It is hard to believe it is winter at present. In Wales at New Year I saw daffodils herald the New Year rather than St David’s Day and these photos taken in the garden today show spring and even early summer flowers in bloom. The narcissi generally flower around April, the daisy in bud not until June and the Lenten rose or hellebore closer to Easter as its name suggests. However, despite the unseasonable display no doubt editors will still be on the lookout for seasonal stories and articles in their traditional time slots.
Searching for anniversaries, both national and local, can be great starting points for articles. Last year saw many such events marked such as the bicentenary of Waterloo and the centenary of the WI and major battles of World War One. Looking further back many locations marked their connections with Agincourt from 1415 and even further back in time, Magna Carta.
This year there will be many more significant dates connected with WW1, the suffragette movement was active in many countries and developments in aircraft were happening in many locations. Berlin had been planning to host the Olympic Games but the continuing war meant no Games were held although other sporting events carried on elsewhere.
There will be many notable people who began or ended their lives in 1916. Anniversaries can go back for years, decades, quarter centuries or even multiple centuries and make a good hook for an article. It is worth checking those associated with personal areas of interest with this in mind.
I wonder how often your hobbies and interests actually throw up research for your stories and articles. I enjoy entering consumer competitions. Many of these are now run through blogs or on Facebook or Twitter. To help select the winner(s) it is common to ask a question or two, often asking for opinions or ideas and this is particularly true at Christmas.It was when I was entering one asking for tips to make Christmas stress-free that I had that lightbulb moment. Here was the opportunity to get some thoughts for seasonal items in the future. Most of us have exhausted personal and family anecdotes in the first flush of enthusiasm to write. Here you have a much wider pool to fish in.
A more traditional style display
I am now getting ideas for cooking the Christmas meal without hassle, decorations that people might be making and several other useful background details (would you share a gift of chocolate or keep it stashed away for personal consumption?) that could easily spark ideas for a plot or make the basis of a how to article.
I realise now that in the past I have thrown up all sorts of opportunities like this. I recall one from a couple of years ago where people were asked for their culinary disasters at Christmas and “Your Worse Christmas Present Ever” could surely inspire a humorous seasonal offering.
With most seasonal material you need to keep it in mind for a whole year but as many magazines start looking for their Christmas and New Year stories and features in mid-summer at the very least keeping these snippets filed away will help put you in the mood to write about snow on the hottest day of the year.
“You’re never too old to learn,” was a well-used phrase in my family as was “You learn something new every day”. These days, computers allow access to learning opportunities from around the globe whilst radio and TV do their share. We have access to books, magazines and organisations offering training in a range of skills. Many of these have been around for a considerable time. The WI, for example, has been inspiring women for a century and from the outset its aims included education as a key. After WWII Denman College was set up to run courses and continues to do so today and the range of studies may surprise you. You don’t even have to be a member to take advantage of their courses.
As part of our celebration of the Centenary year our local WI opted for a Designer Day at Denman, a day planned around the interests of our group. Lists of options were circulated and, despite covering a wide age range, there were two areas that stood out. The majority wanted a demonstration of some sort, preferably to do with gardens or flowers, and a craft session. Earlier this month we spent a day at the College, enjoying a demonstration of seasonal flower arranging that bore little resemblance to the formal arrangements generally on display and an afternoon craft session where the group was split between those making jewellery and the rest upcycling materials to create a wreath. We all learned a great deal about the subjects on offer but we learned a lot about our fellow members, too. It was a great success.
My talk, mentioned in the previous post, was to this group, too. It was light-hearted and provoked a lot of discussion and sharing of stories. We learned of many other hobbies and skills within our group. I was presented with a bouquet as thanks for standing in at short notice – or was it to ensure I practiced some of the skills from our recent course! Our craft group sometimes have visitors to demonstrate a new skill but on other occasions we draw on the experience within our group as with last month when we made albums to store photos or keepsakes and this month another member helped us all to create a decorative plaque for the top of the Christmas cake. (I really must get around to making my cake to put mine onto!)
Much of what we have learned in the past month owes nothing to formal tuition or courses however. It has simply been gleaned from talking to each other, learning not only about our lives but also the communities in which we live, their history and stories. Whatever we do in our daily lives we are constantly absorbing or discarding new information, some of which may be dredged up and used, maybe years later.
Writing has taken on a different turn the past week as the speaker for a local group has had to cancel due to ill health and I have been asked to stand in. I only started writing non-fiction after someone remarked after hearing me talk that I should write about things to reach a wider audience so in a way things have come full circle.
