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Why Mysteries? Why Winchester? And why, for that matter, a blog at all?

I love mystery stories.  I also love history and historical novels, so it’s no surprise I now write Victorian mysteries.  Why Winchester? It’s a lovely place, the ancient capital of King Alfred’s Wessex – it’s a perfect setting for my books.

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Some Henges and a New Book

Yesterday we had a day out to Stonehenge, about 50 miles from here. The first time I visited was when I was about eight and on a school outing and we ate our sandwiches sitting on the stones lying around on the ground. The next time was not long before the Resident Engineer and I got married and you could still get up close to the stones. Not this time; not since the late 70s when it became clear that the ancient site couldn’t cope with the increased visitor numbers.

It’s nicely done though; the visitor centre works well and as members of the National Trust – and English Heritage – our cards let us through quickly, though it was a good job we were there quite early. A Saturday in July is probably not the most intelligent time to visit and we were glad to be leaving at midday when we saw the crowds and the fleets of coaches. Still, a mile and a half walk from the centre to the stones was worth it (shuttle bus back); peaceful apart from birdsong, lots of wild flowers and bees and butterflies – none of which we could identify. The stones are fenced off, but not officiously so, and you get an amazing view as you wander round, along with a commentary on your headphones.20160709_114638

(I could have bought a tapestry cushion in the shop but thought better of it, at £50, see above)

As we went in search of a pub lunch elsewhere – the visitor centre was extremely busy – we came across a sign to Woodhenge, less well-known than its stone neighbour. (It’s  bigger than it looks in my photo)20160709_144909

‘Woodhenge is an atmospheric Neolithic site close to Stonehenge. Probably built about 2300 BC, it was originally believed to be the remains of a large burial mound, surrounded by a bank and ditch almost completely destroyed by ploughing. Aerial photography (in the 1920s) detected rings of dark spots in a crop of wheat, and today concrete markers replace the six concentric rings of timber posts which are believed to have once supported a ring-shaped building. There is evidence that it was in use around 1800 BC.  It is possible that the banks and ditches were used for defensive purposes in addition to its ceremonial function.’ (English Heritage)

Unlike most things, it’s free to visit and – surrounded by fields and trees – it’s a peaceful, yet atmospheric spot. Well worth a visit.

And now for the very nice news. The third book in my contemporary cosy mystery series, starring Harriet Quigley, Blood on the Paintbrush, is to be published by Endeavour Press. Not sure when but sometime within the next twelve months, according to the contract! As I blogged earlier, I was wondering what to do with this book with the departure of Robert Hale Ltd, so it’s great to be able to say it’ll be out as an ebook first, followed shortly by a paperback. This will be a welcome novelty after all those hardbacks which are beautifully-made but extremely difficult to sell!

Blood on the Paintbrush: A weekend art course at an upmarket B&B near Winchester’s historic cathedral is bound to be relaxing and fun. Isn’t it?

Not when Linzi Bray, chairman of the local art group, is in charge and the house is full of people who loathe her. Accidents start to happen – in a ruined castle, in a fast-flowing river, in a peaceful garden. There’s a stalker – or is there? And there are far too many dead insects, as well as a pond full of blood and a vandalised Porsche.

It’s not the first time former headmistress, Harriet Quigley, and her cousin, the Reverend Sam Hathaway, have been embroiled in a mystery but this time they’re baffled. ‘It’s so amateurish,’ complains Harriet. ‘Phone calls, anonymous letters, somebody lurking in corners, it’s like some spiteful game.’

 Game or not, there’s a death, but is it murder? And then somebody else dies and the games all stop…

 As always in my books, you get bits of Winchester history, including a scene in this little beauty which featured in a famous Victorian novel!  St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate Church - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

 

 

 

 

The Abbey, Some Sheep, and the Deadly Dames

When I was six I bought a book at a jumble sale. It cost a penny and influenced the rest of my life. Not a classic, not a blinding light on the road to Damascus – I was only six after all – but a quiet book for girls, published in 1920. The title? ‘The Abbey Girls’ by Elsie J Oxenham, a prolific writer for girls and young women who produced around eighty books overall, nearly forty of which were sequels to the one I bought. The series came to be known as The Abbey Girls. (My copy wasn’t as posh as this picture of the first edition)abbey girls

My granny and I were great jumble sale attenders, always on the hunt for a bargain, usually a book or three, and I must have been a precocious reader because from my next birthday and for years afterwards I was given an Abbey book for birthdays and Christmas. As my birthday is Christmas Eve, this meant a double helping and an orgy of reading over the holidays.

