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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.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Joanne Harris on writing, food and fantasy.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting bestselling author Joanne Harris and I’m delighted to say she accepted my invitation to visit the blog. Joanne, welcome and thank you so much for coming. 

It's lovely to be here.

You grew up in Yorkshire in the 60's and 70's with a French mother and an English father. I imagine that made you rather unusual for the times. Did you ever find it difficult? How, if at all, did it shape your life?

In those days, Barnsley wasn't an especially cosmopolitan environment. There weren't very many foreigners, and I felt very different from other people. Some of our neighbours were very welcoming, but others were downright hostile - my mother still recalls the other mothers at the primary school gate moving away from us when they heard us speaking French together. At school there was both curiosity and some mockery - lots of requests for me to "talk foreign", as if it were a party trick, plus lots of comments about French food, garlic, French history, bidets (which at the time were considered weird and disgusting), frogs' legs, the War, etc. which I didn't really understand. At secondary school, most of that stopped, but I was still considered different and a little peculiar. Perhaps I was. In any case, I think being a foreigner gave me a certain kind of perspective regarding social groups and their interactions, which later crept into my writing.

Have you written from an early age?

I've always written; first copying the writers I most admired, then slowly finding my own style. It started to emerge when I was in my twenties, although it wasn't until several years later that I felt confident enough to take the plunge and try to make a living from writing books. I liked my job teaching French in a boys' grammar school and I wrote in my spare time but with the success of Chocolat, the demands being made on me to promote the book in England and abroad took up more time than I could spare from full-time teaching. With some regret (and a lot of anxiety) I chose writing and I'm glad I did; but it was a tough decision.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Everywhere; from items in the newspapers, from T.V., from watching people on the trains, from talking to people on my travels. I find that I can't generate ideas if I stay cooped up at home. I need regular changes of scene to maintain my creative output. I have to read a lot, too, to make sure my windows on the world stay open. I don't often use people I know although my daughter Anouchka has made a few appearances in my books, as have some members of my family - and even a few ex-colleagues! Most of the time, however, I don't even try to show an accurate portrait. I use little details and mannerisms I might have noticed. I wouldn't feel comfortable describing real-life people in detail.

Vampire stories are hugely popular these days. Your first novels - The Evil Seed and Sleep, Pale Sister, published in the early 90's - were Gothic chillers. Is it a genre you'd like to revisit?

Not right now, certainly, or at least not in that particular form. There are so many vampire stories around at the moment, and besides, I think the vampire genre is best suited to younger writers. Under the Gothic surface, the vampire tale is basically a story of adolescence, of coming-of-age, alienation, self-discovery and forbidden sex, which is why the young-adult audience understands it and relates to it so well - but I've reached the stage where I feel the need to explore different territories. On the other hand, fear never goes out of style, and it's never far from my writing. It simply takes different aspects, as do the elements of folklore, myth and fairytale that tend to inhabit my novels.

Your young-adult/crossover novels, Runemark, Runelight and The Gospel of Loki, which you publish under the name Joanne M Harris, are set in the world of Norse mythology. I believe you've even studied Old Icelandic to understand that world more fully. Many people think they have a clear idea of what to expect from your novels and these mythological ones seem very different to that expectation. Did you feel a need to break the mould?

Not really. All my novels have aspects of folklore, fairytale and myth, which appear more or less strongly depending on the subject matter. In these books, however, the fantasy and folklore is much more in the forefront of the story, and I’ve enjoyed the process of constructing and developing this complex fantasy world very much. I am aware, however, that my readers don’t all feel comfortable reading outright fantasy, which is why I started to use my middle initial on the books set in that world. I don’t see it as a departure, merely a marker to indicate that, here may be serpents…

In Who’s Who, you list mooching and lounging among your favourite pursuits, but with more than a dozen novels and numerous short stories and cookbooks to your name as well as many other projects completed or in hand, it’s hard to believe you do much mooching or lounging. Isn’t there really a fiercely disciplined regime behind your success?

I don’t see it as discipline. Discipline implies the setting of rules, and I don’t find rules conducive to creativity. I don’t work because I have discipline; I work because otherwise, I would probably stop functioning.

I’m sure you’re often asked about the importance of food and drink in your novels. For example it’s been used as a theme in Chocolat and Blackberry Wine and you use it elsewhere to evoke atmosphere and give insights into your characters. Of course good food is one of the pleasures of life; something that brings people together and cheers them up on bad days. What would you say is your ultimate comfort food?

For me, food has strong nostalgic and emotional connotations, so probably the food that I associate with being happiest. Thus: the Mexican food I make when my daughter and I watch films together; the fish and chips I used to eat out of newspaper on Friday night with my husband-to-be when I was sixteen; the pancakes my great-grandmother used to make to celebrate birthdays and family get-togethers.

Many writers begin with short stories, thinking they will be easier to write than novels. Would you agree? What do you think makes a good short story?

