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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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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…

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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.

Another Cathedral and Eighty People with Murder on their Minds

lincoln cathedral

I’ve just been to Lincoln for the 2015 Crime Writers’ Association annual conference. The only previous one I’ve attended was just down the road in Southampton in 2012 so Lincoln was much more of an adventure. I intended to go by train but when the Resident Engineer decided he’d like a trip to Lincoln too I was happy to let him drive. It would have taken about three changes by train and probably a week to get there if I’d had to drive as I hate motorways and would have pootled cross-country getting side-tracked by pretty villages and stately homes and panicking at sight of a dual-carriageway.

Lincoln is one of those cathedral cities that we do so well in this country –  two thousand years of history under your foot, under your nose and in front of your eyes. I love it and if it happened to be in Hampshire I’d move there like a shot and buy one of the wonderful historic houses in the Cathedral Quarter. (Millionaire budget allowing, of course.) I cantered (it’s hard to do otherwise) down Steep Hill and staggered up again, stopping for a cup of tea on the way to get my breath back.The Steep

Anyway, the conference. While the Engineer drove round Lincolnshire in search of things that float his boat – a foundry, a watermill, some canals, an RAF museum and a WW2 airfield where a kindly volunteer helper forced him to eat ham rolls and apple pie because none of the usual male volunteers had turned up for lunch and she was clearly pining to feed someone – I was enjoying the lectures at the conference.

It was enlightening to hear  how the ‘New Tricks’ teams really work on cold cases, and entertaining (in a slightly gruesome way) to be conducted through a couple of real-life cases involving missing persons and murder. Made me glad I mostly write Victorian mysteries where forensic science and even fingerprints aren’t part of an investigation into murder.

With about eighty other writers present it’s not the done thing to plug one’s own books but I did manage to mention that my books are all out as e-books which is great, and one person (of impeccable taste)  said she loved my books and told me she would be checking out the e-books. Also, not many people realised that my publisher, Robert Hale, now has a paperback imprint called Buried River Press. So far it’s only for new submissions but one day I’d love to get my books into paperback. We’ll see…

Another talk was by an e-book-only publisher. I was interested to find out what he does in the way of promoting his authors and not surprised to find that essentially he does what they all do: tweets, Facebook, internet promotions, etc. This led on to a discussion about self-published authors and publicity, etc. which rammed home the fact (which I knew anyway) that a self-publisher has to become a publisher him- or herself and work at it! I’m all admiration for those self-publishers who dedicate themselves to what was described frankly as the ‘drudgery’ of promotion and publicity. As my only self-published e-book, Scuba Dancing, (originally published by Transita Ltd) sells intermittently, sometimes with an encouraging spike but also – occasionally – with a grand monthly sales total of five copies – it’s probably time to pull my socks up and do something about it!

Finally, it’s always interesting to meet and talk to writers whose books you don’t happen to have come across and I’m certainly going to investigate books by Shetland author Marsali Taylor and Devonshire-based writer Margaret Duffy. Keeping me company during the talks was fellow Deadly Dame, Eileen Robertson, who writes excellent cosy mysteries ‘with an edge to them’!

NB To become a member of the Crime Writers’ Association you have to have had a crime novel published by a ‘traditional’ publisher.

(The photos of Lincoln are from Wikipedia)

Hibernation, Saxon jewels, a cathedral, and some welcome praise.

 I seem to have been hibernating since Christmas, partly because I picked up a graveyard cough – the one that half the population seems to have suffered from – and it took weeks to get over it. I swear that at times I’d wake in the night to see Burke & Hare looking impatiently at their watches and hefting their shovels while I hacked away.

The other reason for the Groundhog retreat is that it’s been really cold – not by most people’s standards, but we live in a sheltered spot in England’s Deep South, where primroses bloom at Christmas but where I’ve never, ever seen snow on Christmas Day, and it’s been really, really chilly. Anyway, the daffodils and primroses are out now, the crocuses are all over the lawn, including some in places I certainly didn’t plant, and the birds and the squirrels are chasing each other all through the wood at the bottom of the garden. So I might actually perk up a bit!