The Abbey Girls triggered my fascination with books written in the late Victorian, Edwardian and post-WW1 period and infected me with the collecting bug. Many of the books are set in schools but all are written with the aim of influencing young girls. Some, admittedly, are heavily on the side of the Twentieth Century miss as a potential wife and mother but many others – particularly after the war – emphasise the need for a worthwhile career and the fulfilment of a single life. And of course, plenty of them argue that both are possible.a patriotic schoolgirl Influenced by these books I’m currently playing about with a cosy mystery set in 1918 featuring three intrepid young Twentieth Century girls!

What I didn’t know was that the Abbey of the books – set in Oxfordshire in the foothills of the Chilterns – was based on a real abbey. Elsie Oxenham picked up Cleeve Abbey, in the village of Washford in Somerset, and transplanted it to suit her story and she described it in such detail that you can walk round the real West Country ruins and recognise it. Apart, that is, from the features she invented for later books – the crypt, the secret passages, etc.CleeveAbbeygatehouse

Since I found out, about thirty years ago, we’ve visited Cleeve several times but I was delighted when cousins retired to the village next to the abbey, a few years ago. And even more chuffed when I was invited to talk to the local women’s group about my own books last week. They were an appreciative audience who applauded and laughed in the right places, and had no idea I was channelling the Abbey Girl who became an author herself!

Other diversions while in Somerset included being brave enough to play with the resident Rottweiler, and believe me, that’s not something I ever thought I’d say! But the dog is daft and gentle anyway. It’s not easy to make out but the dog, having allowed me to tickle her armpits, was suggesting I should tickle her nether regions – never going to happen!20160601_101718

I also met some adorable and inquisitive Jacob sheep. This is Little Friend who is thinking about nibbling my friend’s jacket. He was originally the skinniest triplet but now resembles a woolly coffee table on legs.20160601_184514

 

The Deadly Dames have been out and about lately: a trip to Portsmouth in April was fun and so was our May outing to Bognor Regis. I’m not keen on driving to strange places at night so it was a train ride to Portsmouth and for the Bognor gig I hitched a lift with fellow Dame, Charlie Cochrane, which was great.deadly dames at portsmouth

We’re booked in to Hythe Library on 13th September and have plans for further appearances, so if anyone wants a lively discussion on crime novels, we’re your women. Contact me as above.

Finally, with the assistance of my daughter, Liv, I now have a Pinterest account. I knew it would be fatally fascinating and so it’s proving, but I decided I’d like a board for each book, including the three works-in-progress. If you’d like to follow me, I’d be very happy to follow you too https://uk.pinterest.com/nicola8703/

Cruel and Unusual Gardening or How to Threaten Your Plants into Flourishing

The first Terry Pratchett novel I read was ‘Good Omens’ – the book about the Apocalypse, which he wrote with Neil Gaiman. I was very taken with the way the demon Crowley kept his indoor plants healthy and flourishing. He threatened them!good omens

Any plant that failed to thrive would be shown to all the others as an awful warning and taken out of the house. An hour or so later Crowley would return with an empty flower pot that would be left prominently on show.  As the book says, ‘The plants were the most luxurious, verdant, and beautiful in London. And the most terrified.’

Not having demonic powers I can’t claim that my house plants are fabulous but they do live under threat. When they’re planted, fed or watered – or more often when the dead leaves are picked off – I have a mantra that I use. It’s not quite like Prince Charles chatting fondly to his plants, it chimes better with the title of this post – cruel and unusual gardening. This is what I say to the cowering greenery in the conservatory and the few hardy survivors in the rest of the house: ‘You live, you die. Your choice.’

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About fourteen years ago I gave a friend an orchid for her birthday and then decided I’d like one as well. Sadly, Jill’s orchid didn’t survive but mine – a victim of neglect and vicious slurs on its abilities – has flourished. This year it went overboard and produced SIX flower spikes. I’ve patted it on the head and suggested that next year seven spikes would be a good thing. (See picture above)

The other spectacular success resulting from my systematic unkindness to dumb horticulture is what used to be known as a Kaffir Lily and is now called a Clivia. My father-in-law had two of these lilies and they were his pride and joy so when he died my sister-in-law and I each took one home. Ruth is a much more caring and competent gardener than I am but although her lily survived, it didn’t flower. Mine, responding in abject terror, began to send out plantlets like anything, along with spectacular bursts of long-lasting orange flowers. I now have about fourteen of the things which undeservedly make the conservatory look as though I actually do some work with the plants. (The secret of the lilies is that they shouldn’t be overwatered – though chance would be a fine thing for any of my house-plants.)

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My Victorian heroine, Charlotte Richmond, is mildly interested in plants but coming from Australia, pleads ignorance of English varieties – which is convenient for me. My contemporary sleuth, Harriet Quigley, is more of a gardener and is more like me in that she likes designing and planting but can’t be doing with the grunt labour. She is another one who uses the Cruel and Unusual Gardening technique and her garden is flourishing.

