Can you get so fond of characters that you don’t want to let them go? Well, in my case, yes you can. Alex Whittaker started out as a practice character. I had only ever written a short story before and I wanted to try something longer, so I created Alex, a character with a real back story and some potential and then wrote a novella about her. That was almost the end of her. Writing a book of any length was quite difficult. And I wasn’t at all sure that I would continue. I didn’t know what genre I wanted to write or anything about self publishing.
Although I didn’t know what I was doing and got mixed up with genres and muddled on how to structure a series, I ended up with a trilogy. The Treasure of Saint Bee series. Common sense dictated that I leave it there. Alex and her police officer fiancé finally got engaged after helping to solve at least three Murders and recover a treasure trove. Jerry left the police force for an exciting new job and they sent the bishop, who had caused so many problems for Alex, to prison after she discovered he was running a criminal network. A good place to finish, I thought.
You can find all those adventures here.
I have learnt so much about writing, story structure, genre and publishing that I wanted to write a new series. Full length this time and closer to the traditional murder mysteries I was aiming at.
Somehow, though, I ended up writing about Alex’s wedding. A short story just for my mailing list, I told myself. Thirty -six thousand words later, I ended up with Rings Bells and Murder. Because I had promised, my subscribers have already received a free copy and I’m making it available for free to anyone joining my mailing list before the end of June.
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Otherwise you can pre- order at your favourite bookstore. Only available in Ebook at the moment but paperback soon.
Well, I am so glad you asked.
I am starting a new series call Browns Books. Traditional Cosy Mystery but this time much closer to what you might expect the genre to offer. I’m recycling characters and settings from the Book of Medicinal herbs. Well, we all know that we should recycle, don’t we?
Set in a rambling old secondhand book shop full of odd characters and with a mysterious death in every episode. I will include all of my favourite things. Cosy areas to sit and read, a cafe with homemade cake and a mystery solving owner who loves old books. Oh, and a parrot. I almost forgot about the parrot. Will you join me there?
I am sometimes wary of Road trips, hours sat in the car followed by the frustration of not finding what you are looking for. Or worse, finding it only to discover that everyone is doing the same thing and we spend the rest of the day in a line of traffic. This one however was of a different ilk. That said, it didn’t start well. I had printed off the information regarding all the recommended places of interest and had them in order in a folder which Steve promptly dropped, scattering the contents all over the car. They were no longer in any order reducing our chances of finding them at all. My lack of any sense of direction combined with Galicia’s reluctance to use signposts has led to more than one argument on a day out.
We arrived close enough to the first place to fire up google maps on my phone and sure enough after half an hour of wondering around unmarked back roads we came to a closed road. No way to proceed, and the lane too narrow to turn safely. So after some judicious reversing and a scarey three-point turn, we reviewed the situation.
“You must have got us lost again,” said Steve somewhat wearily.
The first place should have been some petroglyphs in a farmer’s field. I considered finding another route only to be asked why we were looking at a rock in a field, and decided to to try the second destination, an abandoned watermill situation in the Miño Biosphere Area of ecological interest. Something that we would both be interested in.
This time it all went smoothly, and we happily clambered around speculating how they had used the mechanism to cut marble. My only disappointment was that access to the river involved a metal ladder still damp from the morning dew. Another day, perhaps.
By this time there was no stopping us. All but one of our destinations would have been impossible to find, no signpost or even place name. So a huge thankyou to the people at Galicia Maxica. You are stars. There was no time to do the full route, there was so much to see and do. That and the coffee stops and a bit of tapas, and a picnic and other essentials. Well, you get the drift…
I have been trying my hand a podcasting, which is not as easy as it sounds. You can tell if you listen. It might be awhile before I call myself a Podcaster (Is that a word). But I am hoping to get better. My intention was to have audio files of my books so that you could listen and then buy the book on special offer. I tried a few times, but my voice won’t hold out for an entire chapter. It goes croaky then fades away so until I find a solution, I will offer some of the podcast in the artificial machine voice. I will keep you updated with my progress.
The Silver Chalice
This month’s Special Offer Is The Silver Chalice ebook, which for the next five days is available on Amazon UK for just 99p.