Despite barking like a seal for weeks, I broke cover for one or two things, one of which was a trip to Somerset and while there we saw the fabulous King Alfred Jewel in the Taunton Museum, on a brief visit from its usual home at the Ashmolean in Oxford.Alfred_Jewel_Ashmolean_2014

In my second contemporary mystery, ‘A Crowded Coffin’, there is mention of a wonderful Saxon jewel that, while nothing like the King Alfred one, was certainly inspired by it, so it was great to see it.   Read all about it here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Jewel

I love Winchester Cathedral (as I may have mentioned previously) so I was happy to do a tour a few weeks ago, with a bunch of bookish friends. Every February they take out all the chairs and leave the floor bare, as it would have been before the Reformation when the congregation stood. A guide told us that the chairs came in when Protestant clergymen began to preach very long sermons, sometimes more than two hours long.
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There’s also a tiny, secret carving of a snail amid a spray of roses (start at the bottom of the carving and go up a bit – it’s very small). This is on the Bishop Waynflete chantry.

Finally, I’ve had some lovely reviews recently – and several people have told me that they cried at the end of the most recent Charlotte Richmond book, ‘The Dead Queen’s Garden’.This is music to my ears, it’s great to know you can move readers to laughter and tears.I’m enormously grateful to these readers for posting such terrific reviews, it makes it all worth while.

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‘It’s always refreshing to find a historical fiction heroine who you would dearly like to meet in real life – or to find somewhere in your family tree. Charlotte Richmond is just such a character. If she seems a little too good to be true, that’s because of the facade which she has put up herself, to disguise a decidedly unorthodox past, but she is well on the way to re-inventing herself and the reader wishes her every success and the comfortable, family-orientated life for which she yearns. But, in both this book and the two sequels which follow it, murder is never far away and threatens to unsettle everything for her… Highly recommended – the best historical whodunnits I’ve read in a long while!’

 ‘Victorian era books aren’t really my thing, but I’ve read Nicola’s other books and I should have known it wasn’t going to be dull and uptight. It is a well written book with interesting characters who are multi-faceted. Charlotte is a lively character with an interesting past and an astute eye. The murder is indeed most welcome as the victim is an unpleasant character and I was very glad to finally see the back of him.’

 Having devoured the first in the series, the second was equally fascinating. Murder, a bit of European history and a different look at Bath. There were some great characters in this specific book and I loved Nicola’s characterisation of the young girl, but her development of both Charlotte and Elaine was what really interested me. It is a book with many threads and you may not realise the relevance of tiny details until the murderer is revealed. It might be a Victorian murder mystery but it’s modern and humorous and much recommended

 ‘Nicola Slade has done it again. The third instalment of her ‘Charlotte’ series was as good as her first and the whole series is multifaceted and marvellous. You get absorbed and don’t realise you are learning things you never knew, whether that is historical, literary or just who murdered who. This Victorian Murder Mystery series is witty, lively and engaging. Nicola’s writing reminds me of Cold Comfort Farm and I mean that as a compliment as she sees, through her heroine, the faults of the time. She did, however, make me cry with this book, a sub-plot came to fruition and I had missed her signposting, mostly cos I was engrossed in the whodunnit element. I can’t wait for the next book.’

‘Should never have relied on the satnav to guide us to Bethlehem…’

PolarBear2

This unfinished picture – and goodness knows why I decided to paint a polar bear, but never mind that now – was going to be this year’s Christmas card, with the addition of a tasteful star in the top left-hand corner. However, as we only arrived home three weeks ago after our trip to Australia and New Zealand, and the Resident Engineer had a hip replacement operation just over a week ago, the painting remains unfinished and the cards I eventually sent are in aid of the National Autistic Society.

Had the card made it to the print shop, I’d have had to choose a title for the picture, or perhaps a greeting inside. I mulled over the one at the top of this post but decided it didn’t make sense and the alternative, ‘I didn’t expect Bethlehem to be this cold’ seemed a touch irreverent, while ‘Follow the Star’ just seemed bonkers. Still, it might well be next year’s card, so I’m holding it in abeyance.