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And now for the commercial – THE DEADLY DAMES ride again!

KICK OFF WORLD BOOK NIGHT WITH

THE DEADLY DAMES

Portsmouth Central Library: World Book Night Eve Friday 22nd April

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Portsmouth Central Library is holding a Crime Fiction Quiz and panel event with The Deadly Dames to celebrate on the eve of WBN. It’s on Friday 22nd April, 6.30pm at Central Library.  Tickets are £2 per person (pay on the door).Maximum number permitted in a team is eight but participation in the Quiz is not compulsory – you can just enjoy listening to The Deadly Dames if you prefer! Soft drinks and snacks will be provided, but feel free to bring a bottle.

The Deadly Dames are Charlie Cochrane, Joan Moules, Nicola Slade, Eileen Robertson and Carol Westron, a panel of crime writers who bring their own humorous slant to books, writing, research and crime, past and present. The panel event will consist of a discussion about these topics and others and there will be plenty of time for audience questions.

(For this event, The Deadly Dames will be joined by guest author Christine Hammacott, whose début novel is set in Portsmouth.) Details from your local library or contact clare.forsyth@portsmouthcc.gov.uk by Monday 18th April.

 

 

 

 

 

Taking the waters

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Until I started writing a book about a holy well I had no idea how many of them were scattered around the British Isles. There are dozens of them! Some long gone and only remembered in the name, others reduced to a muddy puddle in a field, and some that still provide ‘healing water’ and solace to anyone who visits.

According to Wikipaedia: A holy well or sacred spring is a spring or other small body of water revered either in a Pagan or Christian context, often both. Holy wells were frequently pagan sacred sites that later became Christianised. The term ‘holy well’ is commonly employed to refer to any water source of limited size (i.e. not a lake or river, but including pools and natural springs and seeps), which has some significance in the folklore of the area where it is located, whether in the form of a particular name or an associated legend…

A well can be guarded by a spirit – an animal, a nymph, a dryad – though with the advent of Christianity many of the waters became the preserve of Christian saints.
In my latest book (currently in the hands of my agent), the holy well in question is known as the Lady’s Well and the locals are happy to let the incoming Christians believe it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary – but the Lady of the Well is a much, much older guardian.

My first inspiration for the Lady’s Well was not far away at the National Trust property, Mottisfont Abbey. As a member of the NT I often go to wander round the gardens, particularly the magnificent rose gardens and stand and gaze at the Font. This is a spring which is still flowing in the grounds – it’s approximately 12′ deep and 12′ across and at some stage in its history it was lined with clay.  http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mottisfont

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Another research trip took me to Rockbourne Roman villa which was discovered by a farmer digging out a ferret in 1942. This is also in Hampshire and well worth a visit. More details here – http://www.hampshire-history.com/rockbourne-roman-villa/ And a not-very-brilliant photo of the Roman well – taken by me.205

A bit further away from home is the peaceful and mystical Chalice Well at Glastonbury, at the foot of Glastonbury Tor. It is said that the red colouring of the water dates from the legend that Joseph of Aramathea visited the West Country and that he not only planted the famous Glastonbury Thorn, but that he hid the chalice from the last supper in the well – the chalice that caught drops of Christ’s blood. Alternatively, the colour comes from the iron nails used in the Crucifixion. If you don’t like either explanation, it could just be that there’s a lot of iron in the water! Read more here: http://www.chalicewell.org.uk/ (Photo taken from their website so I hope they don’t mind as I’m being complimentary about it!)chalice well

The most recent trip was to the Wishing Well at Upwey, near Weymouth. As my elder daughter was named after Princess Amelia, the youngest daughter of King George III, I was intrigued to discover that the king was a frequent visitor to Upwey and used to take the waters in a special gold cup. http://www.upweywishingwell.co.uk/history.html20160310_124159

My fictitious well is a very loose amalgam of these wells, with characteristics of its own, of course and it’s been fun visiting and making notes. Needless to say the Resident Engineer comes too but it’s no hardship to him as he’s interested in practical history – and there’s little that’s more practical than a well. Besides, these sites invariably have excellent tea-rooms! Or a nice pub nearby.

To read more about the sacred springs of these islands, check out this fascinating and informative website.
https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/about/

Sadly, you’re not supposed to drink the water these days, but as I’ve tasted the er – interestingly-flavoured waters at Bath, in the Pump Room, I can’t say I mind particularly.http://www.romanbaths.co.uk/walkthroughs/sacred-spring-and-associated-objects

 

Lost in Austen

A few years ago there was a flurry of Jane Austen films and/or television programmes – some of them were adaptations of the books, others were about Jane herself. I have them all on dvd and the only one I didn’t like much was Mansfield Park, but then it’s not a favourite novel either.

