On Weeding & Writing - an occasional eclectic blog by author C.F. Dunn

Christmas baking: going traditional

That’s the mixed fruits and candied peel ready for Christmas baking. A couple of weeks ago, the raisins, currants, sultanas, chopped dates, peel, ginger, orange zest, and glace cherries were washed and packed into big preserving jars. A concoction of brandy and spices (LOTS of spices) was then poured over the fruit, the jars sealed, and the whole lot left to steep. This is then ready for all sorts of recipes: I can add suet to make mincemeat or kept just as it is for the family version of stollen, or as a vital ingredient for apple and fruit pies. The smell of citrusy spices is intoxicating.

I used a jar of the mixture for the Christmas puddings I made last week, and another for the traditional Christmas cake, the recipe for which was passed down to me from my grandmother and from her’s before her, so is at least 130 year’s old.

 

 

 

 

Unlike my grandmother I remove my wedding ring before baking. Many decades ago, she lost the same ring while making her famous Christmas cake. Mourning its lost (it was the only ring she owned) my grandmother never thought to see it again until my aunt took a bite of cake on Christmas day and discovered the errant ring.

Now instead of a ring, I put a silver thruppeny bit in the cake (and £1 coins in the puddings) with a health warning before serving it up to the family.

Author interview with S.C. Skillman: Paranormal Warwickshire

I am delighted to have as my guest, writer and novelist S.C. Skillman, whose latest book Paranormal Warwickshire looks certain to raise curiosity and a few tingles. This is not just one for those living in Warwickshire, but for anybody interested in the historical culture and lore which surrounds these tales. This is a fascinating book, S.C. Skillman, tell me more.

Paranormal Warwickshire (https://www.amberley-books.com/coming-soon/paranormal-warwickshire.html   involves real incidents. How do you find the balance between reporting fact and delivering an interesting and entertaining read?

The key to this is to find the most engaging information with a high level of human interest, and to present it in a light, accessible style. I blended historical details of each location – whether grand or everyday – with the strange stories and curious anecdotes that present day visitors, custodians and staff have told about them. For some of my chapters I listened to those willing to share stories, and in my book I present their words in direct speech, alongside the historical details, only bringing in information which I think will answer questions in the mind of the reader. 

 

  • Why do you think that people continue to be fascinated by tales of ghosts and ghouls?

I believe this is the same appeal of “who knows what’s lurking behind… or under… or beyond…?” that can apply in so many areas of life, and in several media and literary genres. It’s an essential element in the gothic horror genre and is closely allied to psychology and the unknown of our own minds. A key feature of the gothic genre is the idea of so-called “madness”, and the interplay of paranormal events and unusual states of mind. Ghost stories are often linked to places and overlap with folklore.

Some of the greatest of novels include elements of the paranormal to heighten the sense of tragedy, fate or destiny, or to raise the emotional stakes. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for instance and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and of course Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Even George Eliot, renowned for her critical independent thought, ventured into this territory with her 1859 novella The Lifted Veil. This concerns itself with such subjects as extra sensory perception, gifts of precognition and the supernatural.

  • How did you find and develop the idea for Paranormal Warwickshire?

I began by frequently visiting several places in Warwickshire, feeling their spiritual resonance, and discovering new things about them each time I visited. I wrote blog posts about them in my series Places of Inspiration. Then a writer friend suggested I put them in a book. She suggested I confine myself to Warwickshire and include photos. I decided to call it Spirit of Warwickshire. When I read out a chapter in my local writing group, a member of that group said she wanted more history.

So I researched further and included more history in my chapters. Then I approached a few history publishers with the book. Amberley were interested and said they wanted it for their paranormal series. I thought, ‘OK. I can do that. I’ve always loved ghost stories, and all the places I’ve written about do have several such stories attached to them.’

  • Is there any particular incident in Paranormal Warwickshire that stands out for you and why?

I think it’s an incident in the library at Stoneleigh Abbey, Kenilworth.  I have been on a number of history tours there; and also on the Jane Austen tour. The Abbey is strongly associated with Jane Austen, who visited it in 1806 with her mother and sister when her mother’s cousin the Revd. Thomas Leigh of Adlestrop inherited the estate.  On each occasion I have found the library to be my favourite room. I love its proportions, its ambience, the inviting shelves packed with books, the lovely furniture (including an original Thomas Chippendale chair). The room is strongly associated with Chandos Leigh, 1st Baron Leigh of the 2nd creation, who was a poet and friend of Lord Byron. I feel a sense of empathy with him because he poured out a lot of intense, worthy poetry which was well received at the time, but he has never been regarded as a great poet and his poetry was ignored after his death. He was eclipsed by his own friend Lord Byron.

