Category Archives: writing

Writing and working

I’ve been feeling quite positive about my writing recently. It’s not that I feel I’ve produced wonderful quality work – far from it – but just that I have been producing anything at all. This last year has been for me, as I’m sure it’s been for so many, a challenge – in terms of finding head space and strong routines in which to write, as well as any external stimuli for creative flow. Head space was especially challenging.

Being a writer with a full time job can be quite tough at the best of times, which this hasn’t been. You have to focus at the end of the working day, or before the working day, but either way you end up tired. You have to fit the writing into your day in a way that is rewarding and productive. I have tried getting up early, or at least setting the alarm early, but I’m not a natural morning person and unless I can go somewhere silent and undisturbed to write (we don’t have the room for an office or writing room) then I’m likely to stay in bed. So I tend to write in the evenings instead, once everyone is in bed and there’s only so much I can do.

Working from home for the day job has further disrupted this routine, not because I’ve been working longer but because I need to do creative work in a different physical space to my day job. So the desk is out. I’ve also had to make sure I’m making the most of gaps in my day to change my focus and practice small wins. A lunchtime walk in the park, a ten minute journal session over a hot drink standing in the kitchen, small stints of writing in the evening when they’re all in bed. On Saturdays I have two hours to myself (which I will soon spend holed up in a coffee shop). And I’ve put social media limits in, just a comment here or there, an occasional photo, but that’s it.

In some ways, finding this routine has felt very much like starting from scratch. But it also feels like it’s working. I’ve submitted a few things – a competition here, a call for certain pieces there – and I’ve been journalling ideas and themes, mostly by hand. But it all feels hopeful, helpful. Ideas are fermenting, and coming out on the page.

Here are my tips for finding a writing routine around your day job and other responsibilities:

  • Find your routines and stick to them
  • Can you herald the start of your writing time with a ritual of some kind? A piece of music, lighting a candle, a brief walk? The body and brain start to associate this with a change in focus and can adjust quicker if this is incorporated into your routine
  • Short bursts of activity are better than nothing at all, and can still allow your brain to make connections and ideas in your down time
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t write every day. If you can’t, you can’t. Writing regularly is the thing.
  • Try to write somewhere different to where you work
  • Get some fresh air and exercise every day
  • Eat well
  • Make sure you have a notebook handy for when you stumble across that missing plot point while you’re doing something completely different from writing. I regularly figure out writing problems when brushing my teeth in the evenings and many a night ends with me sat at the top of the stairs scribbling it all down, soundtracked by deep breathing from both bedrooms.
  • Social media is not a writing companion. Put a little time aside to check in but that’s it. Or cut it out for a period altogether. Either way, switch it off.

Just doing it feels like a win for me right now. It’s been such a rough year and I was mentally yelling at myself for not producing much work, forgetting that I’ve been working really hard at the day job and home schooling and generally worrying about the impending death of all my nearest and dearest. Like the writing was the main issue.

None of the above are anything new or revelatory, I know. But it’s easy to see others being published and wonder what you’re doing wrong. Nothing. If you’re writing, that’s good. For some, that may be enough. Keep at it and be kind to yourself.

Soundtracking

How are you doing after the first week of lockdown easing? It’s been the Easter school holidays here and I’ve taken the week off work in order to be with my daughter E so I’m writing this sitting in the Market Square, waiting for her to come out of dancing class. It’s a warm day and the atmosphere in town is bright and cheerful. People are sitting at pavement tables, queueing for miles outside Primark and bustling about.

One of the things I’ve been conscious of in the last year is the lack of stimulation when it comes to writing. Others have spoken of a lack of focus during lockdown and that we need the interaction in order to write, keep the juices flowing. It’s strange, because there have been so many times in the last year where I’ve wanted a ‘Room of One’s Own’ to write in, to close the door and concentrate and yet, when it came to getting some work done once E was back in the school, I’ve not been able to focus in the way I would have hoped.

Sitting here, I can hear general chatter, skateboarders practising jumps and moves, the passing of trams and the cooing of horny pigeons. It provides a writing stimulation that simply hasn’t been there for so long.

