More Writing – by me and by Others

My students on the Pharos Writing and Telling your Family History online course have begun submitting their assignments this week. The option to request feedback on a portion of their story is a new initiative and about half the students on the course took this up. It is a real pleasure to read these and to feel that I have had a very small part in their creation. Some of them are even signing up to do the course again, to motivate them for chapter two! It you want to join the party, there are one or two spaces left on the presentation of this course that starts in three weeks. Definite warm fuzzy feeling time and some great comments on the course to add to my testimonials page. Not that anyone ever reads my testimonials page and understandably so. After all, I could have made them all up. I haven’t, I hasten to add but I do wonder sometimes why I have that particular page lurking unread on my website. I suppose it does serve a purpose, in that I could look at it in moments of self-doubt and be reassured that people do enjoy and benefit from what I do. I don’t actually do this but the option is there!

EbeneezerOn the subject of self-doubt, as Barefoot on the Cobbles nears completion (it does, really), I am consumed with fears that everyone will hate it. I never had this crisis of confidence with my non-fiction books. Maybe it is because fiction is somehow much more personal and although none of the characters are based on me, I have invested myself in their emotions and shared their anguish for the last couple of years. It isn’t all anguish of course, although I have to say that their tragedies do outweigh their joys.

Today I have one fewer chapter left to complete than yesterday. This is not because I had some turbo burst of creativity and wrote 5000-6000 perfect words yesterday. Instead, I looked again at my planned structure and decided to axe the proposed chapter one, which weirdly I hadn’t yet written. If you’d asked me before I started this fiction journey, I would never have believed that I wouldn’t begin at the beginning and finish at the end. Anyway, the realisation that I had very little to say in the proposed first chapter, means the old chapter two is now chapter one – I hope you are following this. There is a prologue, which at one point was itself chapter one but ignore that added complication. The new arrangement means that I need to ensure that the old chapter two is robust enough to be the first full chapter. I think it is, I hope it is. I just need to run the principle by a few people. Poor Martha, who is reading it all, in the wrong order, has been sent three totally different chapter 11s during the course of her proof reading marathon. She is an ace proof reader, not just spotting errant semi-colons (oh yes, along with the plethora of adjectives and adverbs it does have that endangered piece of punctuation) but telling me that I have used a particular phrase before, often in a chapter she read six months previously; she is rarely wrong. She claims she is looking forward to starting at the prologue and reading through to the epilogue but I wouldn’t blame her if she never wanted to read any of it ever again.

So, now I have a choice of chapters 3, 4 and 12 left to work on, although by the time I’ve finished with them they could have different numbers altogether!

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Daisy Writing, Holding Forth to Enraptured Audiences and the Sorry Saga of my Dispute with a Well Known Electrical Goods Retailer

First let’s tackle the enraptured audiences, not literally of course, that would be counter-productive. I can’t really vouch for the ‘enraptured’ bit but I have been hither and yon regaling unsuspecting history groups, U3As and the like, with tales of the past. Great fun as ever, even if ridiculously horrendous traffic did mean that we were almost late for one booking. ‘Almost late’, in my world, means we weren’t there half an hour before the start time!

Upton RoadBarefoot on the Cobbles is now a few thousand words longer. Just as well really as my deadline looms ever closer. Since my field trip, aka writer’s retreat, to the soft south, I have been leading my heroine round the streets of Torquay. There is no way that I would have been able to write this convincingly without walking in her footsteps. I have already made good progress today. It was one of those great days when you wake up at 5.00am (normal sort of time for me) with fully formed sentences rushing round your head There’s only one thing to do, abandon all thoughts of granola and yoghurt until you have put fingers to keyboard and captured the words before they drift in to oblivion never to be retrieved. It isn’t just writing of course, or the geographical verisimilitude (yep, that dictionary was very tasty thanks), I am obsessive about portraying the historical era accurately. So, by 8am this morning, I had discovered that my heroine would not have purchased a powder compact in 1918, nor would she have bought it in Woolworths, at least not in the town I am writing about. All this to get one sentence historically correct! I have however found a suitable contemporaneous department store but I do have to come up with an alternative for the compact.

Then the sad saga of my run in with the well known electrical goods chain near me. Some of you have been following my social media rants on this one. I once taught GCSE law (ok it was sort of by mistake but I did) I can quote consumer rights acts. Said rants, along the lines of, ‘if not illegal, your policy is most certainly not ethical and to the total detriment of your customers’ and ‘deplorably poor customer non-service’, did bring responses but not resolutions. In short (and believe me you don’t want the full version) here is the sorry tale. An item that I paid for in store on Boxing Day got lost between their warehouse and their store, where it was supposed to be available for me to collect from 3 January. 9 January I send my personal shopper to collect said item. He was told it had been delayed, I would get an email. Slightly irritated by the fruitless 32 mile round trip, I waited until 18 January and having heard nothing, attempted to telephone the store. If you are ever similarly tempted, make sure you have a good half hour to spare and that is just the time it takes to get a real person. ‘Can I have the direct number for the store?’ I ask. Oooooh no, the temerity of my innocent question, these are closely guarded secrets, never to be divulged to mere customers. I am put through to the store who will investigate and ring me back – so far so good. They even do ring back and Barry (I think it is was Barry) says the item has been mislaid but if I don’t mind having a different colour (I don’t) they can replace it. Although I ordered it in store it counts as an online order raised by them on my behalf. ‘All’ I have to do is ring the number I first thought of, listen to how important my call is to them (but not important enough for them to answer) for another half hour and change the order. Oh and they might try and charge me another £50 because the price has gone up now the sale is over. Like **** they won’t thinks I.

After prolonged effort to speak to a real person, drawn out by the fact that the automated system put me through to the wrong department (I definitely pressed the right number) meaning that I had to start all over again, I ask to change my order. Ah no. This is not possible. I have to wait until the mystery of the missing item has been investigated before they can replace or refund. I could write pages about this conversation, which was somewhat circular and less than amicable in nature but I will summarise. The call handler was obdurate. I was furious. He was adamant that ‘their policy’ would leave me hamstrung until their investigation was complete. I ask to speak to someone above his pay grade. Allegedly there is no one. Clearly the MD of a major retailer has nothing better to do than answer phone calls. I ask to whom I should make a formal complaint. He’s the man apparently – what a multi-tasker, give that man an employee of the year award. ‘Right,’ say I, ‘I wish to make a formal complaint.’ Ah no, I can’t do that until the magic week of investigation is up. This ‘investigation’ is clearly something big, are Interpol involved I wonder?

I scrape myself off the ceiling and take to social media. They ‘understand my frustration’. Believe me they really don’t but they toe the party like, ‘it is our policy not to refund or replace until we have investigated blah de blah.’ 20 January dawns, the sacred week is up. I can’t bear the thought of more pressing this that and the other, so I type away to the jolly types who have been responding on social media. Apparently now it takes a fortnight for these investigations. My reactions are unprintable. Finally, yesterday I get an email to say that ‘as your item is out of stock we will be posting you a gift card within the next 3-5 days.’ Another saga, which I don’t have the energy to relate but they are within their rights to refund in the form of a gift card. Due to circumstance beyond my control, that was how I was obliged to pay in the first place. Not a single word of an apology for their total incompetence, or my inconvenience. If you wish to avoid patronising this store and believe me you need to steer clear of it like the proverbial Black Death, think popular Indian dish and you have it in one. I was going to say rant really over but of course I haven’t actually got the gift card yet!

Coincidences, Conclusions and Car Parks

dscf3202This retreating writers thing seems to be a good idea. At 5am on day one I wrote a fair draft of the end of Barefoot. Although my slightly weird body clock does not regard 5am as being ridiculously early, I am not often in full writer’s flow at that hour. The words came, they needed to be captured before they evaporated. I began by scribbling on the margin of the handy TV paper until the pen ran out, then I upgraded to pencil and paper. Perhaps I should keep the TV paper; if only anyone could actually read what I wrote on the pale parts of the page, nestled between Coronation Street and the Jeremy Kyle Show, it could be worth a fortune when Barefoot turns out to be a best seller. I can but dream. This sleep inspired ending, is not the last part of the final chapter that I have been struggling with, that remains an ominous blank page but the epilogue is on its way to being done. Of course, it will still be pulled apart and put back together again, especially when I let it loose on readers but I am pleased with my initial efforts.

Before all this muse striking lark, having established ourselves on our caravan site, we decided to drive into Torquay in the hope of buying ancient persons’ coach cards from the Tourist Information Centre here, our local one having been closed. I suppose alarm bells should have rung when I could not find the opening times anywhere online. I did establish that they were closed at weekends, hence not waiting until the following day. We paid a small fortune to purchase a plastic disc that enabled us to park. We walked to the tourist information shop. It was closed, had we arrived too late in the day? It turns out we were several months too late and the office does not reopen until February! To be honest, having been there, I can understand why the powers that be subscribe to the theory that there will be few tourists in a freezing January Torquay but I resented the wasted couple of hours and the significant investment (well, £1.50) in unnecessary parking.

As we were in south Devon, we decided to take the opportunity to support the south Devon group of Devon Family History Society. Having looked at the online programme, we were expecting a talk on the territorial army. I was surprised and delighted to find that the talk was actually about Newton Abbot workhouse and I had been looking at last year’s programme by mistake. One of my reasons for visiting the south was to investigate Daisy’s time in this very workhouse; what a coincidence, or is it something more?

Now to type up my epilogue while I can still decipher it.

Madness, Mania and Melancholia: the mental health of our ancestors

The fact that I have begun the new year researching madness says it all really. One of my new presentations for 2018 is about the mental ill-health of our ancestors; it will have its first outing next month. By co-incidence I was invited recently to submit an article on the same topic for the journal of The International Society for British Genealogy and Family History. I have really enjoyed researching this important topic, if ‘enjoyed’ is the right word. I did touch on mental illness in my booklet ’Til Death Us Do Part: causes of death 1300-1948 and it also gets a mention in my Pharos online course In Sickness and in Death – researching the ill-health and death of your ancestors but preparing the talk and article has given me the scope to investigate in more detail. As usual, what interests me most is people’s behaviour, both the reactions at the time and how we view our mentally ill ancestors now.

So what else has been happening since the season of goodwill and family gatherings was relegated to the attic for another eleven months? Pretty much it has all been about Daisy and of course mental illness threads its way through the pages of her story too.  This week has seen me focus on endings and beginnings in respect of Barefoot. I have been struggling with the final chapter. Sadly this is not the final chapter in the sense that it will be the last I write but it will be the end of the book, which is probably why I am finding finishing it so difficult. I also sent the prologue out to my lovely writers’ group and a couple of other beta readers. Well there was some good news, overall the reaction was favourable and they felt that they wanted to read more. That’s a relief. The downside is that they all suggested different minor ‘tweaks’. In each case, I can see the points that they are being made but if I take them all on board, it will be unrecognisable as the passage that I originally wrote. I am putting this passage away for a while and will come back to deciding how to deal with it later.

Torquay Town Hall HospitalShortly, I am off for what I am laughingly calling a ‘writer’s retreat’ aka three days in a caravan in the soft south of the county. Part of Daisy’s story takes place in Torquay, which is not a town I know very well, hence the need for a field visit. I spent yesterday researching the back stories of some of the minor characters she encounters during this part of her life and needless to say, found others I would like to include. A newspaper article mentioned that Daisy shared a house with six others whilst in Torquay. The identity of three of these was obvious. I had the task of pinpointing plausible candidates for the other three. I am happy to report that I have positively identified one and have come up with two others who are consistent with the information I have. Google earth suggests that the house they lived in was a three bedroom Victorian terrace and I cannot work out who might realistically have shared a bedroom with whom but perhaps, when I see the property in reality, it may look larger. A servants’ attic would be handy! I’ve also immersed myself in stories of VAD nurses and located routes I need to retrace. Hopefully this visit will enable me to write two middle chapters of the book then I really am on the home straight – yippee!

PS – three book reviews posted so far this year – get reviewing folks – help an author.