Chandos spent a lot of time in the library.  The history guide describes many strange occurrences in this room; one of the events relates to the handle on the door which is now blocked up on the other side. The handle moves up and down violently at times, as if someone on the other side is keen to get in. The history guide told a very amusing story of how it interrupted one of his first tours, when he was speaking to a party of twenty visitors.

He reports that it was so loud, he said, ‘Stop!’ And it stopped. He then said to the manager, ‘somebody’s trying to get through that door, and you need to have a word with them, as it really put me off my tour.’ The manager replied, ‘that’s impossible.’ The guide said, ‘I know it’s impossible, the grandfather clock’s standing in front of it, so they can’t come in.’  He said, ‘no, no, no: the other side of that door’s a wall, the handle is only on your side. It really needs to be moved because it’s stiff.’

  •  As a novelist, you write across genres. What made you choose these areas? 

I have written a psychological thriller, a paranormal thriller, and non-fiction.  My two new novels (one completed, one WIP) are gothic magical realist novels.  My first two completed novels, written years ago, and unpublished, were comic novels.  I love trying different genres.  I believe that genre chooses you rather than the other way round. 

It’s all about the books you most love to read.  When I think of my top all-time favourites (mostly classic) – Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment; Emile Zola: Therese Raquin. Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White. Oscar Wilde: The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca. Iris Murdoch: The Bell. Barbara Erskine: Midnight is a Lonely Place.  Susan Howatch: The St Benet’s Trilogy. Phil Rickman: The Merrily Watkins series, a theme emerges: psychological, paranormal, gothic, spiritual. These are the things I love. The strange byways of human nature… this all feeds into psychology and the paranormal, mystery and the unexplained.

  • How do you believe that your experiences have influenced you as a writer?

My experiences with numerous groups of people throughout my life have influenced me in the writing of all my fiction, including my first two unpublished works, and my two published novels, Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit. One of the things I love exploring in fiction is dangerous group dynamics in an enclosed setting.  I have poured into these two novels a lot of my personal experience in many settings; not only a variety of spiritual groups, but also numerous everyday settings like offices, parties, and family gatherings, along with retreats, conferences and courses I’ve attended. Everywhere there is raw material in the form of people and their interacting personalities.

I have long loved observing people, and then writing down their words and behaviour in my own journals.  Also, I am inspired by books, films, TV drama, art and psychology. This can be seen from my non-fiction book Perilous Path: a writer’s journey which is an encouraging, motivational book full of short chapters about the writer’s life, and how inspiration can come from great writers, artists, psychologists and the Bible. The book also serves as a friendly how-to guide to writing fiction.

  • What writing projects do you have lined up?

I plan to write, and have started researching, another non-fiction book called Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire which is about folklore and strange events. I have completed a gothic magical realist novel called Director’s Cut and am halfway through the sequel Standing Ovation.  The first novel is set in south London where I was born and brought up, and the second novel is set in Stratford-upon-Avon, close to where I live now.

I hope you will enjoy reading the stories as much as I enjoyed researching them!

 

S.C. Skillman, very many thanks for your intriguing insights and for taking the time to introduce us to Paranormal Warwickshire, which will be published on 15th November 2020 and can be bought through the links, below.

Buy Links:

https://www.kenilworthbooks.co.uk/signed-books

https://www.amberley-books.com/coming-soon/paranormal-warwickshire.html

http://www.warwickbooks.net/preorder

https://www.waterstones.com/book/paranormal-warwickshire/s-c-skillman/9781445698267

Social Media Links:

Website and blog: https://scskillman.com/ 

Amazon Author Profile:  http://bitly.ws/9SK9

https://www.facebook.com/scskillmanauthor

https://twitter.com/scskillman

https://www.instagram.com/scskillman/

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/scskillman/_created/

https://www.linkedin.com/in/sc-skillman-42347a47/

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4692653.S_C_Skillman

 

Defining Character: Finding George.