I sat and wrote a tortured 1500 words this week while E did some baking in the kitchen. At times, there was a whole five minutes max between interruptions. In many ways, I really envy those people who tell you that you have to fit writing in to wherever you are, that they can grab five minutes at the kitchen table or wherever. In that time, if I can manage to remember what I’m trying to say I’m doing really well. At my best I can manage 2,000 words max in a good session but at the moment that seems a massive target. A silent sterile atmosphere is a struggle too. Maggie O’Farrell said on Desert Island Discs recently that she HAS to write in absolute silence and that even a machinery hum is too much. I couldn’t do that – I like the comforting companionship of a ticking clock at the very least.

Thank goodness then, for YouTubers and ASMR guys. My most productive periods come when I’m without interruptions but soundtracked by YouTube videos of coffee shop sounds. The Room of My Own needs to sound like a branch of Caffe Nero for it to have any effect on my concentration. Maybe you use something else: there are all kinds of white noise videos, rain falling or beach sounds. Back when I worked in an office, I often had my headphones on during the day because there were so many people nearby that I couldn’t concentrate with all the stimulation. Having just one podcast on in the background gave my brain a single thing to block out.

As we head into the latest attempt at a post-pandemic life, I need to work out how best to fit this into my writing routine. Or indeed adapt working from home and general home life to embrace a writing routine. Sometimes virtual writing retreats or sprints have helped me focus but so many of these seem to take place first thing in the morning, usually when I’m doing the school run. I may have to start setting my own time aside, headphones on, to pretend I’m back in the coffee shop once again, even if I’m sitting at the kitchen table.

I’d really like to hear how you write – do you write in silence? Has it been harder to write during lockdown?

Finding focus

How are you doing? It’s March already and I don’t know about you but this year feels utterly odd. Not wasted exactly, but time has a very different meaning these days.

My daughter has gone back to school today. She had that one day in January in school, but otherwise has been at home with me since 18 December. I’m sure many of you are in the same situation. It hasn’t been easy, in fact this lockdown has felt much harder for reasons I’ve not entirely been able to put my finger on. I remember in lockdown 1 getting up earlier to do yoga before the day began. This time round I’ve stayed in bed. I’ve not left the house as much. I’ve yelled at people and freaked out more.

Somewhere in there I’ve clearly considered that enough is enough. I bought a book, Growing Gills by Jessica Abel, in December. It’s for people who want to be creative but feel they are drowning in their day to day life. It was simultaneously perfect to look at during lockdown and also dreadful to consider during lockdown. Abel starts by getting you to make a time tracker so you can see how you use your time. And then use it better. Of course, I began the time tracker and a day later had to include home schooling in the tasks I tried to do daily. It was atypical of my usual day, but was also a clue to why I felt like I was drowning in everyday life.

I have been very lucky in having an only child in the house and one who has been diligent in schoolwork, and who also enjoys drawing and reading. She has allowed me to work with some degree of normality. But it has still been very difficult and I feel I’ve gained years of experience as a child psychologist as a result of these last few months.

And I’ve been lucky in that my day job allows me to work from home and my team and bosses have an understanding of working and home schooling. It’s good to remind yourself that you are privileged in many ways, but that mindset doesn’t always help you feel better. It’s ok to admit you’re struggling. Just because others might have it worse doesn’t invalidate your experience. But we make ourselves feel that way anyway.

Creatively, I have struggled. I have written things, mainly journal notes, stream of consciousness type dialogue pieces, or a children’s story we started together at Christmas. Nothing sustained, everything in bits. I have completed craft projects, following other people’s instructions so I don’t have to think too much but keep my hands busy. I have made good items. And I’ve managed to read a lot. I’ve not managed to sit through many TV programmes but books have worked for me, I think because I’ve needed to have quiet backgrounds when I’ve read which has helped my general wellbeing. In general though, I felt I was floundering.

So I decided to follow Abel’s advice. I worked through the book. It comes with a workbook to help support the process. And mostly the advice is sensible stuff. Do one thing at a time. Write down all your projects and ideas and prioritise them. Tidy up and sort stuff out.

I know, I know. It doesn’t sound revolutionary, does it? But sometimes you need reminding of things. You need a structure. And as it’s likely that I will be working at home for some time to come, I need to feel like I have control. So I’ve cleared things out. I have begun to finish online courses I’d signed up for. I’ve sorted my notebooks and desk. I’ve dusted things. Today I will have a sustained period of time alone to actually focus on my day job. Which is good and terrifying all at the same time. Good, because I can make a better concentrated fist of it and complete things better – meaning I don’t have to worry about them so much the rest of the time. And terrifying because I can’t remember now how I do focus on things. Why do you think I took on all those projects in the first place? To have something else to flit between.