John walked into the big commercial kitchen and switched on the kettle, shivering as the steam spiralled into the air. The kitchen faced north, and the sun had not yet reached its small window. The cloth in his hand was for checking the stainless steel for marks. He sometimes wished they still had the tatty, friendly, domestic kitchen the environmental health people had deemed unfit for the purpose. Now he was nervous of making finger marks, spilling crumbs, using the wrong colour cloth, or adding to a long list of sins he had already committed here. The church had to install a commercial kitchen in order to continue their midweek activities and lunches, and he had to admit the array of stainless steel looked very professional. The manager they appointed to ensure they met the regulations was a formidable woman who terrified him even more than his administrator, another formidable woman. Sylvie, his wife, teased him about him being afraid of his staff, something he tried to pretend wasn’t true, but he was a dreamer, a kind man who hated confrontation and preferred theology and prayer to administration. Everyone knew he was a visionary who sometimes lost sight of real life. However, his mind today was not on scary staff or kitchen design, it was on Mike, his curate. He had arrived at church early to pray for him and spent an hour pacing back and forth in the church’s long central isle, a habit that helped him to pray and meditate before the church got busy. Besides, there was a spot halfway down the central isle which had an amazing echo, and John always gave in to a childish desire to hear his prayer repeated as it bounced off the walls. Still focused on how to help Mike, he jumped at his phone alarm. It had been set to remind him to phone Alex before starting on the coffee. Without alarms, he lost track of time, so he set them for everything. Having spoken to Alex, he hummed a tune to himself, relieved that she could join them for a few hours this morning. Mike had taken the illness of young Jamie Broadbent to heart, and Alex possessed a knack of putting pastoral issues into context. He locked the sanctuary doors and made his way to the kitchen, moving automatically, pottering about, muttering as he knocked over the tub of sugar, while reaching to switch on the kettle. He wondered if he should ask Alex to talk with Mike and help him through this. With her positive way of breaking news and explaining of the grief process, Mike might deal with his emotional turmoil. “Yes, I’ll do just that,” he said, speaking to the boiling kettle, which whistled in reply. Now Alex had removed the burden of pastoral work and he had gained a new vision for the church’s future. His enthusiasm had returned. Humming quietly, he wandered around collecting trays, biscuits, and the odd assortment of mugs that the staff preferred to the church cups and saucers. The smell of coffee now mingled reassuringly with the lemon cleaning fluid he had used to mop up the spilt sugar. He breathed it in as he screwed on the lid of the big flask that would keep the coffee warm until the staff arrived. There was an odd squeaking sound and a thump and he stopped, glanced at his watch and listened. How odd the building should be empty. Perhaps it was Joe the youth worker, in early to organise the youth room. The flask of coffee safely on the table, he walked through the hall to greet him. “Hello is that you, Joe?” As John arrived at the entrance, he noticed someone had broken the window and the lights were on. Something flashed in the sanctuary and realising that the glass doors were now open, he ran toward the altar. “Hoy.” The word echoed. As soon as he entered, he realised that there was someone moving around at the front; he moved closer to look, still unsure if it was one of the staff. No, something was wrong. The alter table was empty. The silverware wasn’t worth stealing; it was modern and not even silver, but it was was shiny, so maybe a thief wouldn’t know. All of this crossed his mind as he rushed to the front. It was probably kids. But as he got to the altar steps, a noise behind him caused him to jump, too late to see the pole before it cracked his skull. However, he watched it clatter to the ground before his vision blurred and he fell. Then he tried to shout, perhaps he did, maybe he didn’t, he wasn’t sure. He was still wondering when something bitter filled his mouth and he lost consciousness altogether.
Alex dropped her bag with a thud on the tiled floor of her hall. She needed sleep after an exhausting night, but there were things she needed to do first. Her mind was too active and disturbed to go straight to bed, anyway. She wanted to talk to someone about the night’s events. Early mornings were busy for her friends and her boss. Either would understand her need to talk, her friend Jenny maybe? Jenny would be in the middle of getting her children dressed, breakfasted and to school. She imagined the chaos as they all piled into the car with their kit. “Where did I put the coffee?” Her kitchen was tiny and well organised, but she was tired and couldn’t remember where she put the new pack after she had been shopping. Her heart sank again as she remembered James, the child who had died that morning. He would never attend school or take part in a family’s morning routine. ‘One disadvantage of singleness,’ she thought, ‘is being removed from someone to share.’ She sighed and giving up on coffee, made a cup of tea and took it to the front room. She lit the gas fire to temper the early morning chill, then curled up on the sofa to think through the events. Pastoral work was the most fulfilling and the most troublesome part of her job. She was quiet and listened when caring for people, and hearing their stories gave her enough satisfaction to know she was in the right place. Although all clergy had to tackle anything, the church threw at them; they paid her to do the lion’s share of the pastoral work in her role as associate vicar. Last night had been terrible, much more traumatic than the things she normally dealt with. Three-year-old James had contracted meningitis a month ago. The extended battle to save his life had been an emotional one. He had lost that battle at five this morning; Alex had held the hands of his parents until he passed away, well aware of the privilege of being with people in their private moments. She knew supporting them in their grief fulfilled her calling more than any of the other jobs she did. Although certain of God she felt inadequate, never had the right words, but still her presence was important. She held their hands, took the brunt of their anger, shouldered their sorrow, and prayed their prayers, then came away knowing she carried a small part of their grief and knew she was in the right place. Just as often, she shared the best moments of people’s lives, their joy, and celebration, and to see their prayers answered. ‘It’s the public parts of church ministry that are difficult,’ she thought, returning to the kitchen for some biscuits. That was why running her own parish, doing everything they needed herself proved too much. The congregation expected her to meet, using magic if necessary, all of their various wants and needs. She still struggled with some things, preaching for example. Mike, the curate at Saint Stephen’s, who seemed to do everything well, said he “tuned into the holy spirit” and didn’t need to prepare at all. Whereas Alex was often sick before she led a service; her hands shook as she distributed the Eucharist. PCC meetings gave her hives, and she found Deanery Synod meetings as dry as the Atacama Desert, but with less life. Many of her colleagues loved the showmanship of the upfront parts of church ministry. Alex an introvert wondered if she was a fraud, a misfit who should do something else, and it spoilt her enjoyment. An hour later, a half-full mug of lukewarm tea still in her hand, the ringing phone woke her with a start. It was John, her boss, and rector of Saint Stephen’s. “Was it a terrible night? I heard the news about James from the hospital.” “The worst,” she replied, already fighting tears. “I’m going to the hospital myself once they have done the official paperwork, they are expecting me at about eleven. Do you want to talk, or sleep?” “I’m coming to the staff meeting.” Alex decided as she spoke. “I’d rather the staff heard the story firsthand before the rumour mill gets going.” The church, like any other community, thrived on gossip. “It’s true, it’s bound to be rough.” The hesitation in John’s voice suggested he wanted to spare her the staff meeting. But he knew her reasons for going were sound. “I’m already here, so I’ll get Giles to pick you up in ten minutes. That will give me a chance to make coffee for everyone. I’ll drop you back home on my way to the hospital, that way no one can button-hole you after the meeting.” “Thank you so much, John.” Alex knew she was lucky to have such a thoughtful boss. Ten minutes wasn’t enough time for a shower or to get changed, but she washed her face and cleaned her teeth. Her cropped hair needed very little attention. She was still wearing her clericals, which made her uncomfortable. She was a Jeans and t-shirt person given a choice, uncomfortable in formal clothes. Even though she chose pretty coloured shirts to go with her dog collar, they still felt starchy. The few minutes sleep she managed would suffice for a couple of hours, soon she would be home in bed. Alex dreaded staff meetings. They were always a bit testosterone-fuelled and competitive. Big evangelical churches attract big personalities, type A people who love being in charge. Often staff who had held management jobs in a previous life kept a corporate attitude to church life. They transferred their skills and expectations to managing the congregation and staff. Alex was the newest member, having been in this job since Christmas. Before her ordination as a freelance travel writer, she didn’t go to business meetings. All her management and ministry experience came from her previous churches; both smaller; and neither with a staff team. She liked everyone, but the challenge was holding her own as part of the group. The meetings discouraged her, however determined she was to enjoy them. Sometimes she failed to get her point across, sometimes she lost out jostling for a position in the pecking order. The staff at Saint Stephen’s was big because the congregation was big and growing. Youth workers and children’s workers enabled the church to keep its family-friendly atmosphere. Admin staff meant the clergy were better able to deal with more spiritual matters. The building was a hub of community activity. In charge of everything was the reverend John Jeffrey. An experienced priest who had served Saint Stephen’s for twenty years. One reason Alex took this job was because she admired John’s wisdom and gentle leadership style. In control of the office was Judy Fulshaw. The administrator. An older single lady, encased in tweed and an excellent administrator. She had rebuffed Alex’s attempts at friendship so far, and that too had dented her confidence. They held the staff meetings on a Monday morning, but today her tiredness outweighed her fears. ‘I’ll tell everyone the sad news that little James has died, persuade Judy to cancel my appointments, and come home to bed,’ she thought, as she put on her jacket.