I haven’t given a talk for about five years so I have been collecting together some props to take along and bringing the talk up to date. The group may well be expecting me to give an illustrated talk as the last time I spoke to them the topic was Village Signs but this time I will be talking about entering (and hopefully winning) competitions. I had considered talking about writing, encouraging them to record their own stories for future generations, but their last speaker was a writer so variety is key.
To be honest there is not much actual writing to do. I do not intend to read from notes but I do have a few quotes I want to use – these I have written onto cards secured by a treasury tag at the corner so that should I drop them I won’t lose the order – and I am jotting down a structure for the talk.
Structuring a talk is very like the plan for a piece of writing. The subject needs to be introduced, a number of topics with appropriate illustration/example covered and finally the whole needs bringing together with a conclusion. Sounds simple. If only.
Last week when shopping in a local town I was surprised to see the Christmas lights already in situ. Given that at least three other annual events – Hallowe’en, Guy Fawkes Night and Remembrance Sunday – have yet to take place it seemed such a shame to be rushing us through the year so rapidly. The reason given by the District Council is that they have three towns in their area to decorate and only one team to do so.
As a child Hallowe’en was not really marked at all. I recall fireworks only went on sale in the couple of weeks up until November 5th, the celebration of which took place only on that day whatever day of the week it might be, unless it was a Sunday. Likewise, Poppies for the Poppy appeal were only available in the week leading up to the event. It was only after mid-November that the shops really showed any sign of festive goods and decorations started to appear.
Of course for writers hoping to have articles or stories included in Christmas issues the deadlines are long past. Only a very topical news item is likely to be accepted in the lead up to Christmas. The planning of the Christmas issues will have begun as soon as the last was put to bed, the beauty of an annual event. Detailed planning will have been ongoing since early summer and I was once advised that a weekly magazine wanted Christmas tips in June so if anyone is planning on submitting their family tips make sure the photos are taken and the item written up and filed for despatch in good time.
Of course many other groups have to operate in this way. Retailers of all types of products will have planned ahead, too, often six months to a year like magazines. The Farming community has to ensure crops and livestock are ready for the Christmas market, fashion buyers will have organised their photo shoots in the heat of summer for the “snowy” Christmas weather and so on. So maybe it is not such an odd idea that writers need to think a season or two ahead after all.
Making a simple photo album was the craft selected for our group this month. The card and cover papers had been cut to size by our helpful guide and we were using A5 sketch books to provide the cartridge paper for the interior pages so what could possibly go wrong?
The final stage was to stitch everything together and by then time pressure was mounting and bodkins were at a premium. By the time my turn came I confidently pushed the bodkin through each layer, pulled the ribbon taut and finally finished off with a bow. Inspecting my finished product I became convulsed in helpless laughter. The result – to paraphrase Eric Morecambe – was a book that contained all the right materials but not necessarily in the right order. In case the photos do not make things clear enough, the pages were on the outside of the covers.
As I had only finished with a bow and not a knot I was able to unpick my stitching and make up the book again in the correct order.
Sometimes writing is a bit like that book. We have everything we want to say recorded in the story or article but it may not be in the correct (or best) order. As children we write stories chronologically, frequently using the words “and then” for line upon line. A chronological account can be quite boring however and won’t hook the reader so much as a story that starts with a dramatic statement or piece of action or an article that opens with a surprising fact or an intriguing mystery. Fortunately, when using a computer, it is easy to move material around and just like the book I made, this can be repeated until everything seems to fit in place. A computer also allows us to save our material at each stage making it possible to undo an action easily.
I’ve got the materials for a second book. Hopefully I will learn from my mistakes and be able to do things more quickly and accurately this time around.
I’ve received a couple of windfalls in the past week. No, not a win on the lottery but windfalls in their original form, windfall fruits. A friend whose house was built in a former orchard has a glut of apples. Living in a village, though, many people have the same problem. She said she would drop off a bagful when next passing but I wasn’t expecting a huge bag containing over 12lb of fruit! As luck would have it a neighbour had a surplus of quince, a fruit that enhances the flavour of apples, so the kitchen has become a hive of activity.
The apples, of unknown varieties but mainly cooking apples, come in all shapes and sizes. After sorting out those in most urgent need of use a batch of stewed apples made up two crumbles, one to eat and another to freeze. The next day I repeated the process producing two more for the freezer and for the next batch a punnet of blueberries was added for variety. However, with freezer space now at a premium other solutions were required.
A recipe for Leicestershire Apple Cake found online produced very tasty results and a chance discovery of some frozen blackberries in the depths of the freezer meant more apples were employed in making blackberry and apple jelly, a childhood favourite. Mint jelly is another recipe I intend trying out and as soon as freezer space is freed up the rest of the apples can be combined with quince to add yet more variety to the winter stores.