This week is my transition and adjustment week. I’m hoping once I’ve got back into the swing of concentration and focus, of interrupted time, that I can start to plan. Set myself proper targets, word counts or chapters or a sustained project. I have a fresh planner waiting and piles of washi tape to help make it something I want to look at and work to.

Today though, I shall just be starting out. I have confidence in my daughter’s school, that they can help provide her with the atmosphere and support she has needed, that they have her best interests at heart. It doesn’t mean I can stop worrying altogether, just that I can share the burden wider and with professionals. And I have a to do list for work, to help me focus and cross off tasks at my day job.

If you, like me, are alone today and have sent your child to school then I wish you well. They will be ok, with time and love. They will catch up. They will adjust. You will have to remember who you are now you are you again and not teacher, parent, counsellor, entertainer and playmate. It’s ok to enjoy the silence. And it’s ok to learn how to focus again, slowly.

Twenty Four Stories

Five or six years ago I walked through Nottingham’s Old Market Square. It was near Christmas, dark overhead but the Christmas market was in full swing, including the annual ice rink. The scene gave me a ‘what if?’ moment and I turned it into a story.

I wrote and edited and wrote and tinkered, made it longer, cut it down and was finally happy enough to submit it. It didn’t get very far – it was too simple, not enough of a twist at the end, not dark enough for many magazines. I forgot all about it and moved on.

A year ago, we woke to the awful pictures of Grenfell Tower, the smoking black horror dominating the news and the skyline. And a little project was born. Watching the news were people who decided to help, who knew that the trauma experienced by residents of Grenfell and the local area would be incredibly difficult to recover from without support. A fundraising project could ensure that a trauma charity could come in and provide support to the families and help them process their experience.

24 stories book coverTwenty Four Stories is a book for Grenfell Tower – a story for every storey – funded by a crowd of generous souls, edited by Kathy Burke and published by Unbound. Twelve of the stories are by established writers, twelve of them are by us amateurs.

I saw a call for submissions on Twitter.

I dug my story out. I polished it and I submitted it. 500 other people did the same.

A year after Grenfell, our book will be published. Twenty-four stories of hope, unity, community and love, all of them chosen to be positive and uplifting. I’m so proud to be a part of this, so pleased that my little story is helping play its part. There is so much crap out there, so many horror stories, so many people willing to be negative or criticise or dismiss. Sometimes a small gesture, a story, a smile, a kind word is all that’s needed. That’s what this book is about.

All the profits from the book go to the Trauma Response Network to help their work supporting people with PTSD.

Twenty Four Stories is available to buy from all good retailers. It’s filled with fantastic writing and it looks brilliant. A top read and a good cause! Buy it. Play your small part.

 

 

Bringing back the bodies… *

I was delving into the BBC’s website the other day and came across one of my favourite authors, Barbara Trapido, on the Book Club programme. She and the audience were discussing The Travelling Hornplayer. Trapido has written seven novels and four of them are linked. By linked, I mean that characters return and live on in different stories. They’re not sequels exactly, or at least not in the standard way that we expect, if only because I’m not sure if Trapido envisioned writing them all like that when she started out. From the way she describes it on the programme, it sounds a more organic process, that by thinking about a situation she also considers “Who do we know that would do this?” and sometimes that answer is a character that already lives in her head, or on her pages.

I have a complicated relationship with sequels, in that I find most of them invariably spoil the original for me. Jo’s Boys and Little Men, for example, are awful, and EM Forster wrote a brief sequel to A Room With a View, included in my paperback version as an extra ‘treat’ for the reader (every reader except me that is.) Successful sequels, when done well, can bring more to the originals, can enhance and continue the characters and answer some of the readers’ questions. The best example of this I can think of are the sequels to Rebecca – Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill and Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman. They both continue the best aspects of the original while staying true to it (for example, neither of them name the main character, indeed I doubt any reader would find a name satisfactory).

Series are different, since they aren’t sequels in the true sense. But you can still find yourself disconcerted if the author does something unexpected. I still haven’t finished Michael Tolliver Lives just because I was so thrown by the sudden switch to the first person narrative after six books told in the third person.

Trapido’s approach is rather fun. Having just dug my copy of The Travelling Hornplayer out, I found a family tree and connections map that I must have drawn years ago when I first read the books.

