Time to Dig Deep

It was predictable but here we go again – heading into another lockdown in England. Like a lot of people I’d been expecting this for some time as the rate of infections has been accelerating since September. I know there are divided opinions on the best approach to tackle the dreaded Corona Virus, but I’d class myself as falling into the ‘I don’t want another lockdown but if it saves lives, okay then,’ camp.

The announcement came on Saturday night and today it will be voted through Parliament with the lockdown starting tomorrow, Thursday. It will not be as strict as last time, (which does make me wonder whether it will even work…) with schools, colleges and universities remaining open and essential shops, as well as DIY and garden centres staying open. The advice is work from home ‘if you can’, which will no doubt mean for a lot of people, life will go on as normal. Which again, makes me question what impact this will have on the spread of the virus…

For me, I once again cannot teach my writing clubs and groups in person. Instead, I am forced back online, and I suppose the only good thing about it this time is that I am better prepared. Last time, I just could not act fast enough to what was happening. I think my brain put me in survival mode and for me that meant looking after my kids and ignoring everything else. As the time wore on I did give in and purchase Zoom and I have been holding regular adult writing groups online in this way. There is no reason why my other groups cannot go online, but unfortunately children seem less keen to do this, and I have not had a good response so far to my proposed Zoom clubs.

The other positive is that having predicted this would happen, I undertook a Copy-Editing and Proofreading course and at the moment I am providing these services for free to a few authors with the agreement that they will write testimonials for my website. Editing and proofreading their work is also a great experience for me. The plan is my CIC Chasing Driftwood Writing Group will soon offer extra services to authors in the form of editing and proofreading. I hope eventually this will bring in some money to help replace what I have lost. In the long-term it gives me an income stream that can be achieved working from home.

A few days ago I felt intensely unsettled and anxious. I’m sure a lot of people did as they waited to hear whether their place of work would have to be shut down this time or not. For me, it is the uncertainty that makes me anxious. As soon as I know what is happening, I feel better and I can deal with it. I felt sad driving home from dropping my youngest at school and gave in to a few tears while alone in the car. His school have asked parents to wear face coverings during drop off and pick up time, and of course everyone has complied instantly and without complaint. But it was sad to see all these faceless parents dropping off their children and I could not kiss my son goodbye properly, which really got to me. I thought about the virus and how it has made so many things miserable and joyless. Shopping, mixing with people, moving about and now even the school run. I had my tears but I am over them now. Today I am sat here feeling thankful and positive.

I’m thankful because the schools have not closed so while that remains the case, I can get tons of work done at home without disruption. I’m thankful because I have a new business partner at last to share the load and really push Chasing Driftwood in the right direction, despite the pandemic! I’m thankful because I live in a beautiful area with glorious walks right on my doorstep. I’m thankful that so far my family and loves ones are all happy, healthy and safe from this virus. I’m thankful for my pets and my kids and my garden and all the ways I have to distract myself if I start to feel down.

Last time around, the weather was beautiful and we threw ourselves into gardening. It was a real family effort, transforming areas of the garden and making the most of what we had. It was a life saver and I know it had a massive effect on my moods. Being a woman of a certain age struggling daily with the mood swings of the perimenopause, the pandemic has been an eye opener with regards to mental health.

I am better when I am busy, and I am even better than that when I am outside getting my hands dirty. I was fascinated watching the wonderful AutumnWatch the other day, where they explained the science behind nature elevating our moods. From being near water, walking among trees and even spotting birds, all aspects of nature release mood enhancing hormones in our brains. In particular there is a microbe (Mycobacterium vaccae) in soil that when inhaled by us increases the levels of serotonin, lifting our mood and helping us to feel relaxed and happy.

I can testify to this, because whenever I spend any time gardening I finish off feeling as high as a kite – no kidding! It makes me feel amazing, it really does.

Last lockdown saw a huge rise in people growing fruit and vegetables, tending their gardens, attracting wildlife and so on. This will be harder as we enter Winter but not impossible. I have set myself a challenge. To help me through this uneasy time of reduced income and increased stress, I aim to spend at least half an hour every day in my garden. There is still plenty to do out there and I will not let the cold or the rain deter me. I need it!