Besides this outbreak of Austiniana there was another, very different, take on her most famous novel. ‘Lost in Austen’ tells the story of a young modern woman who yearns for the manners and courtship and sheer romance of Elizabeth and Darcy’s time, a yearning that is only increased when her boyfriend proposes when he is drunk. And offers her a ring pull to seal the bargain.lostinA

Somehow, and it’s never explained how, which is probably just as well, the heroine, Amanda, (played by Jemima Rooper), discovers Lizzy Bennet in the bathroom of her Hammersmith flat. Lizzy has found a secret door that leads between the 21st century and Longbourn, the Bennet family home in Hertfordshire.

Naturally, Amanda steps through the door which Lizzy promptly closes – because she wants to explore the modern world. Amanda, meanwhile, once she’s got over the suspicion that she’s somehow fallen into a Candid Camera kind of show, is enchanted to find herself a guest in the Bennet family, and even more so when she hears there is a handsome new neighbour, Mr Bingley. It all goes horribly wrong when Bingley falls in love with Amanda and she – of course – falls for Darcy. Pic below is Mr Bingley who is sweet, but as thick as a brick!cambridgepunt

It sounds ridiculous, and of course it is, but it’s so charming and funny that you simply don’t care about the logistics, you just want it all to work out happily in the end – I think Jane Austen would have enjoyed it. Elliot Cowan’s Mr Darcy is even besotted enough to comply with her request that he should rise out of the pond in a wet shirt. ‘I’m having a post-modern moment,’ she giggles.darcywetshirtcowan

The performances are terrific, particularly Guy Henry’s utterly disgusting Mr Collins whose habits make you shudder, and who imports his own equally appalling brothers as suitors for the Bennet daughters. Best of all are Hugh Bonneville as Mr Bennet and Alex Kingston as the perpetually worried Mrs Bennet. I’ve always been sorry for her, stuck with a husband who isn’t bothered that she and the five girls will be homeless when he dies. Not only that, he makes snotty remarks about the folly of marrying a beautiful but foolish woman.

In all the Austen adaptations I’ve seen, Mrs Bennet is played as a fool and a scold and the worst example is in the Colin Firth version, where Mrs B screams all the time. She is also played by actresses who are too old whereas Mrs Bennet, whose eldest daughter is only about twenty-two, would almost certainly have been not much more than in her very early forties. The other thing about Mrs Bennet is that she can’t have been just a pretty face – she has to have been sexy, and not one of the earlier screen incarnations has indicated this.

Alex Kingston is terrific as a sexy, silly woman whose life is ruled by the fear of what is to become of her daughters when her feckless, careless husband departs this life. In ‘Lost in Austen’ Hugh Bonneville eventually realises this and there is a lovely scene after her set-to with Lady Catherine de Burgh. Mr Bennet, who has refused to sleep upstairs for some time, is delighted with his valiant wife and informs her that he will ‘sleep above stairs that night.’ Mrs Bennet’s squeal of excitement is pure delight. (I loved the series when it came out in 2008 and loved it all over again when I was given the dvd at Christmas).

 

In other news, I wondered, when David Bowie died, which well-known actor’s death would upset me as much as the Bowie fans. Should have kept my mouth shut because I found out, a couple of days later:alan rickmansheriff-of-nottingham-the-sheriff-of-nottingham-25662758-462-260

(All photos from places like Wikipaedia and film/tv sites so I hope there’s no breach of copyright!)

Christmas in a galaxy (oops, sorry) land, far, far away…

Long, long ago and in a land far, far away – Egypt, to be precise – the Slade family spent a Christmas away from home. It was – different. The Resident Engineer was working on a project there and we went along as extra baggage: wife, eight-year old, six-year old and 12 month-old. It was fun and weird and unforgettable. (Pic is of us in front of the Step Pyramid at Sakkara)110-img692

Initially it was only supposed to be for six months but we ended up living there for almost a year, long enough for the Big Two to go to the Cairo American College, which was also unforgettable. They both acquired Deep South accents as most of their classmates were ‘oilies’, in other words, the offspring of oil executives from Mississipi and Alabama and places like that. There weren’t that many Brits there so it was a truly international world of new friends for all of us.

When it came to choosing a school we could have sent them to a British one in Cairo itself but the problem there was that the school week was Monday to Friday, while the Engineer worked six days a week with Friday off. Cue the American school that fitted in with the local custom and whose week went Sunday to Thursday, so we had a 3rd Grader and a 1st Grader and we spent far more time around the school than we’d expected. The reason was that it acted as a centre for the expat community and held film viewings under a tented canopy and, best of all, parents were allowed access to the school library.