2017-05-12-14-18-49.jpgIsn’t it sweet? But complicated and messy in a way that suggests that a) I’m rubbish at drawing family trees or b) Trapido ended up with a set of coincidences that are as messy as life itself.

With these interactions between books, Trapido says in Book Club that she was reprimanded and “not forgiven” by some readers who didn’t like the direction that character had taken. I do understand this. My favourite Trapido book is her debut Brother of the More Famous Jack, and I love the main character Katherine so much that I am disappointed by her overbearing smothering (yet completely understandable) mothering of her second child Stella, which has such damaging consequences later. All of this comes out in The Travelling Hornplayer where, it also transpires that Katherine’s husband Jonathan has been having affairs. Of course he has. I forgive Jonathan’s transgression because it’s in character but I have trouble reconciling myself to him and his family isolating Katherine – although she chooses to travel to Ireland with him at the end of BOTMFJ, she has had a shocking bereavement and a spell of mental illness and the last thing she needs is to be alone with a baby while he writes books and philanders. Her concentration on the baby is understandable but I wonder if she would have been like this had she had a closer physical network of family and friends nearby who could have helped and lessened the focus.

What makes people feel resentful about characters changing in this way is that when you read, you accompany people through their story and, in many cases, get to a happy ending.  A later volume means you’re not allowed to let them go on living happily ever after. As a reader, you’re powerless to stop the mistakes they make and this can be worse when you thought you got safely with them to the end of their first book.

As a writer though, there is an attraction to this approach. Getting to know a character can often mean that you think of them in certain situations, so why not put them through the wringer all over again? The convenience of having a ready-made philanderer on hand must have been helpful and gives you a chance to pop back and say hello to those you haven’t quite done with.

This makes it sound like the answer for a lazy writer and that’s not the case at all. Trapido’s books are intricate weavings of characters and situations, with literary references thrown into the mix. If you’ve not read her before, why not give her a try? You won’t regret it.

*with apologies to Hilary Mantel

Competition time! Win an author’s kit

I’m celebrating. And to have you join in my celebrations I’m giving away everything you need to be a writer. Everything, except the sheer bloody mindedness, which I’m afraid you’ll have to cultivate yourself.

Would you like to win: coffee, biscuits, writing maps, notebooks and pen? You would? Great, read on.

Your prizeYour ultimate writer’s kit includes:

Four Writing Maps! Containing prompts, illustrations and suggested reading on a theme, these pocket sized beauties are perfect for when you need a bit of inspiration. Each map has at least 12 prompts and these can be used anywhere, in groups or alone, and can give you an idea to transform your surroundings, observations and memories into stories. In your prize are: The Writing Over the Top Map, Writing with Fabulous Trees Map, Writing People Map and My Writing Life Map

Two pocket/ handbag sized lined notebooks, just perfect to carry around for when you need to jot something down

A Pilot G-Tec C4 pen, in a fetching coppery brown colour

A bag of freshly roasted coffee from Nottingham’s own Roasting House, to bring on that period of intense productivity we all need once in a while

A box of superior Elsa’s Story lemon butter cookies to munch while editing

How to enter

You have a number of different ways to enter the competition and each one will give you extra chances to win.

  1. Follow this blog and leave a comment below
  2. Follow my Facebook page and leave a greeting on my wall
  3. Follow me on Twitter and RT my pinned tweet for this competition

The competition will close on 31 March and the winner will be announced on 2 April.

*Open to UK and RoI residents only

On audiobooks

In a fit of enthusiasm, I told a work colleague last week that I was doing so well with my running that I would be working up to doing regular 10ks. (This is true, though I thought I’d give myself a few more weeks to make sure I’ve really nailed the 5k but still.)

Her advice was to download audiobooks to listen to while I run. Music will only get me so far, she advised. You need to get stuck into something to take your mind off the running and the boring bits.

I’m not good at audiobooks. Sometimes I listen to podcasts at work but that’s it. No stories. In my mind I think I equate them with radio drama which in general I dislike. But I can see her point and I thought I should probably try it out. But what to listen to? I don’t want to download something I already have in book form, much of which isn’t necessarily strong on plot. I also don’t want thrillers, mainly as I’m weedy and running alone while listening to creepy things will freak me out.

I’m a little wary of audiobooks also, as I run along the ring road which is pretty noisy with traffic. I may not hear very much – you don’t get that trouble with AC/DC. As a backup I’ve got the Hamilton soundtrack which combines story with song so I figured that might work for me.