So, my advice to anyone with a bit of dirt near them is to dig deep and keep digging. Gardening is productive, positive and rebellious. It reminds us where we came from and links us to our ancestors and their ways of life. It connects us to nature and to wildlife and elevates our mood, making us feel happy and content, despite the crazy world we live in right now.

We are all feeling on edge as the virus increases again, as we worry about our health and the health of our loved ones, as we isolate from the rest of humanity, cover our faces and keep our distances, as we fear a reduction in income and living standards, as we fear so many things….We got through it last time so we know we can get through it again. Talk to each other, help each other, speak up when you are feeling lost and afraid and dig deep, even deeper this time to find the resilience we are going to need to get through it.

(Image by Goumbik from Pixabay)

The Lane of a Thousand Stories

It’s not just a lane. To those who don’t know. But then nothing is ever just something. Everything is much, much more than that. To us, the lane is alive with a thousand stories. Millions of lives. Endless possibilities.

For me and you, hand in hand, it’s not just a lane, is it? It’s an adventure waiting to happen. It’s Doctor Who and Clara. It’s sticks turned into sonic screwdrivers. It’s the Tardis waiting for us back home. It’s mud monsters that will drag you down. It’s Cybermen and Daleks and Zygons. It’s a stretch of concrete that twists and turns, and it’s me watching your little legs running down it as fast as you can, yelling over your shoulder to run from the monsters. It’s me, forever tensed that a car will round the corner too fast.

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They are not just puddles in the lane. They are wonders to explore with stones and sticks and welly boots that never quite manage to keep the water out. They are covered with ice to crack and slip on. They are deep with mud to squelch and squerch through. We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going on a bear hunt. They are not just puddles. They are portals to another world. Many worlds. Worlds with trees and telephone lines inside them. Worlds with a mystery face staring right back at yours.

They are not just bushes! Not just a hedgerow to hurl rubbish into. They are blackberries in the summer. Your little hands reaching in to pluck juicy berries from between the thorns. Your sleeve getting snagged on brambles. Your face smeared with red. They are alive, teeming with small unseen lives that run adjacent to ours, unknown. They are buzzing with bees and birds and butterflies, who go about their private lives without fuss or blunder. Who live never to question or worry. Me and you know they are there. And there is not a bush we don’t walk by without knowing or thinking.

Hello Mr Robin. Mr Blackbird. Mrs Blackbird. The shy Heron who takes off should you get too close. The noisy geese. The silent swans. The otters we have never seen. The rabbits in the fields and the buzzards on the telephone poles. The woodpecker drumming. Swifts and starlings and magpies and our favourite, the mighty crow. The crow rules the world, or so we secretly believe. With his knowing caaw and his murder of companions, they could take us all on, should they want to.

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It’s not just a bridge, is it? It’s poo sticks and science. It’s sygnets and ducklings. It’s where we collect conkers in the Autumn. And it’s not just a river, it’s a ford, a fork, an expanse of water fit for paddling. Your favourite place. Your tree dragon and the swing and sitting on the fallen tree, trying to catch tiddlers in a jar. Mucky feet and cold toes. Snacks in the pushchair. Summer. Shady spot, dragonflies and damselflies. Kicking the water. Us and the dogs and me lost in time, caught between now and us, this life and an old one. Me and my sister, stood in the river, captured in a moment that has lasted forever, the sunlight perfect, illuminating our small lives, fishing nets in hand, shadows dancing. At the river, I am full of a thousand memories and with you, I am making a thousand more.

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The lane seems so long when you walk so slow. It’s me saying hurry up, walk faster, come on, come on then, can you at least walk in the right direction? It’s you, picking up stones and sticks and conkers and leaves, staring at bugs, helping them cross the road, saying ‘that’s sad’ when you spot something dead because the lane is not just full of life, it’s full of death and we see it daily. Creatures too slow for the cars. It’s me in a hurry. Urging you on. Rolling my eyes. Come on, come on I’ve got stuff to do. Hurry up and I’ll get you a hot chocolate when we get in.

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It’s not just a lane. It’s songs and silliness and passing the time. It’s make-believe and storytelling and laughter and tears. Death and life and why? Why Mum? Why?

