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Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Heralds of Spring

The sight of the first daffodil never fails to lift my spirits. When I see that hint of yellow, I know spring is on the way. They've often featured in art, from delicate botanical paintings to wild explosions of colour and life.

Much prized by the Romans who believed the sap had healing powers, they then went out of fashion as cultivated plants until the early seventeenth century. Interestingly, the sap is poisonous to many animals and to other flowers. If you want to put daffodils in a mixed arrangement, first soak the stems in water for 24 hours to remove it.

It's said to be bad luck to give one daffodil, so always give a bunch. In season, daffodils are cheap, so you shouldn't need to stint.

Daffodils have been found to contain a substance called narciclasine. Scientists believe it may help in the treatment of brain cancer.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Last Call for the Dining Car!

Who can read about the glory days of train travel without thinking of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express?

In the course of researching for my next Inspector de Silva Mystery, where a critical scene takes place on the Kandy-Colombo train, I've loved reading up about those days. I still remember what a treat it was as a teenager when I was allowed to go on the morning train from the country up to London with my late father

The British rail breakfast was legendary. What could be more delightful than enjoying a good meal on the train while England's green and pleasant land flashed past the window? Dining cars were always beautifully appointed, the snowy tablecloths crisply starched, the service silver and the crockery and cutlery marked with the badge of the line you were travelling on.

Training for the smartly uniformed stewards who served passengers was rigorous. It included having to walk repeatedly along a white line painted down the middle of a carriage while the train was in motion to make sure no customer's soup was served into  their lap.

The first dining car came into service in 1879. The cooking was done over hot coals at the back of the train. At first, there were problems with the food getting covered in soot when the train went through a tunnel, but these were soon overcome, and meals on the train became very popular.

Sadly, though, after the railways were privatised dining cars started to die out. The last one ran on the 19.33 from King's Cross to Leeds in May 2011. Passengers were served a valedictory meal of smoked haddock "Arnold Bennett" crepe, rib-eye steak, leg of lamb, or fillets of trout, with blue cheese, apple and walnut strudel or ginger and rhubarb pavlova to follow. Glasses were raised for the last time from a wine list that included fine clarets. This final journey was particularly significant because railway dining had begun on the very same route more than a hundred years previously.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Bumblebees and dumbledores

I doubt anyone would choose to be a writer if they didn't love words and, for me, there's a particular pleasure in finding ones that have gone out of fashion. The other day, I picked up a novel by Thomas Hardy that I hadn't read for many years and, as I read, a word jumped out at me.

If I say "dumbledore",  most people will think of Harry Potter, but clearly Hardy had never heard of the famous boy wizard. I looked up a dictionary of word origins and history, (if you google online etymological dictionary you should find the one I use) and found that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the word was used in West Country dialect to mean a bumblebee.

Other beautifully expressive words I've discovered over this past year are wamblecropt. It means overcome by indigestion, hopefully not too appropriate in the days of festive meals that stretch ahead of us!

Over the party season, I hope you won't be subjected to people who are ultracrepidarian. (Prone to expressing very forceful opinions on subjects about which they know absolutely nothing.)

After a particularly late night, will you indulge in a bit of snudging at the office? The practice of striding around looking enormously busy while doing nothing at all except perhaps checking your Smartphone. 

Lastly, when you need a rest from all the excitement, try gongoozling. This is the habit of sitting quietly staring at water. But don't forget to wrap up warm, especially if the weather's foxy. (Misleadingly sunny and bright but in fact freezing cold.)

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Talking Mystery

I was honoured to be invited to talk about mysteries and Inspector de Silva on Kendall and Cooper Talk Mysteries. Past guests have included bestselling author of cozy mysteries, Laura Child, and the queen of tartan noir, Val McDermid.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Inspiration for a Civil War Quilt Sampler

I'm not all that handy with a needle myself but I greatly admire those who are so I'm delighted to welcome keen and skilful quilter, Rosey Moffatt, to the blog. She's kindly agreed to share some of her knowledge of American Civil War quilts with us, so over to you, Rosey. 