But I’m open to audiobook suggestions so if anyone has anything they’d like to recommend please get in touch!

A Whitelaw Christmas Carol

December 1932

“Mum says don’t forget Christmas dinner,” said Daniel as he left The Whitelaw that afternoon, having safely delivered the account books. “Any time, she said, but we’ll probably eat about two or three-ish.”

“I already told her there was no need,” said Tip. “I’ll be perfectly fine by myself. I’m not a charity case.”

“She said you’d say that,” Daniel grinned. “I’m to tell you to not be silly, Ebenezer, we want to see you.” He did an impression of his mother as he did so, the tone stern but affectionate. He nodded at Tip as he went out the door and repeated, “Dinner at two,” as he went through it. Tip sat back at his desk and considered how much the boy resembled his father George, Tip’s business partner. He smiled and shook his head, returning to that evening’s performance.

Christmas Eve was always fun at a variety theatre. The atmosphere being festive anyway, the performers would rouse themselves at the prospect of an extra day off to pull something special out for the short time they had on stage. For many of the audience, this was the beginning of their seasonal celebrations, and they were ready to shout, laugh, howl or whatever the occasion demanded. Money may be short in these hard times but somehow this just made the wintry celebration more important. Performances had to be perfect. Lew, the stage manager, would manage – he always did – but Tip liked to be on hand, just in case.

A hectic night, full of laughter, applause and rushing about, and it was past midnight when Tip made his final round of the theatre, making sure as he always did that it was left ship shape. Folding back a corner of a loose poster, picking up a dropped ticket stub, needlessly rearranging something in a dressing room, it was part of his daily ritual. He left by the stage door, bidding a goodnight to the theatre’s mouser, Tilley.

It was a clear night, with a bite to the air. There would be a frost tomorrow. Across the city the bells that, at midnight, had rung in the special day had finished and churchgoers were all on their way home. Despite this, he met no one as he strolled through the dark streets.

On one dark corner, he heard a mewing noise. It sounded familiar and for a moment he thought maybe Tilley had followed him home. “Don’t be silly,” he said to himself and carried on but the noise came again, louder this time and with a piercing tone that made him realise it wasn’t a cat. He headed down the alleyway to see. Was there something at the end?

The nearby church struck one. As it did so, Tip saw the shape huddled in the corner. He reached a hand down to touch it.

A man had curled up against the wall, to find some shelter in the bitter air. He was wrapped in a black woollen hooded cloak and as Tip shook his shoulder, the man’s hood dropped back revealing his face. He was dead but in his arms was a tiny baby, an angelic mix of blonde curls and blue eyes. She looked up at him, as if expecting something.

“Bloody hell,” said Tip. “The ghosts of Christmas past and future, together.” He sighed and rubbed a weary hand over his eyes before he picked her up, checked her over and went to find a police station.

The policeman on the front desk didn’t seem surprised at Tip’s story.

“That’s the second this week,” he said. “Bitter cold it is, and with folk not having much, it’s not uncommon. Now I’ll have to get a few details and then I’ll let you get on your merry way this Christmas Eve. How did you find the gent?”

“I heard the baby crying and went to investigate. The man had already passed on,” said Tip.

“The gentleman was dead to begin with,” said the policeman winking at Tip. Tip rolled his eyes and inwardly cursed Dickens.

“What will happen to the girl?” he said.

“We’ll take her along to the orphanage in a bit,” said the policeman. “While we see if there’s any other kin.”

“No.”

“Sir?”

“Could I take her? Just for now? Those places are dreadful, no place for her,” he said. “Come on, constable, think what day it is. I’ll give you my address and,” he said thinking of Charlotte’s invitation, “I’ll be here tomorrow. We’ll take care of her.” He wrote the addresses down on a scrap of paper and held it out. The policeman hesitated.

“It’s not procedure…” he started to say but something stopped him going any further and he reached out for the paper. “Get on with you then,” he said. “Quickly.”

Tip took the girl and headed home to his tiny flat. As he walked in the door, the rashness of his decision struck him. An orphanage couldn’t be worse than this dingy hole he called home. But he looked at her and resolved to make the best of it. He lay her in a drawer from the chest that stood to one side of the room, with an old jumper as her mattress. Arms freed, he set about lighting the fire to banish the cold and damp from the place. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done this; he’d just have to hope the chimney wasn’t blocked. His usual routine was to come home from the theatre, grab a drink if he fancied one but many nights he simply fell into bed, washing and changing clothes the following morning before heading back into the theatre. The Whitelaw was more his home than here. Hell, even the café around the corner where he got his breakfast was more home than here.

