Seeking inspiration

I’m rather stuck at present. It’s not quite writer’s block – I’ve always taken to heart Dr Johnson’s aphorism ‘A man may write at any time, if he sets himself doggedly to it’. Or alternatively, apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. And I can write – if I know what I want to write about. Usually, when I finish one novel, I have an idea for the next one burning in my brain, but not this time. Any thing would do; I just need a starting point to inspire me.

Other authors always seem to come up with great ideas. I can’t tell you how often I’ve looked at a book and though ‘Dash, I wish I’d thought of that’. A secret service based on the signs of the Zodiac? Elizabeth Cole beat me to it. A league of second sons? Isobel Carr got there before me. Taking an episode from the past and putting it into a different time period? Susan Howatch. Two girl detectives in a 1930s boarding school? Robin Stevens. All of them took an inspiration and made it their own.  Me? Completely blank.

Perhaps I should try a different genre? One book I read suggested taking a film plot and working it up into an erotic novel; although the author advised against ‘Battleship Potemkin’. Having just checked the plot, I can take his point. I don’t want to copy anything – just come up with something to get my mind working. What do I like? ‘Pride and Prejudice’, obviously. Perhaps reverse it? Five brothers whose father wants them to marry. Well, maybe – but I’m not inspired. ‘Jane Eyre’? Ooh, governesses, that’s a possibility. Who needs a governess? A widow, obviously – but rather too obvious. An uncle, suddenly landed with a recalcitrant niece. Hm, possible. Or an aunt, needing a tutor? Better. But socially, a tutor would be beneath her – unless he’s been slipped into the house for some other purpose? Now you’re talking…. What is he looking for? Does the aunt help or hinder. Is she working for the other side?

I feel a tiny twinge of inspiration.


The Long Winter

This has been the longest, coldest winter that I can recall. That’s not just my impression, either – a great many people have said the same. There wasn’t a great deal of snow, except when ‘The Beast From The East’ came calling and brought drifts up to four feet on the roads. But it’s been SO COLD for SO LONG that it’s hard to believe that we might, actually, be seeing the start of spring. With Easter being so early, there were none of the usual flowers; there are still daffodils in the garden even though it’s nearly mid-May, and the bluebells are only coming up now. I did find some primroses in a nearby wood, which was very cheering.

When I was younger, I read and re-read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of life on the prairies so long ago. Especially vivid was the account of ‘The Long Winter’, seven months of blizzards in the 1880s, when food and fuel ran short and the family was snowed-in for months. When, eventually, the railway company runs trains through to the town again, a long-delayed Christmas barrel full of gifts is brought in (if you’ve ever wondered why it was a barrel of gifts, rather than a box, the answer is that, since a barrel is built to keep liquid in it will, logically, keep liquid out, and preserve its contents from damage). Within the barrel, as well as food and clothes, are coloured silks for embroidery. Laura runs her hands over them and feels the silk catch on the rough parts of her hands where she has twisted hay into fuel to stop them freezing. The thread symbolises the colour, life, and leisure that awaits her now the winter is finally over.

I haven’t achieved very much myself yet this year. It has been too cold to work long at my desk so I spent time reading in the kitchen. I’ve been bored, and tired, and very cold – but now summer is coming!

Between Christmas and New Year

It’s a funny time of year, isn’t it? Christmas Day is over, but the New Year hasn’t started yet. We’re in a period of limbo, with time to look over the past year and prepare ourselves for the next. And, in my case, read. I had several books saved up for Christmas and realised that three of them had a Jane Austen theme, so if that’s the kind of thing you’d like, read on. ‘Murder and Matchmaking’ by Debbie Cowens brings together Elizabeth and Mr Sherlock Darcy as they investigate the deaths of four young, attractive girls. Here’s a hint – who do you think would benefit from the removal of so many marriageable young ladies? In Cora Seaton’s ‘A Seal’s Oath’ four girls have decided to live for six months as the young ladies from Austen’s time might have done – but their plans don’t fit in with the new owner of the property. And Abigail Reynolds’ variation on ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Conceit and Concealment’, images a counter-factual history of England where Napoleon has succeeded in his invasion plans and French officers dominate in Meryton. Each very different, but all recommended.

I’ve also finished the last of my charity knitting for 2017. Actually I finished it a while ago as it had to go into a Christmas box sent via Vision Romania. They deliver shoe boxes covered in Christmas paper to children each year, which are filled with useful things like toothbrushes and pencils, as well as toy and sweets. I made a bright pink scarf, teamed with a lime green hat. Colourful, if not always tasteful.

I’ve worked out that since I started this project in January, I’ve knitted over 100,000 stitches using one and a quarter pound weight of yarn (over a mile!). I’ve read about so many good causes and been impressed by how many people give up their time and money to make something with love, for someone whom they will probably never meet. Next year I’ll carry on knitting but without tying myself to the commitment of a new project each month, as I’m aware I haven’t been writing as much as I hoped. Roll on 2018, and best wishes for a happy and healthy year.

The King in the Car Park

I spent a weekend this month in Leicester, a city I haven’t visited for about 15 years – which meant I hadn’t seen it since the body of Richard III had been removed for reburial. I had seen on television the progress of the archaeological dig to rediscover his body, and later the procession which took the body around significant sites near the town before bringing it home for reburial in the Cathedral there.