So – Christmas. If you’re feeling hard-done by when you’re unwrapping a lovely hand-knitted vest or a woolly hat that looks like a tea-cosy but sadly isn’t, it could be worse. Think of the present I received one year from an elderly relative. The card said, Happy Christmas, Birthday (24th Dec) & Wedding Present (13th Jan)! All in one.

And just thank your lucky stars you’re unlikely to be given any of the books advertised at the back of some of my vast collection of Victorian, Edwardian and Twenties & Thirties novels, for instance:

Living & Loving’ by Virginia Townsend – “A collection of beautiful sketches which evince all the vigour, freshness, and attractiveness so peculiar to this popular authoress, and which are highly instructive.”

Or this:

Villa of Dreams’ by Ethel C Nicol – (A Sea Adventure off Monaco).  “Armand de Brussac, victim of an uncontrolled passion, kidnaps Daphne Howard and carries her aboard his yacht.His accomplices are misinformed that the girl is his wife, that her reason has been affected by disease, and that no account is to be taken of any words that she may utter.

The plot, however, is suspected by Major James Truesdale, an Englishman, who pursues the vessel by means of a hydroplane. Throughout an adventurous series of incidents the Author has never wandered from realism, or suffered herself to be betrayed into those impossibilities and absurdities which are so often to be found in tales of peril and dare-devilry.”

One more, which sounds even more of a barrel of laughs:

‘Nightfall’ by Mrs Keith Murray   –   “A story in which the heroine, wife of a dissolute opera-producer, determines to win her freedom. During her husband’s absence in America she again meets the man whom she now realizes to be her affinity; but, after some days spent innocently in his company, a tragedy supervenes which requires prompt action.

Sooner, however, than shatter her present dream she gambles with her life for the sake of his love.

The characterisation is drawn with unusual power, while the narrative is extremely interesting.”

After all this travelling and playing at being Florence Nightingale (or more likely Nurse Ratchett) I’m planning to get back to revising my current work-in-progress soon. Christmas Day seems a good time to start – the better the day, the better the deed, as the saying goes.

Have a good one, from Nicky and the Resident Engineer.

Where do the characters come from?

Now I’ve recovered from jet-lag I was going to blog about our recent trip (nearly six weeks) to Australia and New Zealand, and the stopovers in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur. I was going to talk about how on our last trip (2012) I had been conscious almost all the time in Australia, and particularly in Tasmania, of my Victorian sleuth’s presence. Charlotte was just out of my vision all the time, but I knew she was there, even to the faintest flutter of a crinoline rounding a corner. She didn’t put in a single appearance during the latest trip though I did catch a fleeting glimpse of her charming but erratic stepfather, Will, so I expect I’ll use that in a later book.

However, instead of writing about the Australian odyssey I’ve been diverted by a comment from a friend who said that if someone wrote a Little Miss book about me, it would be Little Miss Acerbic. How right she is – it’s the family’s default position – and it made me think about some of the questions readers always ask:

‘Do you put real people in your books?’ The answer to that is (a) No, of course not and (b) Sometimes, but only bits of them, ie interesting characteristics and odds and ends that make up a patchwork.

Then there’s the other frequently asked question: ‘Are your characters based on you?’ And the answer to that is: Yes, and No. Obviously any character an author creates is going to be mined from inside to some extent but I like to make a conscious effort not to make a carbon copy, which would be pretty boring anyway. So my two sleuths, Charlotte Richmond and Harriet Quigley do share some traits with me, but they’re sufficiently different from me and from each other to stand alone.

Young Australian widow, Charlotte, is a child of her time – the mid-nineteenth century – she’s not a rebel and because of her insecure and shady upbringing, she is desperate to blend in with her wealthy English in-laws, so she’s always on the alert for danger, ready to disappear at a moment’s notice. Charlotte’s instinct when trouble looms, is to run away. In appearance Charlotte is tall and slim, dark-haired and hazel-eyed and despite her erratic childhood, she’s had a widely eclectic education, mainly courtesy of her godmother, the unusually generous (in several ways), Lady Meg, who taught her all kinds of things, including appreciation of Miss Austen’s work, fluent French and how to set up a smokescreen as a blameless bluestocking by being knowledgeable about architecture, art, etc. Charlotte is clever and resourceful, kind and lonely.