He went into the kitchen and found some bread and cheese and a glass of wine for himself and then heated up some milk on the stove. Improvising, he dripped this into the baby’s mouth with a teaspoon, the process taking a while but she drank it down, all the while staring at him with her big blue eyes.

When she’d finished, he wrapped her up in her blanket and cuddled her for a while. She fell asleep emitting only occasional snores. At four o’clock, by the ding of his carriage clock, he placed her back down in the drawer, curled under a blanket on the sofa and watched the fire die down. His thoughts were of times past, absent friends and old lost love.

She woke him at seven precisely, the mewling noise the closest she got to crying. The fug of sleep lay on his eyes, and he couldn’t remember where he was or what he was or what that noise was but she was persistent, and she was joined by the Christmas bells outside.

“Good morning, little one,” said Tip, sounding merrier than he felt. And yet there was something about her presence that made his spirit cheer, even as he relit the fire and let the warmth spread through the small room.

He picked her up and prepared the milk as he had last night, taking her to the window to look at the festive day outside. Frost sparkled on the window, and had sprinkled the trees and fallen leaves with a sparkling dust that glittered in the morning sun.

“A beautiful day!” said Tip, turning to look at his rooms. “And a dismal room. We can’t spend Christmas here, you and I. Thank heavens for Charlotte.”

He wrapped her in the jumper she’d laid on all night, had a quick change himself and the two of them headed out of the door.

Tip stopped off to pick up some wine, mince pies and small gifts and with these tucked in a bag over one arm and the baby under the other, he hailed a cab to Dulwich. Ringing the doorbell at number 28 Woodwarde Road, he stood back and burst into song as the door opened.

“We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!”

Daniel stood behind the door, and smiled and beckoned them inside. Charlotte appeared in the hallway, wiping her hands on her apron. A not unpleasant bread-like smell filled the house, mixed faintly with the greenery hung in a wreath on the door.

“Tip, how lovely to see you!” She reached in for a hug and a kiss but stopped as she spotted what he was carrying. “Tip? Who’s this?”

“Temporary guest,” he said and began to explain the previous night. As he spoke Charlotte reached instinctively for the child, her face transformed from the swollen disfigured sight she had hidden from the world these last two years, and instead shone with joy at the child. Both Tip and George, her husband, who stood in the doorway to the living room, noted her brief return to the Charlotte of old.

“Oh Tip, how awful! Is she alright? Not hurt? But how have you been feeding her?”

“Teaspoon. She’s drunk enough. She seems absolutely fine, a lovely calm little thing.”

“Daniel, run next door and see if Mrs Barclay can spare a bottle for us. Tip, come through, sit down, you must be worn out. Can I get you anything?”

“I’m fine, thank you Charlotte.”

“Nonsense. A drink? Have you had breakfast? We’ve some sausage left over from ours. I can fry it up, make you a sandwich?”

“That would be lovely. But what I’d really like is a cup of tea.”

“I’ll get it,” said George. Charlotte was reluctant to put the baby down. She wasn’t too besotted to note Tip’s tiredness in sitting down on the sofa nor spot the dark circles beneath his eyes. But he was determined to be sociable and, once his breakfast was eaten, he and the boys sat and played games on the floor. Charlotte had fed the baby again with the bottle this time, bathed and changed her with the help of the kind lady next door who had provided some spare clothes and napkins. Now the child sat on the floor, watching and laughing at the men and boys who entertained her with their singing and nonsense.

“What do you think her name is?” asked Charlotte as they sat at lunch. The turkey was dry, the sprouts were soft and the potatoes were a little too well done, but if you covered it with enough gravy it was at least edible which wasn’t always the case with Charlotte’s cooking. The baby was asleep on the sofa.

“Now, don’t go down that path,” said George. “It will be harder for you to part with her if you start giving her names or imagining a fate.”

“I hadn’t…” Charlotte started to say when she was interrupted by the doorbell. George got up to answer it and found a rotund bearded policeman on the doorstep.

“Good afternoon sir,” he said with a beaming smile. “And a Merry Christmas to you! Are you Mr Harding by any chance?”