George, Duke of Clarence C16th portrait

Ever wondered how writers come up with characters? Chatting with other authors it’s clear everyone has their own way of creating the people who populate their pages. The subject came up as I was telling them about watching Stranger Things 3 and spotted George. “George? Who’s George?” For anyone who has watched the delightfully quirky series, you will know that there isn’t a character called George. However, as an author, I’m always on the look out for people and faces that fit the characteristics of someone in my books. It helps me visualise them, allows me to create a more nuanced, rounded person just from the quirk of a brow, or the gritting of teeth. From that the imagination flows: why is he gritting his teeth? Does he have bruxis, a bad temper, or has just lost his favourite car in a poker game? Some people are easier to find than others. George isn’t one of them.

As the middle brother of Edward IV and Richard III who never made it to the throne, George, Duke of Clarence doesn’t get much of a look in. Not that much is known about him, and what is known is not particularly flattering. He comes across as a difficult, rather punchy individual, argumentative and edgy. No doubt there will be those who will wish to paint a more flattering picture, but I just don’t see it in what records we have from the period. Writing about him has its challenges, not least how to conjure a fully rounded personality out of very little.

It’s easier if the character isn’t real. Even then, they have to be created from nothing. It took me time to find someone with the physical characterisitcs of Matthew Lynes – one of the main characters in The Secret Of The Journal series – and here he is in the form of the late, lovely Paul Walker

But although Paul Walker was the physical personfication of Matthew Lynes,

he didn’t quite get to the heart of the man. For this, I use British actor Sam Claflin, who somehow manages to pack so much emotion into so little, giving the impression of depth and a hidden past. Perfect.

 

So, back to young George. And therein lies a problem: George Plantagenet was only twenty-eight years old when he died. He led an eventful, often violent, life, which needed to be reflected in his characterisation. Visulising him was difficult. I see him attractive, sometimes charismatic and sexy. He could be charming but also jealous and vengeful. He was impatient, exacting, fierce. He loved his children, but only on his own terms. He believed himself to be the man for the job and could be critical of his older brother’s leadership. Yet, in the early years, he was also known to be defensive of his younger brother, Richard before, that is, the boy became a man and challenged George’s sense of seniority. How, then, to create a visual impression of this complex individual who seemed so much older than he was? I’ll trawl through newspaper photographs, magazines, and watch films. I will take every opportunity to observe the everyday people around me in cafes and streets, shops and on walks. The hunt is on to find someone who captures the essence of the man.

 

Putting The World To Writes: the value of writing buddies. 7 steps to follow

Colin Dexter, Inspector Morse

Writing can be a lonely business. Novelists inhabit a world of imaginary people, but getting out to meet real ones can be a bit of a challenge. And Covid-19 hasn’t helped, restricting the opportunities to get out there and meet living, breathing folk.

It takes bum-glue to get a book written. Hours, days, years are spent working up a book to a publishable standard. How, then, do writers get a bit of people time and, more importantly, get a bit of perspective on their latest work?

This is where having other authors as friends really counts. Writers speak their own language. They swap notes, share information, support one another. They understand the ups and downs of writing, finding an agent, a publisher, an illustrator. They swap tips, share experiences, and have an insider’s view of the publishing industry. Most of all, they can have a good laugh over a glass of wine, mug of coffee and the inevitable chocolate.

When it comes to the writing itself, another author might have a valuable skill they can offer in return for your own. As a dyslexic, I make errors of spelling and punctuation despite rabid attempts to iron them out. This is where my good friend and author, Sue Russell, steps in. She’s a Grammar Guru to whom I turn for help. In return, I discuss her writing projects and ideas for plots. Best of all, we enjoy each other’s company, support one another, and have a good chuckle along the way.

We met when I ran a writing group in North Kent. She popped along one evening to suss us out and ended up staying. We became firm friends. That was  nearly a decade ago. Now I live in the South West, but distance hasn’t diminished our friendship, nor the practical help we offer each other. We send our latest manuscript by email,  exchange messages on social media, and take full advantage of Zoom or Skype. Of course it’s not all work and we enjoy a similar sense of humour which we employ at the slightest provocation.

It’s simple to find a writing buddy because the world’s your oyster. There are thousends of authors like you who will enjoy your company and appreciate your experience.

 

There are a few hard and fast rules to follow:

Respect one another’s work –

Respect the relationship  – this is not an opportunity to blow your own trumpet and big yourself up.