Harriet Quigley, however, is very different and is rarely lonely. I’ve always been fascinated by the few people I’ve met who are completely confident in their own skin so I decided to create a character like that. Harriet is tall and slim and clever, rather posh, privately-educated and comfortably off, and she’s always done the right thing. A highly-respected headmistress she is upright and law-abiding and generally an admirable creature but she’s saved from priggishness by the kindness of her heart and a couple of traits she’s slightly ashamed of: she’s a bit vain, she’s squeamish about hospitals (not an advantage in ‘Murder Fortissimo’)MFcoverfinal_originaland she’s terrified of heights (which is a bit of a drawback in her second adventure ‘A Crowded Coffin’).ACrowdedCoffincoverWhen trouble threatens Harriet’s instinct is to tackle it head-on and wallop it into submission!

Interestingly I’ve had several readers tell me how much they love Sam, Harriet’s clergyman cousin which is rather nice. The Resident Engineer, when I told him this, was inclined to be smug, assuming that Sam is based on him, to which I said, ‘No, he’s much nicer than you!’ (Though I have given Sam a few similarities: the passion for steam trains, the engineering background and – I hope! the devotion to his wife.)

So, do my heroines share anything with me? I’m tall, though Harriet is taller still; they’re both slim (which I used to be!) and they both devour books. Charlotte’s favourite Jane Austen book is  ‘Emma’ (as is mine), and Harriet collects Edwardian books for girls, as I do, though her dolls’ house collection is borrowed from a friend. Both ladies are far cleverer than I am and much braver though they do have the same tendency to see the funny side of things at entirely the wrong moment. And they’re much, much nicer than I am!

Going back to the comment that kicked off this blog post, I have to admit that Harriet is definitely Little Miss Acerbic and that I know exactly where she gets it from!

As for the amazing and marvellous creatures we spotted on our recent marathon trip to the other side of the world, not one of them was as wonderful as these three, L to R: Joe (12), Jack (9) & Jim (nearly 11).WP_000314

Time Travelling in Winchester

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I tend to forget that the title of this blog suggests that I post an occasional bit of info about Winchester, so today’s effort is all about that ancient and beautiful city that happens, so conveniently, to be about six miles from my front door. Not only that, it’s well supplied with history, mystery, coffee shops and other delights where I can potter around and call it Research. So today I’m into architecture which, in a city that was thriving before the Romans arrived and rechristened it Venta Belgarum, it’s virtually impossible to avoid noticing.

A few weeks ago I was mooching around town when I spotted that the sky had turned black. Not in a biblical watch-out-here-comes-damnation kind of way, more of advance warning that it was going to bucket down. I wasn’t far from the Cathedral so I nipped in there and sat and read my Kindle not far from Jane Austen’s tomb. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind in the least. While in there I took a look at my favourite statue of all time, the man in the crypt (Sound II) by Anthony Gormley (pic). You weren’t allowed in though for once the floor was completely dry, but you could stand and stare, which I do – frequently. It’s a fabulous piece of work and never more so than when the crypt floods and the statue is up to its knees in water.Sound_II_revisited

After dropping into the Venerable Chapel and rather cold-bloodedly sitting in the exact spot where I murdered someone in ‘A Crowded Coffin’, I realised the rain had stopped so I went off in search of more history. Not hard to find but a favourite of mine is the interior of what used to be an antiquarian bookshop, Gilbert’s. The interesting feature here is the C15 framed interior – 15C interior gilbertsbookshop(This is an old picture from the Web, I’m rubbish at photography). Sadly, the books are long gone and it’s now an upmarket furniture and homewares emporium.