It’s not just a lane. It’s Nature, who was here first with the blackberries and the hawthorn and the Oaks and the Hazel and the dandelions, bluebells and daisies. It’s all the things that exist despite us and will go on after us. But for now, for a moment, it is our lane. Not just a lane, but our world and a thousand stories and lives.

Nothing is ever just something.

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Character Interview; Aunt Mary from A Jar Full Of Angel Feathers by Susan Russell

Hello and welcome to another character interview! This time we have the pleasure of chatting to Aunt Mary, one of the main characters in the beautiful A Jar Full Of Angel Feathers  by Susan Russell

1 ) Tell us what your positive character traits are

I s’pose I’d best be described as a steady sort of person. I’m reliable and no-nonsense, but I’ve got a soft side once you get to know me. Positive too – I’ve seen tragedy aplenty, but I don’t see any point in letting the bad things rattle around your head for years dragging you down. Better let it all out at the time, I say, and then get on with things

2)What would you say are your negative character traits?

I said I tend to get on with things, but I must admit I do eat a bit more than I should if I’m honest. So I’m a bit plumper than I should be, but where’s the harm? All good home baking, and it keeps me busy. Now I think about it, I s’pose I don’t let myself feel too much. When your heart’s been battered it wants to protect itself, doesn’t it? Mind you, the young’un, Alex, managed to thaw me out good and proper, bless him.

3) What are your current ambitions or dreams?

Now that the young’un’s gone back up to London, Mallow Cottage feels a bit empty. I reckon I’ll wait a bit, while he settles back in with his dad, and then I’ll get the train up there to see them. I could have him back down for the holidays maybe. That ‘gift’ him and Flora left tucked away between the photos for me to find, that was some shock I can tell you. I came over all faint when I opened it! Don’t tell anyone, but I talk to Flora now. Alex would understand, but I mustn’t let Arthur, Mr Godolphin, catch me or he’ll think I’ve lost my marbles. Kind man, Arthur, he’s been coming round more often lately

4) What are your fears?

Fears? Me? I lost my first husband to the war, then my sister and niece to illness. Once I got over that I don’t reckon I’ve been afraid of anything much – can’t see the point. If something bad’s going to happen, then it’s going to happen. No point in worrying about something you can’t change, you have to pick up the pieces and carry on. Mind you, when the young’un first arrived I was fearful for him. I don’t think I showed it, but seeing all that pain locked up inside of him…well, I did worry that we wouldn’t get past it.

5) Do you have any enemies?

Not that I knows of!

6) Tell us about your best friend

Old Hilda. Been friends for years, though she’s quite a bit older than me. Both lost our other halves in the war, both not blessed with children, both ‘get on with it’ types… I first started goin’ up to her place on the moors when she needed help with the farm. ‘Course, that’s all gone now and she’s just got her cottage left. It’s a poky little place, but she’s determined to stay up there ‘til she’s taken out feet first,’ as she says. Bit too much for me to walk up there nowadays, what with being a bit rounder than I used to be, but I get a lift up with the weekly grocery van. We have a right old natter, and all the while she’ll be busy with her crochet. Her place is strewn with crocheted throws of all sorts. I doubt she’d admit to it, but I reckon she does it to stop herself being lonely. No doubt she talks to herself when no-one’s there, seeing as she never stops when someone is!

7) What’s your biggest secret?

When my sister and my niece died, and then all those other little’uns in the village succumbed as well, I went a bit mad for a bit. I was numb at first, and then a couple of weeks after the last burial I got up one night and headed towards Tappers Wood. It were a full moon, good and bright, and I went by the lanes because a day or two earlier I’d seen a big coil of rope left by one of the field gates. It was still there. I remember the feel of it: cold, rough, and heavy, wet with the mists rolling off the fields. Don’t know how long I stood there, holding that rope and looking all the while at the trees up ahead – sussing out the ones with the strong branches, the ones I might be able to climb up to. I’d got one in mind–worked out how to get up there with that rope, where to tie it, how much drop would do the job–when a fox strolled out, bold as you please, and just sat there looking at me. So beautiful in that moonlight… Well I came to my senses, threw that rope back where I’d found it and went home.

8) Do you have any regrets?

Regrets is pointless.

9) Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

Five years time I’ll still be here, baking my bread and traipsing down to the village when I needs to. Maybe it won’t be just me in Mallow Cottage though, maybe Arthur’ll be joining me there! Young’un would like that as well, I reckon.

10) How do you hope people remember you?

As someone who could see to ‘the heart’ of things, the calm in the eye of the storm.

Thanks so much to Susan and Aunt Mary for joining us today! If you’d like to find out more about Susan, just click on the links below!

Website: http://www.susanrussell.eu Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Susan-Russell-author-745681398937235/

Twitter: Susan Russell @contact_susan Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jar-Full-Angel-Feathers/dp/0995600651/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1504115967&sr=1-1&keywords=a+jar+full+of+angel+feathers

Bio: Born in Norwich, many of Susan’s earliest memories are of writing, drawing, and ploughing through piles of books from the library. She began her working life as a nurse, and after two years as Staff Nurse she moved to Sidcup to work in a residential home for handicapped young adults. Meeting her future husband resulted in a move down to West Dorset, where a busy life included opening a kitchenware shop, raising three sons, and qualifying in the natural health care fields of massage, the Bowen Technique, and Medical Herbalism.

Interview with Author Harriet Springbett

Last week I read and reviewed a beautiful and unique YA book, called Tree Magic. I came across this book in a Facebook group I am lucky enough to be part of, and the front cover and title immediately caught my eye. It sounded just my sort of thing. (If you follow me on Instagram you might have an idea of how obsessed with trees I am!) You can read my review of Tree Magic here. Author Harriet Springbett kindly agreed to an interview, which you can enjoy below. Tree Magic comes out in paperback on the 1st of March, and is currently only 99p for the ebook on Amazon. Grab it!

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1) Can you tell us what inspired you to write Tree Magic?

I was sitting under a weeping willow tree in my garden, writing the start of a novel about Rainbow, a teenager who didn’t fit in. A recent storm had uprooted a nearby sumac tree and I found myself wishing I could stroke its branches back into shape to rebalance it: we hug trees to make ourselves feel better, but who ever makes trees feel better? I started to wonder what it would be like if someone could communicate with trees and help them in this way. As Rainbow was under my pen, she became the one to be blessed / cursed with this gift.

2) Did the plot come first, or the characters?

Definitely the main character. I’d already written a short story about Rainbow, and a member of Lumineuse, my writers’ group, said she was such a vivid character that she could almost see her beside me. The plot grew organically from Rainbow, her gift and her problems. This was a deliberate approach on my part, because the previous novel I’d written was plot-led and I’d found the writing experience too restrictive.

3) The story is told in both past and present tense – why did you choose this approach, and how difficult was it to pull off?

The tenses are intrinsically linked to the characters of the two protagonists: Mary wants to forget her past so the present tense represents her best, whereas Rainbow is like a tree, with roots into her past. It wasn’t a question of ‘pulling it off’, because it was natural rather than being a storytelling device. I was warned that publishers wouldn’t like the tense-mixing, but I believed it was too essential to change. In fact, my publisher (Impress Books) never questioned the tenses.

4) Are any of the characters based on people in real life?

No! Part of the fun of writing stories is creating characters. I’m a detail hoarder, and I jot down lots of rubbish that amuses or interests me, which may then produce a character (or not). For example, the other day I was running with a friend who’d bought a new pair of trainers. I noticed that the underside of her trainers happened to match the colour of her T-shirt, and found myself thinking about the kind of person who would do this deliberately.

5) Did you have to do much research into trees, or did you already have some knowledge in that area?

I love trees. I grew up on a Dorset farm that had 10 acres of woodland and a stream, and we were always playing in them, making tree houses or fixing rope ladders and swings to them. We had our own trees in the way other children have pets. Tree Magic doesn’t have technical details about trees, so I only needed an everyday knowledge, which my childhood and a tree guide provided. However, I did research details for the habitats and characteristics of certain trees, such as the symbolic silver maple.

6) This is your debut YA novel, can you tell us what is coming next?

I have already finished another YA novel called Red Lies, White Lies. It’s a thriller with a 17-year-old protagonist, set in France, and has no magic realism. A beta reader said she couldn’t put it down – but I really should make time to seriously hunt for an agent. I love the writing part of being an author, but I’m not very good at sending out my work. I must confess that I have begun to write another YA novel when I should really be trying to find a home for Red Lies, White Lies.