We had arrived in August when the heat was so intense I thought they’d left the engine running on the plane because the air was thrumming and by Christmas we were happily involved with various activities. The company paid for a maid(!) in the mornings and she taught the baby to speak Arabic, with the result that we’d be surrounded by laughing Egyptians when they chucked her under the chin and were squeaked at indignantly – in Arabic.

There had been anxious questions (from the 6 year old but not so many from her worldly-wise older brother) about whether Father Christmas would find us and whether he would cope with a flat roof on a block of flats and no chimney. He did, of course, though some of his presents had a distinctly local flavour, notably the sit-on camel that the baby received.97-img797

I rode my bike down to the village to look at Christmas trees (baby strapped in her wicker baby chair on the back)136-img841and found a man proudly selling trees made from a broom handle with green fuzzy spikes sticking out at the sides. I was quite taken with the idea but an American neighbour had a spare fake tree which she insisted we should keep and which did sterling service for years until the daughters made me chuck it out. Christmas pudding was easy, I’d packed one when we set out, but the rest of Christmas dinner was an improvised meal, shared by an American family and one of the Engineer’s colleagues, a young bachelor. (Pic is NIcky and two little girls at the Papyrus Institute in Cairo – always dragging the poor kids out to educational things and never been allowed to forget it!)124-img829

A month or so earlier we’d had a dinner party and served duck, which had proved slightly traumatic. It had come as a shock to find that we had to choose our ducks from a quacking flock and by Christmas the eight-year old hadn’t forgiven me for not letting him see the ducks being  – er ‘prepared’ in the market by their vendor wielding an axe. When it came to turkeys I was ready and made sure the dear, blood-thirsty little hooligan was out of the way.

The least welcome present we had that Christmas was chicken-pox, brought home from school by the eldest and generously donated to his sisters by New Year’s Eve. Luckily the friends who shared Christmas dinner with us had either had it (the adults) or in the case of the two visiting children, were probably going to get it anyway.

It was a strange and wonderful interlude in our lives and the elder children remember it quite clearly. Sadly, the youngest only remembers odd snippets – like the kitchen doors being blue, and nothing at all about being carried up inside the Great Pyramid by her father. (I disgraced myself that time by becoming claustrophobic in there and making a break for freedom!) We’ve never been back, though the eldest went to Egypt on his honeymoon and the middle one did a trip almost twenty years ago. I’d like to think we’d go back but probably not while that part of the world is still in turmoil, sadly.

Anyway, in other news: my most recent publisher, Robert Hale Ltd, has ceased trading as a publisher so my agent has just taken my latest book and plans to look for a home for it in the new year. If nobody wants it, I suspect I’ll think about self-publishing, but it’s in the lap of the gods for the moment.

Have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year with love from Nicky and the Engineer! (And the scary-looking Brady Bunch-style kids with a giant doll and chicken pox spots to match Liv’s rose-dotted pyjamas)139-img855

The Happiest Days…?

Look at that! Nearly three months since I last threw some words at this blog. There’s no excuse except that I’ve been busy writing. The trouble is, though, I’ve been writing TWO books at once – admittedly for the past couple of years – and although they’re nearly done, they’re not quite done. If that wasn’t enough, I’ve started a third book which is something I sneak off and play with, just for fun, but it all tends to put a stop to serious thoughts about actually getting something published.

I must say that the third book is fun to write. My younger daughter calls it my doll’s house and the friend who has read it complained loudly when she reached the end of the pitiful fifteen thousand word total. I hope to finish it sometime but there’s no hurry; it’s set in 1918 and there are three girls, one still at school; a dead (they hope) father; a distant mother who is a suffragette who writes racy novels under a pseudonym; a grandmother who failed dismally as a debutante by being sick all over Queen Victoria’s satin-clad feet, and a houseful of wounded officers in the small stately home next-door.Red Cross Hospital

Recently, I was having a discussion with some other writers about what, if any, encouragement we were given at school. The answer seems to have been, Not Much, for most of them, and school was often a barely-tolerated cross to bear. Not for me though. I loved school. When my mother put my name down at the small primary school down the road – the one that was built from Nissen huts left over from the First World War and were so fragile that a boy once punched a hole through the cardboard wall – she was told in no uncertain terms that she Must Not Teach Me To Read. So she didn’t and as the annual intake happened in the September after your fifth birthday I turned up on my first day aged 5 years and 9 months, unable to read (though not bothered about it). Alone out of the other forty-nine wailing children, I, (horribly precocious), informed the harassed teacher that I wasn’t supposed to be at her school. ‘Oh? Where should you be then?’ ‘I’m going to the grammar school,’ I announced. To which she replied, ‘I’m sure you will, eventually, Nicola. Now you’re here though, perhaps you’d help me with some of these children who are crying?’