Now I was on a mission (I don’t get out much) and it was lunchtime so I ambled into Godbegot House (nothing to do with God, it means ‘good bargain’) . It’s now an Ask Pizza place and I don’t like pizza but for the sake of geekiness I had a cheesy mushroom starter.Photo and info can be found here: http://www.cityofwinchester.co.uk/history/html/god_begot.htmlGodBegot2

I finished the week of architectural wanderings by taking the Resident Engineer out to lunch on his birthday at The Chesil Rectory, which claims to be the oldest building in Winchester. Lunch was fabulous and as the loos are upstairs I was able to snoop around up there to my heart’s content. Info and photo here: http://www.chesilrectory.co.uk/about-us/the-building/chesilrectory

I’ve now started to look more closely at the buildings and it’s clear that if you scratch any red-brick façade you’ll find a mediaeval gem behind it, so if anyone’s interested in Winchester, this is an informative site: http://www.cityofwinchestertrust.co.uk/trust/pubsquare/desc1.shtml

Other news, ‘Murder Most Welcome’, my first Charlotte Richmond Victorian mystery seems to be available as an e-book at only £1.79 http://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Most-Welcome-Nicola-Slade-ebook/dp/B00CCTWQXQ/ref=la_B0034Q1G8W_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1412275207&sr=1- This is the book that a reviewer described as ‘one of the most entertaining novels I’ve ever read…’  The second and third books in the series, ‘Death is the Cure’ and ‘The Dead Queen’s Garden’ are also at a lower price.  (NB if anyone has read and enjoyed my books I’d be hugely grateful for an Amazon review or two – they do matter. Mind you, I’d rather not have anything under 3 stars!)

And you might notice I’ve changed my profile picture. This is a rare one in which I don’t look as though I’m about to bite, or as though a cobra has reared up in front of me. The reason for the cheerful grin is that it was taken at a posh champagne reception and I was feeling no pain!

The Deadly Dames invade Cornwall!

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Here we are – in July – doing our thing at the Penzance Literary Festival. From the left: Charlie Cochrane, Carol Westron, Eileen Robertson, and me. Our fifth dame, Joan Moules, couldn’t make it this time.

We had a great time and the audience joined in enthusiastically, asking lots of questions and laughing in all the right places!  Carol is an excellent question master and keeps us in line most of the time, though it’s a bit like herding cats.

Besides the usual questions: why do we write cosy crime? what’s with all the humour when we’re tackling serious themes? Carol often quizzes us on which fictitious sleuth we’d like to introduce to our own protagonists. After a genteel display of lust when three of us settled on Supt Christopher Foyle (as played by Michael Kitchen), Carol won’t let us choose him any more, so I opted for Margery Allingham’s long, lean, bespectacled detective, Albert Campion; Charlie chose Montagu Egg, Dorothy Sayers’ less well-known detective; Eileen wanted C.J.Sanson’s Shardlake, and Carol picked Gervase Fen (Edmund Crispin).

We love being Deadly Dames so if you’re setting up a literary festival and would like a lively panel discussion about writing traditional mysteries – just get in touch! Penzance was a long way from our Hampshire homes but we dragged some of the husbands along and turned it into a short break. We’ll happily consider travelling – as long as it promises to be fun!

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And this is what I’m doing at the moment – actually writing a novel!

 

One Man’s Story…

With hindsight it probably wasn’t a great idea to go to Avebury on the day of the summer solstice. We knew better than to go near Stonehenge because of the crowds that gather to see the sunrise, but it hadn’t occurred to me, when I decided I wanted to walk down the avenue of monoliths in nearby Avebury, that there’d be an overflow of stone-huggers from Stonehenge.

avebury

Read about it on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avebury

Anyway, we set off across idyllic countryside – England in June on a brilliant hot summer’s day, what could be nicer? Somehow we missed the turning for Avebury and as it was coffee time we stopped at a nice-looking pub. A pub with shelves full of books – it took the Engineer some time to drag me away. When we left, I had two books with me; as he  said: ‘Oh good, more books, just what we need.’ As indeed we do, you can never have too many books.