It's a pleasure to be here, thank you for inviting me.
The history of the Civil War quilt is about necessity and need, none more so than for providing comfort for the soldiers during the four year hardship of the American Civil War.
Having spent a good deal of my life in North America I have long been fascinated by its history.  The stories of the people who landed on its foreign shores from all over Europe, persecuted for their non-conformist religious beliefs and forced to forge new lives in unknown territories are as big a story as was their feat in crossing those mighty plains and mountains.  Those early pioneers who forged out new lives for themselves and their families and who settled on a piece of land and struggled to live off of it, living in the privation of their wagons, or dugouts, before building simple houses, had to make do with everything they came into contact with. Nothing was wasted.
For warmth against the cold nights, quilts were made out of any materials they could lay their hands on.  I have read much about the early pioneering women who kept home and hearth together and sewed and quilted together to make warm comforters for their large families.    Although there is much to be said about these women, this is the background from which quilts were made in the American Civil War, which lasted from April 12, 1861 when the Confederates attacked the military installation at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, to April 9, 1865 when Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops to Ulysses Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.  Four years of hostilities and deprivation prevailed.
During these four years, the women at home aided their soldiers by making them quilts.  Soldiers were not provided for by government, so it was up to the women to provide for the men going to war.  The purpose of these quilts was to provide Union and Confederate soldiers with warm bedding, and to fundraise at local fairs for the war effort.  Quilts sold at the fairs were often of a better design, the nicer the design the more money could be raised.  Calico was too expensive to purchase, so they made do, by re-using fabric from old clothing the men left behind before they went off to battle.  Any available fabric was used, old shirts “shirtings”, old suits, worn-out blankets, denim work clothes, feed and fertilizer sacks.

Laurel Horton in her article on South Carolina quilts and the Civil War states that manufactured cloth was generally called Confederate homespun.  She claims that none of the makeshift Confederate quilts are known to survive.  The most basic quilt designs were limited by these fabrics, utility being their express purpose.  It was necessary that they were put together quickly and simply, and as soldiers died they were often buried in their quilts, so that very few survive today.  It is reckoned that over 250,000 quilts had been made for the Union soldiers of the American Civil War.
The Unionists of the northern States wore blue uniforms, whilst the Confederates of the southern “slave” states wore red uniforms.  Quilt colours of blues and grays, reds and browns, reflected these. The typical soldier’s quilt size was 7’4” x 4’ (223cm x 121cm) which was the size of a soldier’s cot.  Block designs were shared amongst quilters, becoming established designs continued and admired in quilts today.
I have just completed a small Civil War sampler quilt using typical block designs but adding some of my own colours and fabric patterns.  The style and designs are correct.

One of the most famous and intricate commemorative Civil War quilts, now in the Bennington  Museum in Vermont, is one made by Jane A. Stickle in which she embroidered the words “In War Time. 1868” on it.  It is made up of 5,602 pieces and was started in 1863 taking five years to make.  Many commemorative quilts were made after the war, and reproduction Civil War quilts continue to inspire today.

Reference:  Information on the 250,000 quilts made during the Civil War from Judy Anne Breneman, 2007.
If you would like to know more about Rosey’s work do visit


Thursday, 12 October 2017

Trip Fiction Brings the World to your Bookshelf

A year or so ago, I came across a marvellous website called Trip Fiction. It was founded in 2012 (the year of the UK Olympics seems rather apt) but the germ of the idea had occurred to the founders, Tina and Tony, long before that. I've found it so useful and it's always nice to share a good thing so I asked Andrew Morris, who is now one of the team, to come along and tell my readers more. 

Thank you so much, Harriet, for inviting TripFiction to introduce ourselves to your own book-loving audience.

Books set in location offer great travel reading. TripFiction was created to make it easy to match a location with a book, and thanks to our searchable database you can find a book relevant to any trip. TripFiction features novels, travelogues and memoirs set in over 1,500 countries, regions, and cities from around the world, so your destination is almost bound to be covered.