Be honest – not ruthless.

The relationship is a work in progress – nurture it.

Have fun – otherwise what’s the point?

Apply a degree of professionalism – be rigorous, not pedantic; thorough and even-handed.

Support one another – we all have our highs and lows.

Give your writing buddy a boost – tweet, post, and blog about their work. Big them up.

 

 

 

 

All In A Maze: Historic mazes, labyrinths and miz in England

Julian's Bower, Alkborough
Julian’s Bower, Alkborough

I’ve been going through my photo resources for The Tarnished Crown trilogy and found this: Julian’s Bower, Alkborough in north Lincolnshire. A turf maze – or properly, labyrinth – or miz of unknown date, it sits on the river cliff overlooking the confluence of the rivers Trent and Ouse and the Humber. It has been variously dated to the Roman period of occupation or as the creation of a small cell of monks in the C13th, but the first known mention of it is not until many hundreds of years later. On the day I visited on a mild June morning, it was eerily quiet and very atmospheric.

Like most similar labyrinths in England and Europe it was created by cutting down through the turf.  Weeding and refreshing the edges and the footfall of countless visitors have worn deep trenches. The pattern is familiar: an eleven-circle feature found most often in England and Medieval in design.

Copy of Julian’s Bower, St Johns, Alkborough

And its purpose? Although labyrinths exist in text, picture and form from ancient civilisations, Julian’s Bower is most likely to have been created in the later Medieval period. Like several other surviving examples it is sited near a church. It has been suggested that a small cell of monks in the C13th or before created it as as a penitential or devotional device, praying while shuffling along the narrow maze paths on their knees. The same device is to be found incised into the floor of the nearby church porch, created in the C19th to preserve the pattern of Julian’s Bower should it ever be lost.

 

It is only one of at least three others known by that name. And in the  names given to these miz lies a clue. Walls of Troy, Troy, Troytown, as well as Julian’s Bower possibly refer to Classical tales of Daedaleus, Troy, and the Minotaur all of which were known and referenced in the later Medieval period.The pattern itself is found repeatedly in sculpture, art, in church floors and incised on wooden doors. Examples can be found in obscure places. The stone-cut labyrinth tucked away in Rocky Valley, Cornwall has long been a feature of local tales, although it has been suggested it is not as ancient as it seems.

Labyrinth petroglyph, Rocky Valley

But dating such things is a tricky business. Many turf miz have become overgrown and lost to time. References to them before the early modern period are rare.  A resurgence of interest in the C17th meant that ‘new’ mazes, based on Medieval patterns, were cut. The new bacame confused with the old until they became one and the same in local legends. Myths grew up around them, open to personal interpretation and imagination. Little archaeology survived the contsant recutting and it is down to locating rare antquiarian sketches or researching place names to pinpoint the possible century of origin.

 

Turf miz, Wing, Rutland

However, mazes or daedalus were known to the aristocracy and recorded in literature as a popular pastime. These differed from turf mazes in that they might be made of stone or hedges, have low rails or fences, and were found in the pleasances and great gardens of the nobility for their entertainment.

 

Turf mazes are more often found in places accessible to the public, near churches and greens, and might have been part of the local tradition of merry-making much as May poles were. Some are now difficult to reach; were they always so or had the village associated with them slipped away into legend and dust?

‘City of Troy’, Dalby

I have no doubt that  my protagonist, Isobel Fenton, would have delighted in tracing the convoluted paths of nearby Julian’s Bower. But she, like so many others, would have no certain knowledge of its origin nor its purpose, and the enduring mystery would remain as it does to this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spudlicious: A new way to grow potatoes reviewed

I’ve waited all summer for this. Since it is a fine, breezy day I risked taking a look at the potato crop. After last year’s disaster, where we lost 2/3 of the harvest to eelworm, blight and scab, I changed tack. Instead of digging deep trenches, I planted shallower, covering the Maris Piper spuds with about four inches of soil. As the foliage came through, I earthed up using a mineralized straw (Strulch produces it https://www.strulch.co.uk). It was a bit of a risk as we had an exceptionally dry summer and spuds like a good amount of rain. Still, today was the day that I found out whether the ruse to defeat the evil worm worked.