One of the books is called ‘Mrs Green Again’ by the elegantly named Evelyne E Rynd and it was published in 1915. I paid a pound for it solely because of a pencilled inscription inside the front cover.bookinscription1915haddoncropped

It’s dated 1915 and written in very faint pencil: A copy of this book was one of the last things Esmond acknowledged receiving. He said, “I was glad to see dear Mrs Green again: I think she’s funnier than ever.”

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that something happened to Esmond in 1915 and it doesn’t take a genius to suspect what that could have been. I suspected that M Haddon was his mother and I felt that she would have wanted to feel that he wasn’t forgotten.

Thanks to the wonders of Google, I found him.

Capt Harold Esmond Haddon  born in India, 29th December 1888, Killed in action in Kut-el-Amara, Mesopotamia, 24th December 1915

He was very brave, was Esmond, mentioned in despatches, and he was only five days away from his twenty-seventh birthday when he died. He’s  buried in Kut War Cemetary which is in Baghdad and  I found his army record:

Rank: Captain, Regiment: 119th Indian Infantry (Mooltan Regiment)

Honors/awards: 3 Times Mentioned In Despatches

I also found a family history page but there are discrepancies, for one thing he’s credited with a wife whom he apparently married at the age of twelve! but the basic facts seem to agree.

Harold Esmond HADDON was born on 29 Dec 1888 in India. He died on 24 Dec 1915 in Kut-el-Amara, Mesopotamia.  Letters of Administration granted to his wife, Margaret Haddon, on 4 Jul 1916 in London (This has to mean his mother whose name was Margaret). Harold’s (known as Esmond to his mother) effects were valued at £300.3.10. He was a Captain in 119th (Mooltan Reg) Indian Infantry during World War 1. He was buried in Kut War Cemetery, Iraq. There is an inscription in Langham Baptist burial ground to Harold: “Lieut Temp Capt 119th Infantry (The Mooltan Reg) Indian Army, younger son of T.W. Haddon, born Dec 29th 1888. Killed in action at Kut et Amara, Mesopotamia on Xmas eve 1915. Mentioned in Dispatches.” Prior to going to war Harold was living at 4 Hervey Road, Blackheath, Kent. (Taken from a genealogy site)

I’m quite sure that the M Haddon who wrote the note in my copy of the book was Esmond’s mother Margaret and I hope she would be glad that another mother, a hundred years after the Great War began, found her book and thought fondly of Esmond.

I haven’t read the book yet – it looks hard going, tales of a cockney charlady’s wit and wisdom as told by a lady visiting the vicarage where she chars. But I’m glad it cheered Esmond up – he probably needed a few laughs.

As for Avebury – we couldn’t park anywhere near it and it was full of earnest-looking people communing with the stones: hugging them, holding hands in circles round them, and a few people actually picnicking round them. We thought we’d try again another day and went off to find another pub for lunch instead.

And finally, a nice 5* star review for The Dead Queen’s GardenCharlotte Richmond, young widow with a shady past, has settled down in Hampshire living with her late husband’s grandmother and close to her brother and sister in law Lily and Barnard. It is Christmas and Lord and Lady Granville have moved to their country house nearby when Lady Granville’s lady’s maid is found dead in the grounds of their home. Then a young woman dies after being taken ill following a Christening party held by Lily and Barnard and Charlotte’s nose for a mystery starts to twitch.

I found this book entertaining reading. Charlotte is far from being a conventional Victorian heroine as she is resourceful and curious and interested in things which no well bred young woman should be interested in. She finds plenty to occupy her curiosity over the Christmas period, though her enjoyment is dampened at times by the impending death of her friend Elaine Knightley.

I had worked out what was going on though not who the murderer was quite early on in the story though I still enjoyed finding out exactly who was responsible. I recommend this series to anyone who likes historical crime with an unusual heroine. The series can be read in any order.

 

Trains and boats and planes.

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Do you ever do that thing when you’re on a plane and wishing you weren’t, and you pretend it’s not a plane at all, but a train? So it’s not going to fall out of the sky after all? No? Just me then…

(Actually I was just being poetic, there aren’t any boats, just trains and planes…)

People assume that we go on trains a fair amount because the Resident Engineer is a steam buff, what with spending every Wednesday volunteering in the Loco Shed at the Mid-Hants Railway, familiarly known as The Watercress Line. But those people are wrong. I like trains too, I always have. When I was little I used to like to stand on the wooden bridge over the level crossing in the middle of Poole High Street and let myself be enveloped in a cloud of steam as the train left the station. Bliss. Smelly, but bliss.