TripFiction lets you see a location through an author’s eyes.

Works of fiction generate a feel for, and empathy with, a location that is quite different to that obtained through conventional travel guides. Literature – modern or historical – can help us absorb atmosphere and context in a way that no other written word finds possible.

TripFiction was created to make it easy for you to select literature that is most pertinent and relevant to your trip in a way that has not been practical before. You can search books by location, by author, by genre – and cross reference across all three. So, apart from just selecting by location, you can see which countries feature on your favourite author’s books, or whether a book of a particular genre is set in a city you are about to visit.

The website does not just list titles. Each title has a synopsis and frequently a lead review. It also carries reviews and ratings by members of the TripFiction community – ratings are given for both the content of the book and also for how well it portrays the location itself.

And we carry interviews with authors, talking about their work and how important a specific location, or a strong general sense of place, might be in their writing. You'll remember this lovely #TalkingLocationWith post, Harriet, where you told TripFiction how Sri Lanka was the perfect setting for your own Inspector de Silva series.     

We also set up the TripFiction Book Club (#TFBookClub) earlier this year to allow readers to win a book set in a particular location, and for us all to read and comment on the book together for a couple of months. So far we've travelled to Sardinia, Prague, Central America and the Lake District.  

And we are delighted that your very own Trouble in Nuala, the first in your Inspector de Silva series, will be the #TFBookClub read for November & December, allowing readers to travel with you to exotic Sri Lanka.

(There will be a limited number of free paperback copies of the book as well as e-copies to give away to readers who participate in the TF Book Club. In addition, the lucky winner of the associated giveaway competition will win a copy of each of the three books in the series and, for an extra relaxing read, a delightful elephant mug and some Ceylon tea to drink out of it! Look out for more news soon.) 
Thanks again for letting us introduce TripFiction to your audience, Harriet, and we look forward to exploring the world with them through books.

Social media links for TF:

Twitter (@TripFiction), 

Facebook (@TripFiction.Literarywanderlust), 

YouTube (TripFiction #Literarywanderlust), 

Instagram (@TripFiction) and 

Pinterest (@TripFiction)

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Talking to L J Ross

  Today I’m delighted to welcome Louise Ross, known to the many fans of her DCI Ryan series as L J Ross, to the blog.

Louise, welcome. I know that you were born and bred in Northumberland and of course that’s where your spectacularly successful DCI Ryan series is set. Do you have any childhood memories you’re prepared to share with readers?
- I have so many happy memories of my childhood in Northumberland. I remember spending weekends exploring Bamburgh Castle and its enormous beach where I used to play ‘hide and seek’ amongst the sand dunes and look across the sea to Holy Island, which lies thirteen miles or so further north along the coastline. Those early memories of the sand, water and the towering castle on its craggy rock laid the groundwork for the stories I now write.
Since January 2015, you’ve published six books in the DCI Ryan series to great acclaim. That’s a remarkable 
work rate. How do you manage it?
- I’ve always had a very strong work ethic and I can be very disciplined, when I want to be! However, I never like to sacrifice quality, so each book goes through rigorous editorial processes before release. The beauty of choosing to publish independently is that I don’t have to wait for traditional publishing schedules before releasing a book – I can decide when to release, which is great for readers because it means they don’t have to wait quite so long for the next instalment of DCI Ryan!
As any author knows, being a writer can be challenging and particularly so if you self-publish. To what do you attribute your success in a very competitive market?
- I’m often asked this question and it’s a difficult one to answer because there are so many brilliant writers out there who have yet to be ‘discovered’. I was very fortunate that my first novel went on to become a UK #1 bestseller and I think it comes down to a number of factors aligning at the same time: a storyline that captures the reader’s imagination, editorial quality, cover, sales copy and a little bit of good old-fashioned luck. It’s as simple (and frustrating) as that.
You worked as a regulatory lawyer for many years, do you think the experience you gained contributed to your skill in plotting and attention to detail?
- I was experienced in drafting techniques and had an eye for detail after working as a lawyer. More importantly, I think the broad spectrum of people I met during that time has provided a wealth of inspiration for the characters I write!
Do you have a special place where you like to write and/or a particular routine?
- Often, I’ll take a laptop to a local coffee shop and write a little bit in the morning after I’ve dropped my son off at school. I like to try to do some walking during the day, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to enjoy cake as much as I do! I also have an office at home where I work if I’m on a tight deadline and need to shut myself away.