I don’t remember learning to read but by my sixth birthday, on Christmas Eve, I could read fluently and was put up a year – the  downside of that being that I was too shy to ask where the girls’ loos were with the inevitable puddle as a result. (The answer was out in the arctic playground, with no glass in the windows, and a long way to walk (run) if it was raining.)

So – school was fine and I had no problems – apart from the entirely ludicrous requirement that had nine-year old girls (don’t know what the boys did) knitting. Not simple knitting though. I was presented with needles and wool and presumably a pattern and told to knit a pair of gloves. With fingers. After a month of hideous nights rent with screams and nightmares – and more puddles – I was a nervous wreck and my mother demanded that they set me to knit a plain scarf.

The grammar school was fine too – Parkstone Girls’ Grammar School – which, after I left school, was transferred to a modern building. (I bet it wasn’t as much fun as when we poked about in one of the old the attics and found a tiger skin rug complete with glass eyes and fearsome teeth!) We weren’t actively encouraged to write fiction as essays on dull topics were the order of the day but there was always an expectation that you could do anything you set your mind to and I did get a couple of poems in the school magazine. It was only after O Levels that I disliked school: not the lessons but the wasted hours doing games and PE, civics, music (which seems, at this distance, to have consisted of learning to sing ‘Who is Sylvia?’ for a whole term!) I should mention games, something I loathed with a passion and to this day the only sport I follow is tennis. (That’s probably because of the Australians of the day, with their long bronzed legs and tiny shorts – step forward John Newcome. Sigh…) My school consisted of several large Victorian and Edwardian houses scattered around a couple of acres. img783The art department was in another house, Torvaine, about half a mile up the road and the hockey field was just beyond that. To my eternal gratitude this field was low-lying and often flooded but we didn’t get away that easily. A little farther down the road was Poole Park with its football and hockey pitches. That was all right, the walk took time out of the lesson, but best of all were the times when our school field was flooded and the pitches in the park were already booked. That meant we had to walk towards Sandbanks (the millionaire’s paradise where, incidentally, my grandfather was offered the chance to buy an acre of land in about 1900 for the princely sum of £5! He couldn’t afford it and as my mother was the fifth child, I doubt if I’d have benefited even if he had.) Once we arrived at the Whitecliff playing field we had to pick up for teams. Naturally I’d made sure nobody ever picked me, though I could run pretty fast if I wanted to. The leftovers were told to play a scratch game out of the way and this is where it was fun. It takes a perverted kind of skill to hit a hockey ball on to the shore just far enough so you all have to clamber down to the beach to retrieve it, and not so far that the ball gets lost in the sea. Much more fun than running up and down after a ball with the hockey mistress (short hair held back by a Kirby grip, aertex shirt, and shorts that were known as ‘divided skirts’) shouting, ‘Where’s the left-wing? Oh – it’s you, Nicola.’

Enjoying school as I did it’s no wonder that I was an avid reader of stories of boarding schools, many of them dating back to the late nineteenth century – these, of course, are the inspiration for my pet project, the WW1 book. I have an awful lot of them, some ludicrous and some so beloved that I read them annually and sometimes more often. There are also modern stories set in schools I’d have given my eye-teeth to attend: Diana Wynne Jones’s ‘Witch Week’ school; Terry Pratchett’s ‘Assassin’s Guild’; Miss Cackle’s Academy and, of course, Hogwarts.

To this catalogue I can now add, ‘The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School’ by Kim Newman. Set in a gloomy boarding-school not long after World War I, this is a school story written by a writer of horror stories! He’s certainly done his research into the genre and it’s great fun to spot all the usual situations but the horrors creep in and it gets extremely scary!drearcliff

The Chronicles of St. Mary’s, the fabulous series written by Jodi Taylor, isn’t on the face of it, a school story, featuring as it does time travel, history, death, murder, mystery, comedy and lashings and lashings of margaritas, beer and head-banging sex. However, the setting is an historic stately home, everyone lives-in at their workplace, discipline is strict (most of the time) and when summoned to the Director’s office, the historians are as nervous as any third-former at the Chalet School.one damned thing

Reading, writing and faffing about

It’s been a bitty kind of summer so far: some writing, some travelling, some visitors, some visiting and lots and lots of reading. When Kindles first appeared I didn’t think I’d bother to buy one. Our house groans under the combined tonnage of books and bookshelves and when we travelled I would normally trawl round the charity shops for a handful of fat paperbacks, leaving them in hotels or even in restaurants as we went. This wasn’t always successful as lots of hotels, etc, have shelves for guests to browse and to take and leave books so I’d often arrive home with more books than I started.

