Mud, Glorious Mud: Worcestershire, Walking & Writers

courtesy of

This morning we finally decided to go and walk Bonnie somewhere that was recommended to us about …erm.. 3 years ago: Elmley Castle. Isn’t that a cool name for a place?

It’s just over the border in Worcestershire, about 20 minutes’ drive away. It’s a beautiful village, sadly without a castle these days but – even better – there’s a dog-friendly pub with a roaring log fire: the Queen Elizabeth Inn (named after Bess herself, who stayed in the village in 1575).

The walk (3 miles) would, I’m sure, have been lovely (apparently there are fabulous views of the Cotswold Hills) but it was not only misty (OK then, foggy. Is it autumn already?), so we couldn’t see more than about twenty feet ahead but then it started to rain and, worst of all: there was MUD everywhere! Really thick, gooey, pull-your-wellies-off mud.

We managed not to fall over in it but we were completely covered and splattered and the dog had to be dunked in the stream before we dared venture in a ‘pub-wise’ direction.

Yuck. So much for that great idea. We will go back one day and do the walk again but only once the whole place has dried out!

Tomorrow I am off to Worcestershire again – to Evesham this time – to a free event at Evesham library (11am, if you’re interested) when four writers – Juliet Bell, Ali Bacon and Debbie Young – will be talking about their books and the writing life.

Yes, four writers – you read that correctly. ‘Juliet Bell’ is actually the pseudonym of Alison May and Janet Gover, who write collaboratively under that name. Here’s an interview with them on the RNA website.

Their first joint novel – The Heights – (a modern retelling of Wuthering Heights, set in the 1980s) was published earlier this year and is definitely on my ‘to read’ list and they’re currently beavering away on their second ‘retelling of a classic’ (not sure if I’m allowed to tell you what that is but there was a clue on Twitter today…’someone’s in the attic…’).

I am fascinated by the process of writing with another person. I’ve blogged about it before – here – I’m dying to find out how they work together (and I will report back after tomorrow!)

But it’s not all about Juliet Bell! The other writers sound fascinating too. In addition to writing the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Debbie Young set up the Hawksbury Upton Literature Festival in the Cotswolds (it’s on 21st April 2018 this year and it’s free to attend!).

And Ali Bacon’s not only written two very well-received novels: another of her claims to fame is that she won last year’s Evesham Festival of Words short story competition – here she is, receiving her prize from Prue Leith, no less (Prue is the one in banana yellow).

Hmm, I think I’m going to have to raid my piggy bank before I go to Evesham tomorrow. So many books, so little time…..

PS: If this is all sounding a bit ‘Midlands-centric’ and you live further South (Kent?) then you might be interested in the Kent Festival of Writing, which is THIS SATURDAY, 14th April! Have a look here.

Posted in Bonnie, Books, Cotswolds, Events, Novels, West Midlands | Tagged | 6 Comments

The First Signs of Spring…

It’s got warmer all of a sudden, don’t you think?

And, in my garden, for the last two days, we’ve heard the first sounds of spring: the POP, POP, ARRRGGH! of this season’s first games of table tennis.

OH has got golfer’s elbow (I’m saying nothing), so has got to play left-handed and I’m thrashing him in every game. Am enjoying it while it lasts!

Flash Fiction Competition

If flash fiction (in this case, up to 300 words) is your thing, then take a look at the Worcestershire Litfest’s Flash Fiction Competition. You’ve got until 27th April to get your entries in and it’s £10 for 3 entries or £4 each if you want to send one or two (maximum of 3 entries per person).

Why Blog?

This blog and little old me got a mention in an article by Simon Whaley in this month’s Writing magazine, as a result of which, I’ve got a new follower, Georgie, who lives on a yacht, sailing around the Greek islands (it’s a tough job, and all that…) and blogs here.

She’s asked me about blogging (‘Is it a legitimate form of writing?’) and admits to spending a lot of time either reading other people’s blogs or writing her own, to the extent that blogging is ‘taking over’ her day (and, I suspect, stopping her writing more travel articles, with which she seems to be having some success!).

I’ve come over all ‘agony aunt’ and here is my advice to Georgie and to anyone else finding themselves in the same boat… (if you’ll excuse the pun)

1. It’s all too easy to spend hours writing blog posts. When I first started my blog, I would sometimes write 3 blog posts a week! Eek! How did I manage that? Now I try to blog once a week (but sometimes even that slips). Most blog followers don’t expect a post every few days but if you leave it much longer than a fortnight between posts, they might start to lose interest.