All this culinary activity has reduced writing efforts of late but photographs have been taken at every turn and maybe there will be opportunities to use them in the future much as I did a few years back when I first experimented with using quince in cooking. Stopping to take those photos may slow the process somewhat but without them there is less likelihood of an acceptance. So there may be yet another windfall ahead but with such a seasonal topic it could be a full year before I see the fruits of my writing labours.
For some time I have been meaning to take some old family jigsaw puzzles to a charity shop but decided I should check first that they were complete. I set up a table so that the puzzle could be left in situ. Any odd moments, such as waiting for a kettle to boil, could be spent adding a few more pieces until it was finished and it could be shipped off to the charity shop next time I shopped in town.
This week I neared the end of a 1000 piece puzzle but the pile of pieces looked alarmingly small. Sure enough, there was a single piece missing. Viewed from a distance the picture looked fine but close up it was unfinished. Time to dig out the box labelled “missing pieces” and hope for a match.
I have folders of writing in a similar plight. Maybe an odd fact or two requires verification, a date needs checking or a word has been repeated too often and I have yet to settle on a suitable alternative. As a result these items are sitting in my work in progress folder rather than gracing the inbox of an editor, just as that jigsaw continues to take up space at home instead of being rehomed by a charity. Clearly my writing folder requires decluttering just as much as the cupboard that houses those jigsaws.
Recent donations of books to charity shops are an attempt to cull the shelves, not so much to declutter as to find shelf space for a growing collection of reference books sourced from these very stores.
With more than a dozen outlets my local town is a rich vein to explore. Once full of independent family businesses with names that have been around for generations – witness those same names on the war memorial – shops closed as people retired and for a while the main street sported mainly estate agents and charity stores plus a couple of supermarkets. Recent building has brought more national chains and the inevitable discount stores but the charity shops have held their own, even increasing in number and, although none is specifically devoted to books, the supply and variety of titles is constantly changing.
Initially I was looking for The King’s England series of books on English Counties. Brought up with my local county edition, it had fascinated me since childhood. Now I wanted to add titles for other counties visited. The books started publication pre WW2, county by county, and carried a red cloth cover. This continued after the war, too, but using pre-war data collected before the effects of bombing. The sepia photos of Coventry in the Warwickshire edition bear little resemblance to the city today. Images of the old cathedral and many medieval buildings serve to illustrate the destruction.
The series was later updated and revised. These books have a bright blue dustjacket, the originals having a dark blue dustjacket which occasionally survives. I have found much of the historical material, especially that related to WW1 and war memorials (or peace memorials as Mee refers to them,) has been lost. As a source for writing social history pieces that is a shame but understandable. Incidentally, the books remained The King’s England series even after Queen Elizabeth began her reign.
I had often consulted Simon Jenkins’ Thousand Best Churches and was delighted to spot a copy in my local Oxfam store and other titles followed. From books devoted to a single village community to much broader subjects such as the history of food I have added around two dozen titles to my shelves in the past couple of years, each related in some way to a topic I enjoy writing about. Here are the sources for quotes, for reading around a topic and indeed a good read in general. Non-fiction books tend to be relatively lowly priced compared to popular fiction I have found. I have rarely paid more than £3 and often a lot less.
Most of the books I have sourced have been out of print. I could get my local library to order them but that relies on my knowing of their existence in the first place. Several of the most informative titles have been down to serendipity.
Recently an oil painting of Oxford High Street by J M W Turner was secured for Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Having visited and admired the work I wanted to see if I could take some photographs to compare the modern scene to the painting. However, I knew I would be unable to replicate the image completely as Turner had applied artistic license, allowing him to include Carfax Tower as the focal point at the end of the street. In fact the tower is lost to view quite a bit further up the street as the road curves gently.
Oxford High Street with Carfax Tower at focal point
Oxford High Street closer to Turner’s viewpoint
There is nothing unusual in artists making such changes. They are creating a picture based on a what they see, not taking a photograph. Buildings or other features are just as likely to be moved or left out altogether to create a better composition. In the same way writers may base their story on an actual location yet change street names, landmarks and so on. Maps have been produced of Hardy Country and you can take walking trails of Morse’s Oxford and so on. Having a real place in mind helps anchor the story. Other authors create their own town or island or landscape and even draw maps which are included in the books.
Old photographs can be helpful for writers setting fiction in the past or for writers of nostalgia articles. Artworks would seem to be useful for earlier times but clearly the detail may need to be taken with a pinch of salt.