bookpileOur first trip to Sydney to see the family changed all that when I realised I wouldn’t be able to carry enough books to last me a couple of long-distance flights, let alone nearly six weeks away from home, so I obviously needed a Kindle. And what a godsend it was – once I’d worked out that the battery would need charging occasionally. That was more than three years ago and we’ve been on several more long trips since, always with my sanity intact courtesy of my Kindle. This year, however, I decided I needed a tablet too, so to reduce the stress levels of Nicky learning new technology I bought a Kindle Fire HDX and that’s even better. I can read in bed without putting the light on!

It’s all about the reading. Some people can’t function without a cigarette or a drink or chocolate, I can’t function without something to read and this year I’ve discovered some fabulous books. (Chocolate is always welcome though…and a drink, too)

No.1 in the list of Books I’m Glad I Found is ‘One Damned Thing After Another’ by Jodi Taylor, the first book in The Chronicles of St. Mary’s. A couple of friends insisted that I’d love this book – which is usually enough to make me sure that I won’t – but they were right. I bought it, read it, loved it, and on the spot bought everything else she had written, something I’ve never done in a long, long history of loving books. one damned thing after another coverI won’t give away too many clues about St Mary’s, it’s better to fall into it unawares, but the books are clever, funny, wicked, tragic, sexy and totally addictive. I’ve cried with laughter and I’ve cried at the tragedies and there aren’t that many series I can say that about. (If you haven’t come across Jodi Taylor’s books, do take a look but be warned, there’s a porn-writer of the same name!)

Next on the list is ‘A Man of Some Repute’ by Elizabeth Edmondson. This is a cosy mystery set in the early 1950s, with all the ingredients you could possibly need: a handsome, damaged hero with a mysterious past; a castle; a village; an intriguing heroine; a missing aristocrat; and sundry townsfolk, policemen, villains, and so on. And even better news is that there’s a new book out soon in this series.)a man of some reputeMy latest find is a very old book, now republished as an ebook. ‘Old Friends & New Fancies’ by Sybil Brinton, was published in 1914 and is the first known sequel to Pride & Prejudice. oldfriends and new fanciesIt’s certainly the best I’ve read. We meet the Darcys, of course, a few years after their marriage, but to my delight we also go to parties where we encounter Mr & Mrs George Knightley, with Emma still matchmaking. Best of all, we discover Captain Wentworth and his quiet, elegant wife and for me the icing on the cake is that they’re living in Winchester, just down the road from me. (I bought another Austen sequel, written in the late 1940s, ‘Pemberley Shades’ by D A Bonavia-Hunt – also out as an ebook. It’s also excellent.)pemberley shades Besides reading I’ve been house-spotting, a favourite pastime. One of the books I’m currently revising has an early Tudor house at its heart so I’ve been taking photos of likely-looking places wherever I find them. It helps me sort out the geography of the rooms. I’ve also kept an eye out for sacred or healing springs and was glad to find a Roman well at Rockbourne Roman villa. Some time or other I’ll actually finish the book and see what my agent thinks of it – it’s historical and not a mystery but there are dead bodies in it.

Finally, I bravely set up a brief Amazon free promotion for Scuba Dancing last week. kindlecoverScuba_PFM_5JI know some authors who are marvellous at promotion but although I admire them, I’m rubbish at it. I cringe at idea of asking people to Buy My Book and do an Amazon review, but sadly it’s the way to go these days. Anyway, I dipped a tentative toe in the water and friends were  lovely about spreading the word. Now it’s over I’ve had a few people tell me they’ve now bought the mysteries too. As one reader put it, ‘I’ve spent real money!’ For which I thank her very much.

Size matters – when it comes to Sicily

The thing you have to remember about Sicily is that it’s BIG. Much, much bigger than you imagine. When we first went there in 2002 I found a farm that had been converted into a hotel/holiday accommodation. It was bang in the middle and with breath-taking ignorance I decided we’d be able to visit the rest of the island in day trips. This was based on my mistaken belief that Sicily is about the size of the Isle of Wight.  It isn’t, it really, really isn’t.

Anyway, as you can imagine, there were bits of Sicily (quite a few, actually) that we didn’t see, as well as some we wanted to revisit, so this year, Sicily was the place to go. As I’ve said before, everyone assumes that our predilection for railway trips is based on the Engineer’s passion for preserved railways, but it’s not. I like trains too so I came up with the bright idea of going to Sicily by train – all the way. (You can even stay in the train when it goes on to the ferry across to Messina.) WP_000286The original plan was to fly home but while we were planning the trip there was a particularly nasty plane crash (yes, I know they all are, but that one was wicked). I’m more a resigned air passenger than a frightened one but when I cunningly suggested we should travel both ways, the idea went down very well.