2. Reading other people’s blogs and commenting also takes time. I’d say, limit yourself to, say 10 blogs that you really want to follow and allow yourself to read them once a week – and write a comment – spending no more than an hour or two and then, that’s it – no more dipping in! Most people don’t blog more than once a week, so you won’t be missing anything.

But it’s good to comment! Not least, because it’s encouraging for the bloggger, to have some response to his/her posts. If no-one interacts, there’s actually not much point in blogging. I know lots of people read blogs and never comment, even if they’ve enjoyed what they’ve read and that’s a bit like having a great meal and not leaving a tip. (Just saying…)

3. At the end of the day, unless you’re one of those lucky/talented people whose blogs get turned into books, like Judith O’Reilly (Wife in the North) or Julie Powell, whose blog about trying to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook, became the book ‘Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen’ and then a blockbuster film (‘Julie & Julia’), then your blog is mostly for your own edification and pleasure, so you need to monitor how much time you give it.

Some might argue that it’s a ‘showcase’ for your writing and that if you eventually publish a book, then you already have something of a writer’s platform but really..? Really, most blogs are just a bit of fun.

You can write and publish anything on a blog, which is part of the enjoyment, of course but there’s no selection process, no editor to impress, no money (mostly) to be earned. Which is probably why most blogs don’t last very long…!

So, blog away, by all means and enjoy the process. But think carefully about whether you want to spend most of your valuable time on the blog, or whether it should really take second place to other writing projects….

Posted in Blogging, Competitions, Finding Time To Write | 27 Comments

Caravans & Cubicles: In Which I Shamelessly ‘Ear-wig’

I read something the other day that I’d never really thought about before: we all spend most of the time trying to hide how we’re really feeling.

It’s so true!

Think about it. Even when you’re with your nearest and dearest, you do it. (Otherwise, we’d all be saying things like, “Do we have to? Your mother/sister/auntie Doreen bores me to death!” or “Oh, are you back already?”).

When we’re writing dialogue, it’s worth remembering that most people don’t say what they’re really thinking, most of the time.

Let me give you an example:

I was at the swimming pool earlier this week and I deliberately chose a changing cubicle next to a chatty woman (whom I shall call ‘Linda’*) because I thought I might overhear something interesting.

She was talking to another woman – her friend, presumably, whom I shall call ‘Daphne’* – in the next cubicle along and the conversation went like this:

Daphne: Linda? Er… just out of interest, do you rent out your caravan?

Linda: (coldly) Yes, we do.

Daphne: Oh, right. (Pause) Erm… and do you still go to it yourself?

Linda: Well, we didn’t go much last year because Mike was ill and we haven’t been this year yet because there’s so much else to do. We’re renovating the cottage in Cornwall and we’re going on a cruise in April.

Daphne: Oh, really? Lovely! Where are you going?

There then ensued a long and complicated tale of where Linda and Mike were going on their cruise (the Med, incase you’re interested), the terrible problems they’d had getting insurance cover, because Mike had been ill.. and so on.

Never again (or at least, not in the time it took me to get dressed and pack my stuff away), was The Caravan mentioned but it was perfectly clear to me that a) Daphne was interested in going to the caravan and b) Linda had no intention of letting her.

Why didn’t Linda just say ‘No, we don’t rent it out’? Or ‘We do rent it out but only to family.’? Because, if she’d been happy to rent the caravan to Daphne, surely she’d have said,”Yes, we do! Are you interested?” So, she just pretended not to get the hint. And, clearly, Daphne had got the message that this wasn’t something to be pursued, so had happily engaged in the change of subject (when what she really wanted to say was probably, “Would you rent your caravan to me?” or – more confrontationally – “Is my money not good enough for you?!”).

When we’re writing dialogue, what’s NOT said is as important as what is said.

I am still worrying about Daphne. Maybe she’s a single mum and a trip to a caravan – particularly if she thought she’d be getting ‘mates’ rates’ – is all she can afford.

LINDA – (who’s not actually called Linda) – if you’re reading this and you recognise yourself, don’t be a meanie! (After all, you’ve got your cruise and your cottage in Cornwall! How many holidays does one person need?). LET DAPHNE GO TO THE CARAVAN!

(But, on the other hand, perhaps someone else rented their caravan to Daphne one year and she trashed the place? There are, as they say, two sides to every story).

*Names have been changed to protect the ‘innocent’.