The meeting didn’t happen. Judy was waiting for them on the church steps, walking backwards and forwards and peering into the car park. “Someone has broken in,” Judy pointed at the broken window. The town and the diocese built the church in the 1970s to replace the one that was now under the ring road. It had glass doors leading to a spacious lobby before you reached the sanctuary itself. Very modern at the time and too showy to be practical. “Are the doors open, Judy?” asked Alex. The sanctuary was also typical of the era. It was almost circular with a small chapel, choir vestry, and vicars vestry cutting into one side. A row of modern-art-style stained glass windows, set at different angles on the other. “The sanctuary doors are open, Judy, have you been in’?” asked Alex, looking toward the altar. The front had a raised altar area, the organ, and space for a music group. They had partitioned part of the back for a sound desk, modern lighting, and electrical equipment. There was seating for six hundred people with stacked folding chairs for another hundred. “Nn…no, I’ve done nothing,” Judy said, far from her normal brisk self. “Has anyone phoned the police?” asked Giles, striding forward. “We had better check the damage and see what’s missing.” Giles was the building manager. He was an aerospace engineer, who had held a senior management position for a well-known company until he retired. He now worked part time for Saint Stephen’s, overseeing the church building itself, the staff housing, and much of the financial accounting. “I haven’t called the police yet, I was waiting for you.” replied Judy. Giles took command and was already heading for the front of the church. “I’ll do it,” he said, phone in hand. Judy followed him in to check the sound desk and then the altar area. Giles went to check the vestry and band area, where they kept the safe and any other valuables. Alex stayed in the lobby to prevent anyone else from entering before the police arrived. Gazing around the lobby, something seemed wrong. She had no experience of break-ins and didn’t know what was normal, so she wasn’t sure what bothered her. She looked at the lobby and the broken window again. There was loose glass on all four sides of the frame. ‘A thief would knock it out, either first, to prevent cuts, or in climbing through,’ she thought to herself. She took a quick photo on her phone. She also took photos of the glass on the lobby floor and on the step outside. Something about that also disturbed her. The pattern didn’t seem right. A piercing scream interrupted her. She rushed down the central isle to the front of the altar area where Judy was standing. There on the floor, sprawled halfway up the altar steps, was John. Blood covered the polished wood around his head and dripped from the top step. There was no movement. The sight had frozen Judy on the spot. Alex pushed past to check for a pulse and found none. John’s body felt warm to the touch, but it was cooling and the blood was clotting. She placed her fingers on his neck to be sure, but there was nothing. She collapsed backwards away from the body, overwhelmed with emotion. Giles re-emerged from the vestry, separated from the church itself by a bathroom and a set of cupboards. The cupboards were full of unused vestments and church linen, which had deadened the sound from the church, and Judy’s scream. “The police will be an hour, we need to close the building.” he said, stopping short when he saw the women. Alex looked up. “Ring them and for an ask ambulance, no hurry. I’m certain it’s too late.” She sat on the steps next to John, not wanting to leave him alone. ‘No one should die alone,’ she thought. “Yes, I’ll do that.” Giles, white faced and hands shaking, dialled 999. This time, the operator told him that the squad car and ambulance were coming. They needed to clear the area and ensure that no one else could get close. He took Alex’s arm. “Come on. Let’s return to the lobby,” he said, moving her. “I don’t think he wants to be alone,” “I don’t think he is alone anymore, Alex. He’s gone somewhere better, don’t you think?” She nodded and stood up. Judy hadn’t moved or spoken and her expression was unreadable, but she followed them to the lobby when Giles told her to. They arrived at the door in time to admit police and the ambulance crew, who arrived shortly after. Alex had recovered her composure by the time they reached the door. Other staff, the caretaker, and a member of the congregation were arriving. “I’ll tell them to go home,” said Giles. “No,” said Alex. “The next few days will be tough enough, let’s ask for help.” Judy was shaking. Alex put a hand on her shoulder. “I didn’t know about John,” she said. “Of course not, how could you?” Alex turned to Giles. “If we can, we’ll gather everyone in the church hall and give them a job to do. We must prepare ourselves for when people hear the news.” Turning to Judy, “Please can you check the office and the church hall, use the side door, not the lobby. There might be evidence, so be careful not to touch.” Alex smiled and nodded. Judy returned with the news that the church hall and the office appeared to be OK. Alex turned to the police officers and held out her hand. “Alex Whittaker,” The officer took her hand. “Officers Dickens and Wright, Reverend Whittaker. Inspector Portman is on his way.” He showed which of them was which. “Would it be OK for the staff to wait in the church hall? It’s separate. The thieves didn’t break into the hall, the door is locked. They can use the side door to keep the lobby clear.” The two police constables shared a glance. “I’ll go with them,” said Constable Wright. “The inspector will want us to keep everyone together. Who has the keys?” She asked, holding out her hand, her tone brooking no argument. Judy produced the keys and handed them over. In the meantime, Giles had directed the ambulance staff to where John lay. They had confirmed his death and were waiting for the police inspector and surgeon. Alex was alone again.
The lock-down, the weather, the lack of opportunity to meet with friends’ and uncertainty about future finances have all had a dampening effect on my creativity. I claim to exist in a bit of a vacuum, happy with my own company and with such an overblown and vivid imagination that I never run out of ideas for stories. In comparison with many of my friends, that is true. I guess, I’m finding out now that we all have our limits of being alone and going nowhere. For the last few weeks, the Internet and random TV shows I would never normally watch, have distracted me.
It was when I was randomly surfing the net that I came upon a brief article about Charles Dickens and his relationship with Great Ormond Street Hospital. He was one of its first and greatest benefactors, but that is another story.
We learnt about Charles Dickens at school; I expect most of you did too. We read parts of his novels and the teacher gave us a rather bare biography. It was enough to put most of my friends off completely.
I wish we had learnt about his social politics, or even his affairs, or that someone had set his stories in context. For those of us not put off, it was probably either subsequent films (who can forget Oliver Twist asking for more?) or some of his more eloquent quotes. For me it was the unforgettable nature of his first lines
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Tale of two cities.
Marley was dead, to begin with. The Christmas Carol.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. David Copperfield.
I realised as I was flicking through various biographies, that as a for me as a writer there was a lot in Dickens’ life to inspire me.
Not least that my grammar corrector dislikes his writing intensely.
He lacked much in the way of formal education, largely because when Dickens was a teenager they sent his father to debtor’s prison and Charles had to leave school to work in a factory. Even then, though, he was aware of the social injustice of the time. He knew they would free his father if the family could pay off his debts. For many of his contemporaries, there was no escaping their poverty.
All of his work was about social injustice, either as essays, journalistic pieces or novels. He studied writing and other writers not to perfect his writing as an art form, but in order to get his political point across.
Two of the things he learnt from Shakespeare’s plays were of particular relevance for this. Comic caricature and the use of emotion and sentimentality, from that point on only the primary characters in his stories were rounded or realistic. The others were there to make a point. He learnt to use words to manipulate his reader. Many writers achieve this occasionally, very few can do it at will. Dickens studied this art and then exploited it. There was no effortless artistry about his writing, everything in there was deliberate. He split the opinion of the literary world on this point, his work was too comic, too sentimental, and he borrowed ideas and concepts and used them and worse he was popular. Art for the sake of art, and effortless talent without study or marketing, was preferable.
In much the same way, years later, Harold Abrahams would split the opinion of the Athletic world when he used a professional trainer, removing the fairy tale for good that you only need talent and breeding. Those two things help, but hard work makes you stand out from the rest.
That he almost became an actor, auditioning for parts in well know plays, might explain some of this. Much of his popularity and indeed his wealth came from his public and dramatic reading of his stories, not the stories themselves. His books were almost all published in episode form, and he studied the art of the cliffhanger because of that, knowing that he wanted his stories to sell. The result of this is that whatever the opinion of literary critics, he was extremely popular with the public. Much less in his favour was his tendency to be verbose. But then he was paid by the word, why use one word when you can easily use three. I have to wonder also how someone with ten children, who’s marriage ended because of his many affairs, had time and energy to write at all. Perhaps that’s what sparked his creativity. Sadly, this is not something that I can test for myself. But may some of you younger writers might take note. In the meantime, I am going away to work on creating amazing first lines and to learn the art of emotional manipulation.
The countryside around my house is like many rural areas in Spain, gradually emptying there is, however, evidence of a former dying lifestyle. People lived on small farms, anything from a single acre. This was subsistence farming where families produced everything in the house or at least the village and money rarely changed hands.
Today’s story was told to me by my neighbour, passed down from her husband’s great grandfather lets call him José for the Story.
The Swimming Hole.
José stood and looked at his bottom field, wondering what on earth he should do. He needed more usable land, and this field was a good size and fairly flat, a real bonus in this hilly country. The problem was it flooded in the winter and was bone dry in the summer. No use for crops. A wet spring and the seeds rotted, and a week of scorching sun killed anything that survived. The cows wouldn’t eat the coarse grass and the damp clay soil caused foot rot in his sheep. What he needed was an irrigation system that drained the field in the winter and irrigated it in the summer. The water was in the wrong place. A stream ran through the neighbouring woodland and ran along the bottom of the field, forming a lake in winter and spring. He walked into his field and came up with an idea. If he could dam the stream before the water reached his field and built a small reservoir. He would need to dig out the bottom stream as a drainage ditch and put an irrigation ditch higher up, and he could regulate the flow through the field. Having made a plan, he needed to find someone to help with the work. His only son was too young to help. It was customary for everyone to help each other with extensive projects like this one, so he raised it at the next village meeting. Some people sceptical. The plan would benefit him, but no one else had fields that close to the border of the neighbouring parish. It looked too complicated to work. Even with objections, they listed the project and José dug the channels. The village was tiny, with only six families, so when something happened to one family everyone helped. That winter was a bad one, and one family in the village lost a part of their barn roof. It took the men months to fix it so Jose’s reservoir didn’t get done. The wet summer meant twice the work to make the hay; the winter saw sickness in the animals and the following summer a fire. Two years passed and José still had no reservoir. He had finished his drainage ditches, which had already helped the situation, but he wanted to finish the job.