Not everyone would imagine their trip from London to Sicily would include stops in Paris and Milan, as well as a return journey via Rome, Milan, Switzerland, Amsterdam and Harwich, but then, not everyone would have crossed the Alps in the scenic Bernina Express, but it was a fabulous trip.

We stayed in Catania on the east coast and concentrated our six night visit on the south-eastern corner of Sicily. On our first visit we went to the astonishing Roman villa at Piazza Armerina, (this is the famous mosaic of female athletes in leather bikinis)

WP_000300a place I really wanted to revisit. It was just as fabulous the second time around and as a Unesco World Heritage site, it’s beautifully looked after. The other reason for choosing that area was none other than Il Commissario Montalbano, who lives there in the fictitious town of Vigata. We both love the tv series although I get fed up with the cavalier way they treat evidence and the way that Inspector Montalbano gets his kit off in every episode and sleeps with suspects, murderers, mourners, anything with a pulse really. (I like his sidekick Augello, though and Fazio who does all the work).

You can do Montalbano tours and visit the locations, either the ones Camilleri used in the books, or the television locations. With this in mind we headed for Montalbano’s house, which turns out to be a B&B. We had lunch nearby, though not overlooking the beach where he found a dead horse.WP_000306 The town of Ragusa doubles on TV as Vigata and looks amazing from the opposite hill, where you get the full impact of the old town.WP_000443

I thought about this Literary Tourism last week when a friend asked me to show her where I murdered somebody in Winchester. Cue startled shop assistant nearby. I fantasise about readers pottering round the cathedral looking for the exact seat in the side chapel where one of my characters is murdered in ‘A Crowded Coffin’, and standing in the Crypt (as did Sam Hathaway in ‘Murder Fortissimo’, while another man stared at the statue by Antony Gormley.)Presentation4a One day…

A bit of welcome praise and an afternoon pretending I was Harriet Vane let loose in Oxford.

Time I remembered I’ve got a blog, particularly as I’ve received a real boost to the ego in the shape of a spot in a new book, ‘How to Write Crime by Sarah Williams, published by Constable Robinson. Unusually, Sarah tackles the How To… rather differently from other books on the subject. What she does is divide the book into chapters, each dealing with a particular type of crime novel: the cosy, the consulting detective, hard-boiled crime, and so on. Each chapter then takes one novel by a particular author and discusses how it is written and why it works.

So far so good, but what is it to do with me? Because Sarah Williams has chose‘Murder Fortissimo’, my first Harriet Quigley contemporary mystery as the model for The Cosy Mystery chapter, that’s why! I’m extremely flattered and slightly stunned to see that I somehow did the right thing when I wrote it, even though I had no idea I was doing it, and what reduced me to tears was this:

‘Before looking in detail at the passage from Nicola Slade, perhaps one of the foremost contemporary practitioners of the form…’

Now, I should probably be exhorting people to buy Sarah’s book, and I do and I thank her very much for her kind words, but even more urgently, I’d like to encourage people to buy my book! (available from Amazon et al)

MFcoverfinal_originalAs for the trip to Oxford, this was with my Deadly Dames hat on. Last June I did a talk at Abingdon library which was well-attended and which I really enjoyed. Chatting to the librarian, Lynne Moores, I happened to mention that I was a member of a discussion panel, the Deadly Dames, composed of mystery writers and that we were, as our standard joke has it, available for Weddings, Funerals and Bar Mitzvahs. Lynne told the organisers of the Bookcrossing Convention about us and we were delighted to receive an invitation to perform at St Hilda’s College on Saturday, 11th April. We were very glad to welcome again our adopted Dame, Peter Tickler, whose crime novels are set in Oxford and he was introduced as a Chevalier. (Find out about Bookcrossing – http://www.bookcrossing.com/)
We had a large and enthusiastic audience and enjoyed ourselves immensely – and hope to be invited again sometime, particularly as their conferences are international ones. We’ll travel…

DeadlyDamesOxfordApril2015

Here we are, doing our Deadly Thing: L to R Charlie Cochrane, Peter Tickler, Carol Westron, Eileen Robertson and me (for once looking slightly less fierce than usual)

As for Harriet Vane – well, Dorothy L Sayers was actually at Somerville, rather than St Hilda’s, but it was good enough and I secretly pretended I was at Shrewsbury College, and that Lord Peter Wimsey would turn up any time soon.