Talking of stories, the Writers & Artists’ short story competition results are now up on the website.

I really love the winning story, ‘The Colour Forty’ by Lucy Grace.

It does all the things that, I think, a ‘literary’ short story (ie: the kind that win short story competitions), should do:

1. Has an intriguing title
2. Sets up a mystery/question right at the start, which isn’t answered until the end of the story.
3. Beautiful writing
4. A main character that you’re rooting for
5. Lots of ‘space’ for the reader to fill in the gaps: it doesn’t tell us what or how to feel.
6. It left me thinking about it, long after I’d finished it

Read it yourself here and see what you think. The runners-up are on there too although I haven’t had time to read those yet.

Posted in Competitions, Short Stories | Tagged | 12 Comments

And Relax…..

My novel draft (yes, the one I was working on here) was finally finished and zapped off (all 71k of it) for a critique last Monday.

Yes, I know, weeks later than it was promised but it wasn’t through lack of trying or laziness: it just took a heck of a lot longer than I expected.

What a relief, though! As a friend of mine said, it felt like the end of exams.

Of course, it will be winging its way back to me in a few weeks’ time and then I’ll have to start all over again, with the third draft and all the amends that I’m expecting to have to make but for now.. ah, sweet freedom!

It’s the first time I’ve ever actually written a novel from beginning to end and it’s quite a satisfying feeling. Not, I hasten to add, because I think it’s brilliant. I suspect the chances of it being published are slim. I’m looking on it more as a learning experience. No, the reason I’m feeling pleased with myself is that I’ve proved I can do it. I can write something that long. I never thought I could but I can. I can sit in a room on my own for hours on end, for days on end and conjure up something, from my imagination, that has a beginning, middle and end and actually isn’t gobbledygook.

And if I can do it once, I can do it again. Only better, next time. (And, hopefully, a bit quicker).

I gave myself last week ‘off’ as a reward but now I need to buckle down and get some short stories written. I haven’t written a new short story since December because (this is another thing I’ve learned!) I can’t write a novel and short stories at the same time. It has to be one or the other.

Something that people don’t realise (not you! I know you realise this!) is that when you’re writing a first novel, you don’t earn any money. So, for the past three months I haven’t been writing anything that I might be paid for. And I was hoping that my ALCS statement today would save my bacon – because it has for the past two years – but this time, it was a very paltry amount (only about 15% of what I got last time), so that’s not going to last very long!

Now that I’ve finished all that writing, I can do other things too: like use my soup maker, finally! (I’ve only had it for 6 months). I actually got as far as getting it out of the box today and reading the instructions. I felt fairly confident that I was going to be able to make broccoli and blue cheese soup but then.. disaster! My OH, who’d kindly done the shopping, had forgotten the celery! (It was on the list!).

So, the soup maker remains pristine and unused until I can get to the shops tomorrow. First World problems, I know.

I’ve also been able to start reading again! Yesterday I finished Joanna Cannon’s ‘Three Things About Elsie‘ which I loved (and which is on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018).

New Writing Blog
On a completely different note, the lovely Paula Williams (who I met once at Writers Holiday in Caerleon although she probably doesn’t remember), has started a new writing blog.

She’s posting writing prompts on there (the one for today is “This is what happens when someone doesn’t listen properly”, which could be the first line of a story, couldn’t it?). Pop over and have a look! Tell her I sent you! (And don’t forget to come back…)

If you read ‘Elsie’, you must eat Battenberg at the same time.

Posted in Books, Finding Time To Write, Novels, Short Stories, Successes | Tagged | 20 Comments

A Dog’s Tale: The Story Behind the Story

As Crufts is on at the moment (I love it!), it’s rather appropriate that I’ve got a doggy story in the current Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special.

It’s called ‘Borrowing Billy’ and the idea came from something rather sad, so if you’re not in the mood for sad, perhaps you should skip this bit (and scroll down to the competition news).

Several years ago, my elderly Auntie Molly was very ill in hospital. In fact (I told you this was sad), she never came home again. When I went to visit her before she died, she was really distressed about the fact that she couldn’t see her little Yorkshire terrier, Tom. She’d have given anything, I think, to have had a few minutes cuddling him in her hospital bed.

Of course, dogs aren’t allowed in hospitals, unless they’re guide dogs or therapy dogs, so, as far as I know, she never got her final wish and that’s something I’ve never forgotten. I really regret not being able to help her. It’s too late now, of course but in my story ‘Borrowing Billy’, I put things right, albeit ‘only’ in fiction and well, you’ll have to read the story to find out what happens.