I have to admit that I didn’t notice the passing of steam, the advent of diesel or even the entrance of electric trains on to the world stage – they’re all trains to me and it’s the journey, the experience that excites me. Back in the dim and distant, even before I started school, my granny and I would take a train to Wareham and change into the little train for Swanage. Corfe Castle was our destination and it was a happy little girl (and an elderly one, as well) who discovered that they were still running the ancient rolling stock left over from the carriages they’d scraped together during the war. In particular I loved the carriage that had no corridor and instead of eight seats there were six (or maybe seven, it’s a hundred years ago) and instead there was a tiny loo tucked across one corner. I’ve never seen anything like it since but I know they were real and I was fascinated.

Anyway, trains. (And yes, you guessed it, the dreaded holiday photos – but don’t worry, there aren’t many and they do have a slight literary association). Last year we did a trip to the USA, part of which is chronicled on here somewhere (and although Keri showed me how to do links I can’t remember, but it was in May 2013). After a weekend in Washington we travelled by Amtrak to Chicago and then Chicago to Denver, using the overnight sleeper on each stage.capitoltd-map It was great. A double decker train where our ‘roomette’ was high above the track and we could watch the various states trundle past until it was time for dinner (included in the fare) and back to our seats now turned into bunks. The passengers were friendly though we did find one lady disconcerting as she went in to breakfast – she sat at our table – wearing her dressing-gown. She had also not felt the need to put her front teeth in so conversation was slightly surreal, as was the moment when she fished out a Tupperware box and scraped the rest of her hominy grits into it, presumably as a little snackette for later. (Anyone familiar with The Vicar of Dibley on TV would have seen a startling likeness to the mad old biddy who makes horrible cakes!) 

The reason for our fascinating train odyssey was, as so often with me, grounded in books I had read. In this case it was the Katy books, the series of five books about Katy Carr and her family, published much the same time as Little Women but surprisingly much more popular in Britain than in the author’s (Susan Coolidge’s) native America. The last two books in the series deal with one of the daughters of the Carr family who has to undertake a long and daunting journey (in about 1870-80ish) from Burnet (a pseudonym for Cleveland) to Colorado because her younger brother has a ‘shadow on his lung’ and must live in a high altitude to avoid TB taking a hold.

I first read this book, ‘Clover’, when I was a young mum as I’d previously had no idea it existed and at once I vowed that one day I’d follow in Clover’s footsteps and take the train from Chicago to Denver. In the book, the journey takes three days and nights and a stroke of luck means the two young travellers can travel in a luxurious private carriage. Ours was less glamorous, much faster, but still a marvellous way to cover vast tracts of America.  When they reach Denver they catch a local train to ‘St Helen’s’, which is a cover for Colorado Springs, so that’s where we headed  – and pretty fabulous it is too! (This photo is The Garden of the Gods, on the outskirts of the city.)284px-Garden_of_the_GodsThe Engineer was happy with the idea of the holiday, without any inducements, but what got him really excited was the number of heritage railways in the region so we planned the trip around them. I’m happy with the social history of the railways anyway, and was fascinated by the south western country and it was astonishing to be told, in early May, that tickets for the rail trip up Pike’s Peak mountain would be at a reduced price because we could only go up to 12,000’ – the last two thousand feet of track being covered in deep snow. (Down in the valley the temperature was up in the mid- 30s).

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I was surprised and sorry to find that it’s true – Susan Coolidge is definitely not a prophet in her own country. Even in the museum in Colorado Springs they had never heard of her. Such a pity – because her books inspired us to have a fabulous holiday.

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Yes, you really did think I’d walked up all those stairs, didn’t you? (At Seven Falls, another of the locations mentioned in ‘Clover’)

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And finally – The Engineer in front of the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, probably the most fascinating place of all.