The result? Numerous smaller potatoes, even-skinned, dry, despite yesterday’s deluge, and almost free of scab. Best of all, despite a hearty spud having been nibbled – possibly by a mouse – there has, so far, been no sign of eelworm or slugs. I expected smaller spuds, but we have also had some decent sized ones that are perfect for baking. The thick layer of Strulch kept the soil evenly moist, protected the soil from the heavy rain in spring and the deprivations of the dryest weather (we did water at this time). It acted as a superb mulch, kept weeds and pests down and, to top it all, will be dug into the bed as a soil improver once the rest of the spuds have been lifted. All in all, I’d say it’s been a success and I’ll be using the same approach again next year.

Proof Is In The Reading: proofreading the new novel

I’ve spent the last few weeks holed up and proofreading. This is the last stage of preparing a novel for publication. It went through structural and copy edits and then to a professional proofreader and to me. This is my last opportunity to spot errors and make minor amendments. There are always some no matter how thoroughly I’ve editied it before. Sure enough I spotted an inadvertent  name blip, winced at the number of times I used ‘winced’, and noted armorial colours that mysteriously changed. That’s what proofreading is all about and I am thankful for the absolute professionalism of the team handling the production of my book.

Proofs for Wheel of Fortune are back with the editor. It’s now time for a thorough purge of my study before resuming editing the second book, Degrees of Affinity. How does so much detritus build up when I’m not looking?

To be fair this mountain was largely the result of boxes being deposited in my room. Accumulated over thirty years, this ‘stuff’ had to be sifted and sorted, trashed and filed one box at a time.

I’ve completed that task. Now I have a lifetime of books to go through, organise and get onto the shelves. First off are the numerous books on a variety of historical topics associated with research for The Tarnished Crown trilogy. Next come those collected in childhood – well-thumbed and with annotations and observations scrawled in a childish hand. The history books from  university are another load. The comments have matured, become somewhat pithy at times, and reflect a more searching mind. The stacks that have accumlated since are well-read but pristine. Notes are now made on slips of paper and secured within the pages. Many have been gifts from my family, always on the hunt for presents for Christmas and birthday. It is a time for reflection as I come across old favourites, and a time of preperation before I continue with the second book.

New 5* review! Death Be Not Proud

…takes you to another place and keeps you there…” https://amzn.to/2XzbZJw

Writing Through Lockdown

  I’m gardening my way through lockdown. Here in the South-West a stone’s throw from the sea, I’m fighting weeds and sticky clay while battling with the next scene for my historical novel, acutely aware I’m fortunate to be able to do so.Lockdown has removed many everyday distractions; I’m less on Social Media and relish the quiet. The sea’s growl upon the shore has replaced the roar of motorbikes racing along the coast roa

There are practical issues to tackle as well as personal. Like many, buying food is proving tricky, but is nothing compared to the plight of my husband recovering from Corvid-19 alone on the other side of the country. 

Nature will not be rushed. Getting close up and personal with my garden is one of the best ways I know to focus on what matters. It’s here that I do my thinking: cogitate life’s mysteries, pray, compose and plot. I plant for the future in the belief that there will be one and it is a poignant reminder that our forebears did much the same through plague and pandemic.  I think of writing in much the same way: although I might never know the outcome my words might have, I sow them just the same.

 

I’m currently editing Degree of Affinity, the second book in The Tarnished Crown trilogy set during the turbulent years of the Wars of the Roses. Published by Lion Fiction, the first book – Wheel of Fortune – is due for release in January, 2021.

This article first appeared in ACW online.

Time To Move On?

What have you all been doing over the last few weeks? I’ve been up to my elbows in flour and editing over the Christmas period. Now that the mince pies have been made (and consumed) and the copy edits for Wheel of Fortune completed and returned to my editor, I can pause and wish you all a wonderful New Year.

It’s time to move on from 2019. What do you have planned? Do you know where you want to be at the end of the year or are you just going with the flow? Some things are inevitable (like taxes and the dentist), others – good and bad – take us by surprise.

I’m glad I can’t foretell the future. I might not like what I see. I’ll leave it to a better Conductor than I. Meanwhile, I know I have one book due for release this summer, and another aching to be finished. The garden and family need nurturing. I have places to go and people to meet. Beyond that the next twelve months are a mystery. But I like mysteries – they keep me hooked.

So, wherever and whatever your circumstances, all the best and I hope you’ll have a happy, positive and healthy 2020!