7) Do you read a lot of YA yourself? If so, what are your favourite YA books?

I didn’t intend Tree Magic to be a YA novel because I hadn’t read much YA fiction. When it was placed runner-up in a competition, the judge told me that with a little rewriting I could target the YA market. An agent who rejected it mentioned YA too – so I researched the YA market and rewrote it for younger readers. I only really started reading YA a short time ago – and I’m seriously seduced by what I’ve read. There’s a refreshing liberty in YA writing. I loved The Sun is Also a Star for its ‘science versus intuition’ approach (a little like in Tree Magic). I was shocked and impressed by Orangeboy. I adored the protagonist in Wing Jones and thought A Monster Calls was beautifully written. I could go on, but I’d better stop there.

8) Can you tell us about your writing and publishing journey so far? What have been the highs and lows?

The lows were the rejections. I originally sent Tree Magic to about 10 agents, was rejected by all of them and concluded that the story was rubbish. I left it in a drawer for years before learning that this rejection rate was normal, and that small publishers accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Long live small publishers! The highs were firstly getting my manuscript accepted by Impress Books (though I worried for ages that they’d change their minds) and then the whole editing process with them. They are wonderful. The weirdest moment was when I read the blurb my editor wrote. My immediate reaction was ‘that sounds like an exciting book’ and my second was ‘it’s your book, you idiot.’

9) What advice would you give to new writers just about to start the journey into publication?

Don’t be put off by rejections. You must keep searching for a home, but make sure you get readers and other writers to critique your story first. Writers’ groups are invaluable for this. Also, I wish I’d written more short stories before launching into a novel because the experimentation, feedback and rewriting loop takes less time than with novels. Short stories help you to find your voice.

10) What have you learned so far about promoting your book?

I didn’t realise that book promotion and publicity would be so time-consuming. Getting started can be scary, so it’s wonderful if you have a publicist to guide you. If you’re not careful, it will eat into your writing time, so you have to sum up your courage and push yourself to be proactive while still remembering that the writing is what’s most important.

11) Describe an average writing day for you

I exchanged my full time job for part time work in order to have writing time, so this motivates me to sit down every morning and write until lunchtime. Most evenings I run or cycle – this is my problem-solving time, when I run through scenes in my head and visualise characters’ reactions. Of course, my friends don’t believe me when I say I’m working as I run! I don’t write at weekends, because I want to live fully, spend time with my family, do sport, see friends etc. Inspiration comes from interacting with real life, from watching and listening to what’s going on in the world, so it’s important not to shut yourself away all the time. It also means I look forward to getting back to my computer on Monday mornings.

12) Finally, tell us three interesting facts about yourself

This is the most difficult question. OK: when I was 22 I did a Raleigh International expedition in Chile and then hitchhiked 5000km from the south to the north. My ideal holiday is an itinerant trip with a bike, a tent and good company. And I’m (distantly) related to Thomas Hardy.

More about Harriet Springbett…

Harriet Springbett lives in France with her French partner and teenage daughters. She grew up in West Dorset and qualified as a manufacturing engineer before realising she preferred people to machines, and words to numbers. She moved to France in 1995, where she studied French and then worked as a project manager, a freelance feature writer, a translator and an English teacher. She has always written in her free time.

Her debut YA novel, Tree Magic, was published by Impress Books in ebook format in January 2017. The paperback is due out on 1st March. Harriet writes every morning and blogs on writing and cultural events at Harriet Springbett’s Playground of Words and Thoughts. Several of her short stories (Quark Soup, Shingle & Sand, Ami Entends-tu?, Big Bones…) have been placed and shortlisted in competitions or published in magazines such as The French Literary Review.

Links;

Tree Magic page at Impress Books: http://www.impress-books.co.uk/impress/tree-magic/ Tree Magic on Amazon.uk: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tree-Magic-Harriet-Springbett/dp/1911293001/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1485160742&sr=8-1&keywords=9781911293002 My Blog: https://harrietspringbett.wordpress.com Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/HarriSpringbett/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarriSpringbett