In a Spin with Adverbs, Idioms and Procrastinations

This week I have discovered that it is not only possible to waste time counting how many words you have, or perhaps that should be have not, written; there is a refinement to this. There are some nifty websites that will tell you how many unique words you have used. In other words (there’s a pun in there somewhere) how many of your words are different from any other. It also counts the number of times you have used a particular word. So, I have already used ‘words’ four times in this post, not that I needed a website to tell me that. So now I know that my 75,394 words contain 9273 different ones and that 7% of my book is ‘the’ – only 1563 ‘and’s though but I do have a weird writing style that tends to dispense with ‘and’.

I have also been doing some market research aka wasting time on writers’ forums (fora ?). This is encouraging and depressing in equal measure. Having spent my infant years in a decidedly antiquated educational establishment, the words ‘lots’, ‘nice’ and ‘got’ were frowned upon. Now it seems that ‘just’ and ‘seems’ are equally taboo. Cue a swift search through my manuscript to identify these gremlins and decide if they need an equally swift eradication. Then there are adverbs, the gratuitous use of which is high up there on the list of cardinal sins. Now, I am a great fan of the adverb; blame the antiquated educational establishment. Don’t get me wrong, I get the ‘lazy verb’ school of thought. Yes, it is preferably to write ‘he hurried’, rather than ‘he walked quickly’ but there are cases when the more descriptive verb is not enough. What is wrong with ‘he hurried anxiously’? (Not the best example perhaps but give me a break, it’s 6am). Again, I can see that the anxiety can and in many cases should, be conveyed by the context but I do believe adverbs have their role. If you don’t like adverbs please don’t read my work in progress, it won’t be for you.

As part of my one woman mission to eradicate anachronisms (now their use really is a cardinal sin) I have been checking on my use of idiom. Are the phrases I’ve used, often through the mouths of my characters, appropriate to the period I am writing about? It turns out they are and for example, I can tell you that the expression ‘good riddance’ was used in the late eighteenth century and to ‘lord it over’ someone is fine for the late sixteenth century onwards.

Spinning WheelJust as I thought my confidence in my own ability could not get any lower, I go spinning. This is not the extreme gym activity, that really would be depressing but the crafting variety. I manage a business called Swords and Spindles for heaven’s sake (sorry can’t find a date for that one). I live in the seventeenth century. I need to be able to spin. So, having been given a spinning wheel for Christmas, off I go to an unbelievably friendly and helpful local group to learn how to use it. I should at this point explain that the kind of co-ordination that spinning requires, is not really my thing. I can’t even control an electric sewing machine. Then there is the perennial problem with my feet, which are square. This means my shoes are at least two sizes larger than my foot. Add to this my double-jointed toes and the point at which I have any control over what I am pressing on, is relegated to half way down my shoe. This makes controlling the pedal difficult. If you’ve tried patting your head and rubbing your stomach, spinning is more complicated. You have two hands and one leg all doing different things at the same time. Well, I don’t but that’s the principle. My very patient instructor made minor adjustments to my wheel and coped admirably with my incompetence. Despite going too fast, serious over-spinning and trouble with my backward drawing, I did manage to complete a whole bobbin of what is kindly described as ‘designer’ single ply. For ‘designer’ read full of lumps. I even started a second bobbin and did seem to actually be sort of getting the hang of it (mid nineteenth century) a bit by that point. I was already suffering from wool carders’ arms in preparation for the spinning. It is incredibly hard work, now I have added ‘spinners’ back’. Appropriate then that I am off to deliver a talk on ‘occupational hazards’ tonight.

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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!

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.

Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 10 – for those with an interest in agriculture

Henry Stephens's Book of the Farm: concise and revised edition by [Langlands, Alex]This one is for all those family historians with agricultural labouring ancestors and for writers of historical fiction who are using a nineteenth century rural setting. The lavish production and copious illustrations also make it ideal for history lovers in general to browse. Henry Stephens’ Book of the Farm, was first published as a guide to mixed farming in the 1840s. It became the handbook used by the historical interpreters working on BBC TV’s Victorian Farm (DVDs of this excellent series are available). One of the presenters, Alex Langlands, had an abridged version of Stephens’ work reprinted to accompany the TV series. He included an introduction and many coloured illustrations that I assume were not in the original. There are also copious line drawings, which may have been part of Stephens’ work. If you require regional farming specifics, you will need to look beyond this book but here is a wonderful general introduction, written at the dawning of the age of agricultural mechanisation. You will find a season by season account of the many and varied duties on a farm. You can learn how swine were fattened, driven and slaughtered and there are clear instructions for forming a dunghill (always useful). There are sections on training sheep dogs, sowing flax and hemp and making butter. Amazon have a ‘look inside’ feature, so you can see the full extent of the contents. A few short chapters in to this lovely book and you will be treading in the footsteps of your farming ancestors – but beware of the dunghills.

Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 1 and a bit about Medical Procedures

It is December, my descendants have snow, so it must be time for something seasonal. Last year I shared some of my favourite historical novels in my blog ‘advent calendar’; this year it is the turn of non-fiction. Family historians, historical novelists and history fans in general need to immerse themselves in the past; these are books that help you to do just that. For the next twenty four days I will share with you a book that has helped me to evoke a past era. I have just pulled volumes from my bookshelves, so the historical periods will be varied and the choices eclectic. Some of the posts will be very brief and they will be interspersed with other randomness but here goes.

Food In England: A complete guide to the food that makes us who we are by [Hartley, Dorothy]Today’s offering is Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England: a complete guide to the food that makes us who we are. The book was first published in 1954 but unless you are interested in food history in the later twentieth century, this does not matter. The fact that it is still in print underlines the value of Hartley’s work. If you want to know what we used to eat and how it would have been cooked here is a substantial 676 page volume that will come to your aid. There is a chronological thread throughout the book, beginning with the contribution of the Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans to our diet. There are line drawings to illustrate, amongst other things, cooking methods, breeds of sheep and techniques, such as scalding a pig. In addition there are plates showing kitchens an dining through the ages. There are also chapters on various groups of ingredients, including meat, vegetables, bread, dairy produce and drink. It is no secret that my culinary ‘skills’ are minimal and that I have no interest whatsoever in food preparation in the present. I do however find historic cookery fascinating. So although this is a book that the cooks amongst you will enjoy, it is also valuable if you want to know what your ancestors ate and how they would have prepared it. If you are an historical fiction writer and you want to make sure that the characters in your novel aren’t eating an anachronistic meal or if you are staging an event that involves period food, this book is highly recommended.

In other seasonal news, I thought that I would relate the saga of the flu injection. I am officially too young for this – just thought I’d make that point – but various health weirdnesses mean that I get invited by a disembodied, automated voice to have a needle jabbed in my arm. In fact no one seems to have told said automaton that I have actually now had my injection, as she is still ringing me up at various intervals. I digress. My appointment is for 10.41. I turn up at 10.30 to be told that the staff are about to have their coffee break but I can be booked in. ‘Booking in’ involves a tick being put against my name and being handed a piece of paper listing potential nastinesses associated with said injection. I sit down and the receptionist disappears for her caffine fix. A man comes to sit in her place. I have no idea of his rank but clearly most things are above his pay grade. He spends the next fifteen minutes repeating 30-40 times ‘I can’t book you in please take a seat and wait. The receptionist will be back in 15, 14, 13 (whatever) minutes. What is so difficult about ticking a name and handing over a piece of paper? Is the receptionist’s union going to object if someone usurps her role? It can’t be a data protection thing because everyone is here for a flu injection and they all go to reception and give the chap their name. Why have a person there at all? Why not just write a notice? During the next fifteen minutes forty people enter the surgery and no one leaves. The patients’ nearest and dearest, sat in cars outside, must be wondering if we are all being swallowed up in some vaccinatory black hole. I begin to feel quite sorry for the guy on the front desk. In the end the ‘audience’ are giggling hysterically as he repeats his message, using exactly the same words and intonation, for the umpteenth time. The joys of getting old.

Daisies, Blue Poppies and other Flights of Floral Fancy

I am excited to announce that I will be working with Blue Poppy Publishing to bring #Daisy to a discerning audience. Who am I kidding? There’s no need to be discerning. Blue Poppy focuses on local authors and was founded by Ollie Tooley who was one of the historical novelists that I chose for my advent calendar last year. Do check out the Blue Poppy website and like their Facebook page. Publication date is set for November 2018. That may seem like a long way off – please tell me it is a long way off – but it means that I have a deadline that is considerably before that. I am going to need to up my production rate.

I have finished off a chapter this weekend. It had stalled because I was unable to identify which Bideford house one of my main characters worked in in the 1890s. It’s a novel, does it matter? Ah but it mattered to me. I have finally worked it out so can wax lyrical about the cream bricks and arched windows phew. You learn so much researching historical novels. I now know when telegraph boys started using bicycles and what the stair well in front of the servants’ door is called. I knew that anyway but had a crisis of confidence and needed to convince myself. A quick speed read of 96 pages of my battered copy of Upstairs Downstairs (yes they were books before it was a 1970s TV series) and I was vindicated – despite a certain amount of scepticism from a fisherman of my acquaintance.

Also on this weekend’s agenda, a research report for a client. To be honest, genealogical research for others is a very small part of what I do nowadays but this has been a fascinating case. There are reputed murders (several), actual murders (one), separations, confusing stage names and the longest service record I have ever seen (61 pages), complete with the soldier’s temperature chart.

DSCF3888Then it was the village garden and produce show. I always try to get involved in community events. The cooking classes were clearly a non-starter. I hadn’t had time to create something crafty. As my garden is a wasteland, being as it is mid re-vamp, plant and vegetable classes were challenging. Fortunately I could fall back on my herb garden, which was made-over last year. So second prize for a posy of herbs, or Tuzzy-Muzzy as we say, I’ll take that. I am sure I should be Daisy writing rather than blog writing so that’s it for today. I wonder if I can get another chapter finished amongst two talks to present in two days and the return of the job we must not mention.