“I’m not,” said George. “But he’s through here. Come in, officer.” The policeman stepped through the door, bringing a burst of fresh crisp air to the house. George led him through to the living room and indicated the baby, still asleep on the sofa. “You’re here about her, I suppose?” he said.

“That’s right sir,” said the policeman. “I’m sorry to have interrupted your lunch ma’am,” he said to Charlotte.

“No matter,” she murmured. “Have you found her family?”

“We have yes. The gentleman you found her with last night was her father, I’m afraid to say. Her mother seems to have passed away, records suggest in childbirth, and the gentleman was taking her to his parents, who live in Buckinghamshire. He was having trouble making ends meet, having lost his job and couldn’t look after her very well. There’s no evidence to suggest any foul play, just a poor man and a cold night.”

Tip looked down at the child and remembered how the man’s arm was curled protectively around her, wrapped up in whatever he’d been able to find. The child was loved. He shook his head.

“What happens now?” he asked.

“The man’s parents are happy to take the child in,” said the policeman. “They’re travelling down to collect her, should be here later today. I’ve come to take her back with me so they can take her home.”

“What are their circumstances?” asked Charlotte. “Can we do anything to help?”

“They’re managing, respectable enough by all accounts,” said the policeman. “Just the son who’d fallen on hard times. Happens to many these days.”

“Well, could we send a gift?” Charlotte cast about for something to include with the baby. For a moment her eyes settled on the plate of mince pies on the table.

“Not anything you’ve cooked, Ma,” said Daniel.

“They’ve suffered enough,” joked George. He winked at his wife. “Sorry love.” She made a face in reply and moved to the fireplace instead, gathering down some of the greenery hanging there. With a few deft twists she made it into a bouquet and tied some bon bons from the tree onto the branches.

“Here,” she said, holding it out to the policeman, who was still beaming at them. “And would you like a mince pie, officer? They’re not as bad as you may have been led to suggest.”

“Thank you ma’am, that would be kind,” he replied and twinkled his thanks as he ate it down. Gathering the baby in one enormous hand, and the bouquet in the other he was about to make his way to the door when he turned. “Would you like to say your goodbyes?” he said, and there was something about his face which seemed older and more worn than when he’d walked inside earlier. The afternoon sky was darkening and the crisp day was fading.

Charlotte bent her head over the baby’s and kissed it. “Stay safe, little one,” she whispered. “Thank you for your visit.”

Tip was scribbling a note in his notebook and, when he was done, he ripped it out and tucked it into the baby’s jumper. “Keep this safe for her, when she’s grown,” he said to the policeman. The man nodded.

“Thank you for your help and cooperation, Mr Harding,” he said. “It was much appreciated, I’m sure. A merry Christmas to you all!” And with that, he and the baby faded into the night, leaving nothing behind them but the faint jingle of bells.

Tip and the family gathered at the front door to watch the departure and Tip felt Charlotte suppress a sob.

“That poor darling,” she said. “God bless her.”

It was left to Tip to provide the inevitable reply.

“God bless us, every one.”

A literary weekend

I’ve been trying to get to Haworth to visit the Charlotte Bronte exhibition all year. It finishes this month. I was going to go up on July but went to look after my mum after an op instead. Then I went to some workshops and events in Haworth in September but they overran and I got there too late. Finally the Mr said, “Book a hotel, we’ll go up for the weekend.” And so it came to pass that on the last Saturday of November I stood on the doorstep of Bronte Parsonage, excited and expectant, and heard the guide say “I’m afraid we’ve had a power cut and everything’s in darkness. We may have to close.” I explained that I was clearly destined never to see it and he let us in for free, alongside the lady behind us who had “come a long way” and then closed to everyone else.

Charlotte's writing desk
Charlotte’s writing desk

Once your eyes had adjusted to the light, it wasn’t actually too bad. We could still see the exhibitions – the tiny clothes, the tinier books, the miniscule writing – as well as each room, and the art and displays produced for Charlotte’s 200 anniversary. I feasted my eyes. We went backwards to the normal route round and so ended at the dining room where they wrote their books. By now, we were the last people in there and as we approached the room, the same guide appeared and told us they were going to do something even the guides hadn’t seen before. They opened the blinds in the dining room and revealed it by natural light. (Normally the blinds are down and it’s lit electronically.) It’s a charming room and I felt the same kind of frisson I had when I stood in the Motown studio that Marvin Gaye had used.