But it made me think: in fiction we can right wrongs, give good people the happy endings they deserve and, in a nutshell, make everything OK. Is there anything from your past that you could ‘put right’ in fiction?

Evesham Festival of Words – Short Story Competition closing 23rd March 2018

You’ve still got a couple of weeks to get your entry in for this short story competition, which closes on 23rd March. It’s open to all, published or unpublished, regardless of where in the world you live. Max 2,500 words, there’s no theme, entry fee is £5 and the judge is Lynne Hackles.

More details here.

Retreat West – Photo Flash Challenge

If you fancy flexing your writing muscles over the weekend (or anytime, in fact, up to 25th March), there’s a free flash fiction competition on the Retreat West website, closing on 25th March.

More details here.

There’s a photo that you have to use for your inspiration and they’re looking for a maximum of 300 words. You can even enter twice, if you feel so inclined.

Up to 5 shortlisted stories will be up for a ‘public vote’ and the winner will win a free entry (worth £8) to one of Retreat West’s quarterly flash fiction competitions.

Good luck!

My dog Bonnie & her best friend, Rosie

Posted in Bonnie, Competitions, Magazines, Short Stories, Successes, Woman's Weekly | Tagged | 9 Comments

‘Exuberant’ Random Word Competition: Result & Judge’s Report

It’s time to reveal the winner and runner-up of my latest ‘random word’ competition, which was kindly judged by Sally Zigmond.

These were the 5 shortlisted stories (if you want to read them in full, they’re on the previous post), this time with the authors names.

• Indulgence – Jan Halstead
• The Apprentice Dwarf – Keith Havers
• The Caretaker – Christine Cherry
• The Exuberant Miss Kettle – Pippa Gale
• What did I do? – Ninette Hartley

And here is Sally’s report, in which she reveals her choice of winner and runner-up:

“When Helen asked me to judge her latest Random Words competition, I was thrilled – until I realised what an impossble job it was. Thay were all such good stories! But, as they say, there can only be one winner.

I found choosing the short-list relatively easy because I had a (cunning?) plan. I looked for stories that used all the random words either ingeniously or so unobtrusively that I didn’t notice them. Two words were easy to hide. Order and Eight are both quiet words. On the other hand Exuberant and Naughty shouted. But Kettle – well let’s say it was a toughie.

Having picked my short-list, the next stage was a real struggle. In fact all ten long-listed entries were excellent with such variety. All the three stories that didn’t rise quite to the very top were worthy of winning.

In What did I do? we have a mother with the hangover from hell with a wise daughter. It made me smile as I remember my past! Whilst I don’t think all flash fiction should be funny, I felt the prompt words didn’t really lend themselves to doom and gloom. After all the bad news lately, we could all do with a laugh.

Alas it was with a heavy heart I said goodbye to The Apprentice Dwarf. Naming him ‘Naughty’ alerted me to the mood of the last line. So when it came, although I smiled, I wasn’t surprised.

Similarly The Exuberant Miss Kettle was an absolute delight. Its garrulous parrot was both funny and ingenious. The final twist was great, too. However it didn’t seem right that two of the random words were in the title. Taking the easy way out or sheer cleverness? In the end I went for the former. Sorry.

On the face of it, The Caretaker looked an unspectacular story. Then again, it was so very subtle. Neither characters were named but I’ve met them both over the years. Dialogue and action were sharp and witty. I loved the way the un-named caretaker was confident in his approach and similarly impressed by the way the ‘whistler’ changed from the male caretaker to the female teacher and I cheered when he got his come-uppance. And notice how none of the random words hit us in the face. A super runner-up.

And finally, my winner: Indulgence. Naturally, all entries were anonymous. And yet, someone ‘knew’ I have a soft spot for monks. Although the writer was one of two who went for Kettle crisps, it was in Indulgence where it hit the spot. In addition, both Brother Gregory and Father Ambrose were characters who immediately came alive in simple words. A winner worthy of a halo. Well done.

Finally, having entered many short story competitions over the years and judged a few, I have always found judging more traumatic than writing. A judge is in the spotlight, head above the parapet, a bull’s eye for rotten eggs. And with enough clichés to sink the Titanic, I’ll now jump overboard…”

Thank you, Sally for an excellent report and congratulations to Jan Halstead, the overall winner and Christine Cherry, runner-up. I’ll be in touch with you both by email very soon to send you your prizes.