He had an idea, his son was now a teenager. What if he made the reservoir with straight sides so the teenage boys could use it as a swimming pool? Would they help him dig it out and lay the stones? He showed his son what he wanted to do and asked him to talk to his friends. That weekend twenty boys turned up to help and the next weekend even more. In no time at all they had dug a pool and built sluice gates.
José and his family threw a big party for the village, the women baked empanada’s and they sat in the woods by the pool while the children had a great time swimming in the water. The pool in its woodland location became a popular courting spot and remained so even after the reservoir fell into disuse. My neighbour can’t remember it being used, it probably took too much work to maintain it, but he can tell me about couples who did their courting there, and his mother remembers swimming when she was a child. Now it has almost disappeared, and stories like this disappear with it, claimed back by nature.
How lovely to have a swimming pool, though, in the dappled light of the woods? I can only listen to stories and dream.
The Mystery of the Wooden box.
Out now is Book 3 and the last Treasure of Saint Bee.
It was the Babylonians who made the first formal recorded New Year’s resolutions 4000 years ago. In case you don’t know: They built the city of Babylon near the Euphrates river in Mesopotamia. You can find the ruins of the ancient city in modern day Iraq. (Before the war, now I’m not so sure)
The Babylonians held a new year festival lasting for twelve days in mid-march, for the start of the lunar calendar and time of fresh growth. The primary purpose of the festival was for citizens to either pledge their allegiance to the current king or to crown a new one, in those days the kings had a short lifespan. As it was a religious culture, it was time to appease the gods. In order to do that, it was important to pay your debts and return anything that you had borrowed the previous year in order to start the new year afresh. This ensured that you could concentrate on growing crops that would prosper. It helped if you got your plough back, and that sack of seed potatoes that Jim borrowed, and the meadow down by the river where Fred had been grazing his sheep, and the shears that the new guy at the end of the lane had.
Think about that for a minute, each year you pay all your debts, financial or otherwise, return everything you have borrowed and start the new year with a clean slate. Not such a bad tradition.
The new year didn’t move to January 1st until Julius Caesar took charge of the roman empire in 46BC. The Romans followed a lunar calender, and it was out of sync with the moon. So much so that if he travelled around his empire, he never knew in which month he would arrive. Difficult travel hadn’t caused this, it was because people couldn’t keep track of the date using the moon. He hired astronomer’s and mathematician’s to calculate a new calender based on the sun, not the moon.
To celebrate he named the first month after Janus the two faced god, who could look both back to the past and forward to the future. There would be a party, during which every citizen promised good conduct.
See how sneaky he was, an annual holiday in exchange for promising to behave to follow whatever rules he dreamed up, and he dreamed up quite a few. Does this sound a bit like Santa Claus? I think his equivalent of a piece of coal in your stocking was very, very nasty.
Although most of the Western world changed to the new calender, the roman Catholic church didn’t accept the new year date of January 1st. Because the new calendar wasn’t accurate enough, and once again didn’t always match either with either the lunar or the solar cycle.
In 1582, the pope ordered the calculation of a new calendar, and this new Gregorian calendar is the one we use today. The new year celebrations with the resolutions, of promised good conduct, from the romans, and renewed purity from Pope Greggory continued as a tradition, even when the political and religious overtones had been disregarded.
You can see where these twin resolutions fit into modern life. Purity being interpreted as health and education and good conduct as kindness and voluntary action. These make up our most popular resolutions today.
Do more exercise
Save more money
Join a voluntary organisation
Improve family time.
Self improvement playing a much smaller part in new in other parts of the world, for example China where certain foods and actions bring good luck and cleaning and buying new clothes signify change.
In Iraq, where it all started, they have three different new year Celebrations, Christian, Muslim and Kurdish or traditional. There is nothing like hedging your bets.
Medieval knights vowed on a peacock to keep the laws of chivalry… and then ate the peacock.
Within the Christian church, New Year’s resolutions became a serious part of the yearly cycle, thanks to two people.
John Wesley created a new year service now called a watch night service but which he called a covenant renewal service. The purpose of which was to pray and renew your covenant with God.
Johnathan Edwards, the evangelist not the athlete, took New Year’s resolutions so seriously that he took two years and wrote 70 resolutions to live by.
Including, and I like these,
5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I
6. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.
7. Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
8. Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself…
Are there any celebrity resolutions? Well, there are a few, but when it comes down to it we are all pretty much the same, only the place or manner in which we make the resolutions change according to our status, wealth or religious belief.
So what will you resolve to do? Covid regulations have denied most of us the lavish party, or even the watch night service with friends.
You could always fall back on the peacock!
In fact, that’s my first resolution: Get a peacock. You never know when you’ll need one!
When I started writing, I was very excited about it; I loved the process and felt in my heart that here was something I could be good at. My enthusiasm met very mixed reactions. Some people were excited for me, some had scepticism written all over their faces. Some bluntly told me I was no good.