There’s nothing easy about writing short stories. A good short story demands a more precise structure than a novel, so that if anything goes wrong, it will be immediately apparent. Novels are generally much more forgiving than short fiction, and allow for much greater leeway in terms of experimenting with structure, subplots and character. In a short story, the reader must be engaged from the start, the development must be perfectly paced and the payoff satisfactory, otherwise the story will fail. Trying to start off with short fiction is like a painter beginning with miniatures rather than life-size portraits – it’s a very demanding task that requires a great deal of skill and practice.

You’re always generous with your time, travelling all over the world talking about your books and generally interacting with your fans. Are you happiest in the company of others or, deep down, do you prefer to be alone (with your characters, of course)?

Much as I enjoy being with others, there are times when I need to be alone. My loved ones understand this…

Do you find the first or the last line of your novels hardest to write?

Neither. It’s the stuff in between that can be tricky…

HS The world has become a much smaller place in our lifetime with advances in travel and communications. From your own experience, have you noticed the way of life in the French and English halves of your family becoming more similar, or are there still fundamental differences?

No, I still see differences, although ease of communication has given us a whole new set of ways to misunderstand each other…

Briefly, what would be your advice to aspiring writers?

Drop the word “aspiring.” Just write.



Monday, 25 September 2017

Sculpture in the garden

I couldn't resist sharing these lovely sculptures on display last weekend at the RHS gardens at Wisley. So full of life and character.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Stories in Food

On a trip to Bologna in Northern Italy, like many visitors, I was bowled over by the wonderful food, from the delicious fresh pasta served dozens of ways to the tasty cold meats and cheeses. Photographing the appetising displays in shop windows was irresistible!

They also set me thinking about the tradition of genre paintings that showed everyday scenes involving the sale and preparation of food; many of them included biblical scenes in the background. For example the 16th century Flemish artist, Joachim Beuckelaer's, painting of a kitchen scene with Christ at the Supper at Emmaus in the background.

A more famous work by the late Renaissance painter, Annibale Carracci, is The Butcher's Shop. Here, the painter abandons religious themes for a comment on the society of his day. Some of the Carracci family were involved in the butchery trade which was extremely important in Bologna where the family originated and the painter shows the butchers as dignified men absorbed in their work. The pose of the man in the foreground, who is in the act of slaughtering a sheep, is even taken from a painting by Raphael of the biblical subject of Noah. Some art historians have interpreted the representation of the guard on the left of the picture, with his exaggerated codpiece and fancy clothes, as a satire on the city authorities, comparing them unfavourably with the hard-working merchant guilds. The man looks on greedily as the butcher weighs out his meat. The old woman in the background may symbolise avarice and suspicion. She obviously doesn't trust the butcher who in in the act of preparing her chop!
Whatever the messages the painting contains, it's a fascinating example of a turn away from the tight, precise and highly polished style of Mannerism to a looser, more free use of paint that heralds the Baroque era. The painting came to England in 1630 when it was purchased by Charles I. It's now in Christ Church College Oxford's picture gallery and was donated to the college in the late 18th century. It hung in the kitchens gathering dirt and grease until its importance was recognised in the 1950s. 

Thursday, 7 September 2017

A Magic Castle

In 1840, James Dawson, a retired surgeon, and his wife left Liverpool to live in the Lake District. They must have been of a romantic disposition for they wanted to live in a castle and luckily for them, Mrs Dawson's fortune enabled them to buy land and build one with breathtaking views over Lake Windermere.
After the Dawsons died, the estate and castle were inherited by their nephew, Edward Rawnsley. Rawnsley was a cousin of the famous Canon Rawnsley who was one of the people instrumental in setting up the National Trust. The castle eventually ended up in the Trust's care and today it's a wonderful place to take a family. Even though no furniture was left behind by the previous owners, the Trust have used a connection with Beatrix Potter, who sometimes holidayed there, and the castle's  medieval architecture to create an inspiring environment, particularly for children, while their parents can enjoy the charming eccentricity of the place.


Saturday, 12 August 2017

A Dorset Walk

This month I walked part of  the Wessex Ridgeway in Dorset ending up in Lyme Regis. Of course, Dorset's main literary claim to fame is that it was the home county of Thomas Hardy (his study is preserved in the museum in Dorchester).
However the county also has associations with Jane Austen who visited Lyme and set some of her novel, Persuasion, there. The town retains its Regency charm and also has a garden dedicated to her memory.
On the same trip, avoiding the rain (a lot of it!) had the advantage of making me take shelter in the county museum in Dorchester. Dorset is rich in archeology and the museum has many finds from Roman times and earlier. The famous Jurassic coast has, over the years, yielded up a remarkable number of fossils including the skull of a pliosaur, a type of plesiosaurus with a massive head and particularly powerful jaws. Found in 2007 by an amateur fossil collector, it is now on display in the museum. The skull is well over two metres long and experts believe the whole dinosaur would have been at least 15 metres long. They estimate that its jaws would have been powerful enough to snap a small car in two. 
The wonderful Victorian hall in the Dorchester museum