The church of St Martin was only created a cathedral in 1927 and the building itself is mostly Victorian, but there has been a church on the site for around a thousand years. Richard was re-buried there in March 2015. The body is in a wooden coffin lined with lead and placed inside a stone coffin resting on a plinth of Kilkenny limestone. Around it are boars, Richard’s personal insignia. His motto of ‘loyalty binds me’ is inscribed at the end of the plinth. The coat of arms you can see is not, as I had though, enamel. The bright colours are actually small pieces of stone, cut and shaped to form the royal arms from 1485. This technique is known as ‘pietra dura’ – hard or strong stone – and uses lapis lazuli from Afghanistan for the bright blue; the same stone medieval artists would grind up to make the blue robe of Mary, Christ’s mother.

Outside the cathedral is a statute of Richard, who is presented a slight young man holding a crown. When I visited, someone had placed a rose at his feet. It wasn’t the white rose of York though – it seemed to be the pink-tipped peach rose named ‘Peace’.

In other news I’m getting ready for Christmas and finishing off my charity knitting for 2017. This month I sent a hat and booties to Landour Community Hospital in Mussoorie, north of Delhi in India. Weirdly, it’s named after a Welsh village. The hospital is seeking clothes for babies and young children, all yarns and designs welcome, so I used some jade cotton 4-ply yarn and finished the items with a white trim.

A Spooky Month?

The most spooky thing about October is how fast it seems to have passed by. I spend it working on another MOOC, on Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites –  I hadn’t realised so many objects (or items of material culture, as they are now called!) had survived, and it was fascinating to see pieces made for the two different sides, many of them very high quality. I particularly liked a silver canteen of cutlery, which had been made for Prince Charles. A targe or shield, heavily embellished with silver, was another gift to the Prince which was abandoned after the battle of Culloden. A lot of the interest in the history of this period is driven by the popularity of ‘Outlander’, based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon, and the comments under the posts showed how many people had become fascinated with the story of the Jacobites through the novels. That, of course, is not a new phenomenon; part of the course looked at Sir Walter Scott and the way he made Scottish history or ‘Antiquarianism’ popular through his novels.

Now the weather has become a little colder I’m enjoying knitting hats. They’re a bit like chocolates, really; you finish one them immediately start another. I haven’t had much luck so far looking for a UK< charity to knit them for, so I’ve sent four children’s hat in bright shades to children in the Chippewa Valley in Wisconsin.

However you spend Halloween, I hope you have a good time. I still haven’t started on the turnip I bought to make a lantern, but I’m well stocked with sweets for anyone who calls by!

What I Did On My Summer Holidays

Does anyone remember being given this essay topic when you went back to school? It gave the teacher some peace to get on with things while we all laboured to describe what we had got up to in the last two months. Well, this year, I went to Paris, and had a fabulous time. I’d visited Versailles many years ago, but just (just!) the palace, so the gardens were a revelation to me. I thought they were all beautiful, but I much preferred the simplicity of Marie Antoinette’s hamlet to the gilded interiors of the great palace. The Petit Trianon was delightful, and actually seemed a possible residence – no-one could possibly have endured life at the court without an escape like this.

The Louvre, also, was a revisit, but in the intervening 30 years a lot of excavations have been carried out on the site, which revealed the 12th century moat and some fragments (see picture) of the original castle. This was thrilling for me, as I had studied early French architecture many years ago. The queues to see the Mona Lisa were ridiculous but I was fascinated to learn more about the Louvre building itself, and to find out that many artists were given quarters there after the French Revolution, as part of the Academies the French set up. The most famous one is that set up to guard the French language from words like ‘le weekend’.

I didn’t forget to keep up with charity knitting, despite the heat, and have made a couple of squares for a South African charity called ‘Knit a Square’. It may sound silly but I didn’t know how to knit a square diagonally and was very proud of myself when I worked it out!


Have you tried MOOCing?

I just completed a MOOC – a Massive Open Online Course. I first heard about them last year but couldn’t find one I wanted to try. Then the University of Edinburgh announced they were offering one through FutureLearn on ‘How to Read a Novel’. I know how to read a novel (open cover, start at page 1!) but I thought it might give me a new way to look at writing a novel, so I signed up.

The course lasted for four weeks, with an expected two hours of work per week. It course was an interesting mix of videos, articles, discussion and, at the end, a piece of written work. I had wondered how, with many thousands undertaking a course, the instructors could possibly assess written work, but now I know – that task is assigned to participants, and after submitting my own I was given others’ work to comment on. One of the strands of the course was an assessment of examples from the short-listed finalists for the James Tait Black prize for fiction, to be awarded at the International Edinburgh Book Festival. This was awarded near to the end of the four weeks and it was interesting to see how the course participants championed the different titles. Most left me cold but I was intrigued by Jo Baker’s ‘A Country Road, a Tree’, a fictionalised account of Samuel Beckett’s wartime experiences; her ‘Longbourn’, a servants’ eye view of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, created quite a stir a few years ago.

In case it isn’t clear from the name, MOOCs are free. Successful participants on my course are invited to upgrade their qualification by getting a certificate and permanent access to the course materials for £49, but I don’t think I could justify that cost. It was an interesting experience though and I’m already looking over the options to select my second MOOC.

My charity knit in August was a hat for ‘Knit for Peace’, to be sent to a Syrian refuge camp. The pattern is ‘Two by Two Basic Beanie’ from Ravelry, knitted in some oddments of pure new wool I was given by a friend. None of the scraps looked very much in the ball, but they were enough to make sure someone is warm this winter.