I spent a good deal of time thinking about what to do. Should I only write in secret? Or stop all together. At first, they were my only options; I don’t have a great deal of self-confidence and in the past backed away from something if someone told me I was incapable of doing it. I am afraid of being laughed at.
This time it felt different. I love the process of writing, and I want to write books and earn a living from it. I then came across this quote. You can’t call yourself an author until you have written one million words. The combined minds of the internet attribute the quote to several authors in several forms. To me, it was the answer to my dilemma. I can tell people I will decide about my ability once I have published one million words.
I now needed a commercial goal. At what point will I have failed commercially? I didn’t want to set a financial target, partly because there are too many variables, partly because I have no direct control over who buys my work. So, I decided on a specific number of books. The number would have to be greater that twelve, because it was going to take me a million words to become competent to write. The first few books might sell a few copies, but probably wouldn’t count toward commercial success. I settled on twenty.
I am sure by now you realise that I think too much and in a rather convoluted way. But I now have an answer for people. I won’t stop writing before I reach one million words and I will have neither succeeded nor failed before I have written twenty books.
The one thing I hadn’t counted on is becoming addicted. Writing is like a drug: the more you do, the more hooked you become. Soon I will have to answer the question, “Can I stop?” I suspect that the answer will be; only with treatment.
Every month anyone who subscribes to my mailing list will get a free short story. This is not the story that you receive for joining, but another completely new story. This month’s story is called Jo’s Journey and it won first prize in last year’s Good life in Galicia writing competition.
It is the story of how a single middle-aged woman ended up living in a village in Galicia. More than that it is a story of how despair can turn into hope.
It starts with Jo heartbroken; her husband of many years has left her for another woman, an age-old story.
In my mind it started with a ‘what-if’.
What-ifs are at the core of storytelling. Begin with a normal situation, a situation that we all recognise then ask yourself. What if…? The answer to that question is your story.
This was also my chance to describe the place I now call home. In telling you what Jo loved, I am telling you what I love about being here.
The story is available in the Goodlife in Galicia 2019 anthology on Amazon.
The Newsletter with the link to the story will go out on Friday the 25th so there is still time to join my mailing list if you haven’t already. You can do so here. You will get a link to Eliva’s Ghost, a short thriller in the Camino de Santiago series just for joining.
Jo’s Journey will be replaced with a new story on the 25th of next month. I hope that you enjoy it.
Last weekend traditionally signifies the end of summer here in Sarria. In fact summer both starts and ends with a fiesta. We begin in June with San Juan and end in September with Remedios. For the children the time in between is holiday, for the residents the price of a coffee goes up and we have to compete with tourists for the limited number of parking spaces.
Remedios commemorates a miracle. Many towns have their own version. Here the Virgin Mary was seen in a field about 3 kilometres from the town many , many years ago. In normal years, the whole town and their many visitors put on high visibility jackets and walk out to that field. They have lunch on long trestle tables and drink quite a lot more wine than is healthy. The young people take tents and sleep out there to ensure that their family gets the best picnic place. It is, without doubt, the event that the townspeople most look forward to, and incomers, like us, and tourists are the most puzzled by. It’s a celebration of family and community and has changed very little in the last hundred years. Until now, that is. It has of course been cancelled by covid 19.
The council, and I have to commend our current mayor, have tried their best to have a children’s program of activities during the holidays. They have searched far and wide for activities that can be done in a mask and with everyone remaining two metres apart. They arranged a small parade with a performance afterwards in the park for the weekend. The town was full. All the people who come for Remedios normally, came anyway, and there was a a lot of milling around.
The lack of the fiesta, had the same effect on the town as a damp firework, everyone knows it’s there, but it doesn’t go off. People sat in bars saying what a good time they have had in the past. It was difficult not to be affected by the sense of gloom. The parade arranged for the children turned out to be three blow up animals and a man on stilts with a water pistol. To be absolutely honest they did try their best, but it’s hard to cheer up people who refuse to be cheered.
We ended up having a takeaway and eating it in Steve’s office, I enjoyed it in a strange way. We read, played games, and ate kebab. It did feel like a holiday. The kind when it pours with rain and you are determined to enjoy yourself anyway.
My writing news is that Mass Murder is now available in paperback, I know that some of you have already found it.
I have finished the first draft of The Wooden Box. I am always sorry to to write ‘the end’ on a story it’s like finishing a book that you are reading, you want to stay in that world. For me it is also the point that the magic ends and the work begins. At the moment, I am editing it into a draft that can be send to Andrea my editor (Andrea if you are reading this you can start to sharpen your red pen).
For those of you who are on my email list, starting from sometime next week you will be receiving a new short story every month, So be sure to check your junk folders in case you miss it. It will only be available for a month before it’s replaced with a new one. There will be more details nearer the time.