Where does your inspiration come from?
- My inspiration comes from the world around me and the people I meet, particularly the landscape of Northumberland which I find endlessly inspiring.
Are you a planner or do you prefer to let your plots evolve as you go along?
- A little of both! Some books have a more intricate plotline and therefore it’s important not to go off on a tangent, whereas others allow for more of an organic process.
When you aren’t writing, how would you describe your perfect day?
- Taking a long walk with my family, or spending time hanging out with friends. Simple pleasures!
Which parts of the writing process do you enjoy the least and the most?
-I enjoy writing the first and last few pages of a book. There’s a special feeling when you create something entirely new and an equally special feeling of accomplishment once it’s complete. I don’t enjoy writing the middle of the book, which is usually around the time my confidence and energy starts to wane!
If you had to choose only one, who is your favourite character in your books? Why is that?
- Whilst DCI Ryan is the lynchpin of my stories, I have to confess to holding a candle for DS Phillips. His character is loosely based on my late grandfather, who was witty, intelligent and loyal in much the same way as his fictional counterpart.
Who would you cast to play them if your books were to be made into films?
- I’ll cross that bridge when it comes to it!
Have any particular writers influenced your work? 
- I have always been a voracious reader and so you might say all the writers I’ve enjoyed since childhood have influenced me in some way or another, for different reasons. However, as a crime writer, I don’t think you can beat Arthur Conan-Doyle for sheer longevity, clarity of writing and thought. 
Do you have an all-time favourite book? 
No, I can’t choose a favourite, but the books I have read more than once include M. M. Kaye’s ‘The Far Pavilions’, Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ and anything by Jim Thompson.
You say in your biography that you’re a keen traveller. Do you think any of your destinations will inspire a new series, and if so, which ones? 
- I think there’s a grain of truth to the old saying that you should ‘write what you know’. In my case, I’ve spent time living in London, Paris and Florence (amongst other places) and would like to write a new series which has a more European flavour to reflect that experience.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now? 
- With ‘Dark Skies’ coming out in time for Christmas, I’m polishing off some final bits and pieces on that, as well as plotting the next DCI Ryan and tinkering with an entirely separate psychological thriller.
 I’d like to end by asking you for your responses to a few observations made by other writers over the years. 
Fire away! 
‘If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.’ Stephen King 
- I think this is very true. The act of reading over the course of a lifetime prepares you as a writer, in particular, to recognise the styles and genres you prefer to read and might then be well-placed to write. Of course, that will differ for each individual.  
‘One day I will find the right words and they will be simple.’ Jack Kerouac 
- I think it’s true that, as a new writer, there’s a tendency to ‘over write’ and use ten words to describe what could have been conveyed with one or two. As a reader myself, I prefer the clarity of writers like Conan-Doyle and Jim Thompson, whose longevity is probably thanks to their ability to write in an accessible way.  
‘You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.’ – C S Lewis. Would you agree? 
- In my case, it would be coffee, but let’s not quibble! As for a book long enough…I’d say, that rather depends on the book.  
‘You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.’ Saul Bellow 
- I think the content can be inspired, but the technical specification suffers thanks to over-tiredness! 
‘The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.’ Stephen King 
- I think we’re all guilty of the odd cheeky adverb (even Stephen King!) 
‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we most need.’ Phillip Pullman  
- I think it’s at least true to say that we all need escapism from time-to-time. Stories are by the far the healthiest outlet!

Follow this link to Trip Fiction for an exclusive video talk by Louise and an exciting giveaway. But hurry! The competition closes at midnight UK time on Saturday, 7th October.