The shop where Branwell bought his opium
The shop where Branwell bought his opium

We had a lovely chat with the guide (after we’d all gone they were going to open a box of chocolates so he could have been excused for not talking) about the dreadful conditions of Haworth at the time the Brontes were living there – S was struck by the fact that 40% people never made it past their sixth year – and then the guide asked if E had been named after any of the Brontes. I felt terrible telling him she was named after an Austen character instead. “Ah, well it’s the next best thing,” he said breezily.

Haworth by fading Christmas light
Haworth by fading Christmas light

The church was closed when we emerged so no chance to visit their graves but we ambled through the town instead and pottered in the shops. There was a Victorian Christmas parade on, with carol singers, lights and a fairy scattering sparkly dust on the streets. It was all very jolly and didn’t feel too fake, considering most of the people there must have been visitors.

Proper Yorkshire pudding
Proper Yorkshire pudding

A stay at the Robin Hood Inn at Peckett Well, near Hebden Bridge for our evening meal and sleep. A lovely inn, really nice people but damn, that room was hot. E loves staying in hotels and was excited the whole weekend about it, waving goodbye to the building when we left. We travelled into Hebden Bridge and parked, deciding to clamber up the hill to visit Heptonstall. This was a recommendation from a Twitter friend and I didn’t know it was going to be such a steep hill, up cobbles covered with wet leaves. For some reason I thought Heptonstall would be a few houses but it was larger than expected, with two pubs and a Christmas craft fair. In days of yore it was a Cromwellian stronghold and saw off the Royalists in the Civil War but we were there because it’s the burial spot of Sylvia Plath.

The old yard has the higgledy piggledy charm of wonky stones sinking in towards each other, as well as the ruins of an older church to one side. I love a good graveyard anyway and we found many families with similar names (lots of Sutcliffes, and many women who spelled their name Susy. Why this should be, I don’t know.) Across the lane from the church is the new graveyard, where the plots are in straight lines and being slowly filled up with modern stones. It was less charming to look at but still very peaceful with lots of birdsong, a really lovely spot to spend eternity.

I first encountered Plath as a 13-year old with a male teacher who taught us her poetry for a short time. He described everything as the result of hysteria and terrible illness, never picking out the beauty or examining the female viewpoint, which as a teacher in a girls’ school was pretty unpardonable. As a result I never gave her a thought until I found The Bell Jar at the university book fair, devoured it, loved it and have treasured her ever since.

The quote is from the Bhagavad Gita
The quote is from the Bhagavad Gita

I found the grave and drew in to look at it. There were coins on the stone and at the foot of the grave, visitors had planted pens in the earth. I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by the sight of it, and wiped away a few tears before finding a few scattered oak leaves and arranged them.

We slid and slipped down the hill to lunch in Hebden Bridge before making our way home.

I hope E carries on enjoying reading. I hope she loves Jane Eyre. I hope she finds something important in The Bell Jar. I hope people continue to make little pilgrimages like this to celebrate our women writers.

Thank you, Haworth Parsonage, for letting me in.

52 dates for writers: a review

Part of the myth of writing is the amount of time spent in front of a screen. Or a notebook. Or however you do it. Time away from tapping away on that keyboard is time wasted, we think, and sit and try to get something, anything, down on the page.

But of course, it doesn’t really work like that. Interviews with well known writers see them discussing the habits that take them away from actually getting something down – running, walking the dog, baking and so on. Perhaps for those of us writing between working, commuting, looking after the family and so on, doing anything other than sitting at your desk seems like a luxury – or a procrastination technique.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Claire Wingfield’s book 52 Dates for Writers gives you 52 chances to do something that will help develop your writing, explore your characters, find a setting, and generally have a bit of fun with your writing, as well as getting you up and about – literally or figuratively.

Divided into 12 chapters, each covering aspects such as mastering point of view, problem-solving, and timelines, the suggestions ask you to go out and do something different that can then be applied to your writing – a work in progress or maybe something new. While you may not think these themes are new – and you’d be right – the get up and go aspect renders them fresh. Examples of activities include: ride a tandem, go geocaching, take tour of your hometown, and go house hunting. Each subject suggests ways in which you can use the new experience, and how you can shape your thinking or try out a new idea on your WiP.

I take any ideas and assistance I can get and the ideas here were fun and thought provoking. So here’s my tip – get up off your bum and get writing!