For those of you who have been following my giant vegetable saga I would love to tell you that the marrow season has ended but, alas no, they have been joined by giant pumpkins
“Have you got an idea for your next book” a friend asked,
“Yes five priests get murdered at different points along the Camino,” I answered absently.
“How and why” she asked looking horrified.
“Well, I haven’t worked out all the details yet but it’s a starting point.”
“I am so glad that I can’t see into your mind” she replied “I don’t know anyone who idly daydreams about murdered priests.”
The sad truth is that up until then, I thought that everyone did. Not priests in particular, but the consequences of crimes going unchecked, or the possible reasons for someone to kill another human being. Theft is less likely to have a backstory but a murder almost certainly has. I have always told stories to myself, worked through the possibilities and tried to find endings. It got me through school, through boring office jobs, mums and toddler groups and all those other parts of life which are necessary but not always interesting.
Writing it down is a recent thing, I never thought it was really possible before.
We are both writers my friend and I and she too gleans ideas from all over the place. The difference is that she doesn’t randomly kill people off. But then she is much nicer than I am. I already have my next victim in mind, together with the murder scene. Mind you for me it happens so often I need a queuing system.
So Mass Murder is published today, the plot was more complicated than I intended, but the subject is a serious one. In part it is about what happens when evil is allowed to remain hidden long past the time when all concerned know what needs to happen.
The subject I raise will be debated for a long time yet, but there are and were always, good people. I hope that I have shown both the good and the bad.
For those of you who read my last but one blog, my fears of being swamped with giant marrows has been realised, so who knows maybe my next victim will be killed with a wheelbarrow full of vegetables. Or that Steve, who grew them, is no longer safe now I know he shares this genetic giant marrow growing trait with his father.
On the other hand if you have a fondness for marrows feel free to come and collect one.
No, I’ve never met anyone who actually likes them either.
What a week! It started with our 40th wedding anniversary. It defies my imagination. Where has the time gone. And how did it happen?
That was us then.
Can you spot the difference.
We went, at the invitation of our good friends Jackie and John, to the Parador in Monforte. For anyone who doesn’t know Paradors are state owned hotels build in historic buildings they are normally amazing, not only historically through sympathetic restauration, but in terms of service. It was a lovely day I think that we all enjoyed it.
The day didn’t start in quite such a refined cultural way. At seven o- clock that morning all the clothes that I own were on the bed. Every single thing had been ruled out as a possible outfit to wear for such a special lunch. I dug out my make-up bag and found two lipsticks, one purple and one bright red, not previously thrown out only because the colours were so hideous that they hadn’t been used, The puzzling question was why were they ever bought? There was a tub of foundation which belongs in a museum it is so old, and one worn out blue and silver eyeshadow and that was it.
Why, I thought to myself is there so little, Then I remembered watching a you tube video on the dangers of wearing out of date make/up and throwing everything away because it was all ten years out of date at least. (I don’t go out often enough). So another moment of panic, until I remembered that I would be wearing a mask. What a relief, as long as I could find one that matches my outfit, I’d be fine.
Then I remembered the outfit problem. My only unpatched trousers were stretchy jeans, that left me with one skirt and one dress. Next problem was no shoes. I have shoes, trainers, gardening clogs and brown suede brogues that go with jeans. I looked at the jeans and shook my head, no, I couldn’t. I lay down on my wardrobe floor hoping for a pair of forgotten sandals, even though at the back of my mind there lurked a memory of me throwing them away because the strap had broken. For some moments I contemplated just staying where I was, on the floor and blaming Covid 19.
I did find a pair of green ballet pumps, covered in dust, and pulled them out and looked at them critically, as shoes they were promising, but green doesn’t match either lilac (dress) or black and white (skirt.) Then I had one of my brighter ideas, green shoes -purple lipstick and an hour later I had a pair of shoes that matched the dress.
All that I had left to do was to squeeze into the dress, I am, to quote Alexander McCall Smith, traditionally built and the lock-down had only emphasised the traditional aspect. The only solution was to lie back down on the wardrobe floor and breath in, we came close to being late and I thought that I might have to content myself with photographing the food and not eating it, in order to protect the flimsy zip on the silk dress.
It was appropriate that I had outfit problems, because on my wedding day, my dress and shoes had been bought by mum, neither fitted, neither looked good. My hair was done by the girl down the road because she knew about long hair and the bun she created had fallen out an hour before the wedding. I walked down the isle in tennis pumps with a pack of hairpins in my dress pocket, the dress’s one good feature was a pocket. No I know, not a normal feature in a wedding dress.
So you see, things don’t change that much. The rest of the day, much like that day forty years ago, turned out to be wonderfully memorable.