Commiserations to the 3 whose stories were also in the shortlist. I’m sure you’re disappointed not to have won but I hope you feel pleased – as you should be – that you made it so far, out of over 40 entries. That’s no mean achievement.

When I get to 900 followers (!) I’ll be running another of these random word competitions, so if you enjoyed entering this time – or would like to have a go next time – keep your eyes peeled!

Posted in Blogging, Competitions, random word competition | 7 Comments

‘Order’ Random Word Competition – Shortlist

Here’s the shortlist of 5 stories (listed in alphabetical order by title) for the latest Random Word competition (and chosen anonymously by our judge Sally Zigmond):

• Indulgence
• The Apprentice Dwarf
• The Caretaker
• The Exuberant Miss Kettle
• What did I do?

Well done if your story’s on there! And ‘if you’ve just joined us’, the 5 words that had to be used in the 100 word story challenge, were: order, naughty, eight, kettle and exuberant.

The final results (winner + runner-up) and the judge’s report will be on here in the next few days. Feel free to give a ‘shout out’ to your favourite in the comments!

1. Indulgence
‘Kettle Chips, brother?’ Father Ambrose homed in on a fine dusting of crumbs on Brother Gregory’s habit. Not everyone was cut out for the self-denial of Holy Orders.
‘Only eight, father. Naughty, but nice.’
Was that a flicker of guilt, or was he … smiling? Guidance was required, thought Ambrose. But then, they’d had no new postulants for five years. Surely, to err was human, and to forgive …
Deciding that God must surely have a place for the exuberant, Father Ambrose rested his hand gently on Brother Gregory’s head.
The smile broadened. ‘Bless me, father, for I have binged.’

2. The Apprentice Dwarf
The kettle boiled. Snow White put eight mugs out in order. One lump for Doc and Sleepy. Two for Sneezy, Dopey, Bashful and Happy. Three for Grumpy. None for the new guy.
Meanwhile in the bathroom…
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who is the naughtiest of them all?”
“Why, you are, oh mischievous one.”
Naughty smiled. The magic mirror, stolen from the wicked queen, always told the truth.
“You may want to get out though,” the mirror continued. “After you’ve laced the sugar, there’ll be a rush to get in soon.”
“That’ll stop all their exuberant singing. Hi ho.”

3. The Caretaker
Every night, he’d saunter into my classroom. Whistling.
“Kettle’s on,” he’d say.
“No thanks,” I’d say. Always.
Tonight he threw down his keys.
“Put me on the naughty step, Miss?” he leaned forward.
I moved back; carried on with my display.
“Alphabetical order: E,” he read. “Exuberant, exciting…See me.” He breathed.
I stapled an elephant. Bang.
“Over there please.” I passed him a box.
He winked. “Yes Miss!”
He strolled into my stockroom. Whistling.
Simple. I grabbed his keys, slammed the door, locked him in.
I’d be back eight o’clock, Monday morning.
Lights off, alarms set. I left.

4. The Exuberant Miss Kettle
Amongst the congregation, was Polly the green-winged Macaw, beloved companion of the late Miss Kettle.
The vicar strived to deliver the order of service in a dignified manner, hindered by interjections each time Polly heard mention of her dearly departed mistress.
‘Miss Kettle was a great supporter of our church’
‘Polly put the kettle on!’
‘A colourful character, loved by all’
‘Pieces of eight, pieces of eight!’
‘A wicked sense of humour’
‘Who’s a naughty boy?’
‘And a generous bequeathal to church funds.’
The condition of the windfall had the vicar ruffled. Reluctantly, he resigned himself to parrot keeping.

5. What did I do?
Emily flew into the kitchen.
‘Stop being so exuberant. It hurts,’ groaned Jane to her teenage daughter, ‘Oh, I wish we hadn’t ordered that eighth tequila shot last night.’
‘Eight! Wow, my mum’s been naughty on a girl’s night out. I’ll put the kettle on.’
Jane lifted her head from the table and glared at her daughter.
‘I’m a single mum, I need to let go sometimes. We did share the eight tequilas’
‘Did you meet anyone?’
‘Can’t remember.’
‘Can’t remember what?’ said the blonde Adonis from the kitchen door.
Jane’s jaw dropped.
‘Don’t worry mum, he’s mine.’ Emily laughed.

Posted in Competitions, random word competition | 6 Comments