A few years ago I took part in the A-Z Blog Challenge that takes place each April. The idea is to blog every day except Sunday and visit other blogs to comment. I had hoped it would help build a habit of writing regularly as well as being a bit of fun. Whilst I had a few comments and have indeed kept in contact with a couple of people it did take up a lot of time and meant I got little other writing done in that period.
This year I repeated an experiment from two years ago and instead wrote magazine letters daily. These went to a variety of publications and covered a range of formats including tips, funny photos, comments on previous issues and TV programmes and anecdotes. As I searched publications for suitable pages to target I noticed three things. Firstly it is now quite common for only a Star Letter to be rewarded and in some magazines letters are not remunerated at all. Secondly published letters are more likely to be awarded a “prize” in kind than in cash. I can recall being paid a guinea for a letter I wrote when quite young to one of the many magazines my mother read. Over the years I have had a number of cash awards although some of these were in the form of gift vouchers. The third discovery was that many publications which once welcomed feedback in the form of letters no longer have a page to record the opinions of their readers or to have the readers entertain each other.
In the event I did miss a couple of days during the month although I continued beyond the end of April to compensate. Before the month was out several of the items were published, two in different issues of the same publication, and all the rewards have turned up in good time, something that has not always been true in the past. Not only pleasing to have some small successes but I am now writing on a regular basis once more so it seems to have done the trick.
I tend to get in a rut for reading, sometimes taking on a whole series of say crime novels for weeks on end and then maybe switching to historical fiction or biographies. Fiction usually comes from the library and their layout, putting all crime novels together for example, makes chance discoveries of potential reading matter less likely.
Variety has come from other sources of late. I have won a few new novels in magazine giveaways and I also receive occasional titles either from an online site or direct from publishers and one of these was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.
I enjoyed this book – found it difficult to put down in fact. The details of Eleanor’s backstory were revealed at just the right moment to move the story on and leave the reader speculating as to the whole truth. Eleanor herself had such a distinctive voice yet felt herself to be a background figure in the scheme of things. Raymond, who enjoys most of the action with Eleanor, has a calm, measured approach to life, an ideal foil for the ups and downs of Eleanor’s story. As it unfolded I often felt I knew what might happen next yet time and again I was proved wrong and the ending was a complete surprise and yet at no time did I feel cheated or deceived. This was purely clever plotting. It is hard to believe this was a first novel.
A while since I visited Oxford but recently had the opportunity so popped into the Weston Library of the Bodleian to take in the Jane Austen exhibition, Which Jane Austen. It is a real treat for lovers of her novels, full of surprising aspects of her life.
Jane Austen’s love of London was a feature of one display and a note taken from her letters and journals mentions being more interested in looking at the people than the exhibits in a museum. People watching was clearly her thing as comes over so perfectly in her characters.
Other exhibits show the popularity of Jane Austen’s novels with soldiers in the trenches in the Great War, her novels reminding them of home and normality. Navy lists and details of Portsmouth tours remind us she had brothers who served in the Navy. Correspondence with her publisher showed her to be a good businesswoman and so on.
Sadly I had less than an hour so was only able to take in a fraction of what is on offer and, as photography is not allowed, make a few notes of points of especial interest. On until October 29th the exhibition is free.
The buddleia bushes are attracting butterflies in their droves at present and a colourful array they are. I spent just fifteen minutes watching their display around the bush in my garden and spotted six different species in that time. The Meadow Brown butterflies were looking the worse for wear and had obviously been around for a while but the Red Admirals all looked really bright and fresh as did the Peacock that stayed on a single flower head for almost the whole time I was watching. A few days ago there were several Comma butterflies with their distinctive shape but today I only saw the one. Two Small Tortoiseshells and several Small White butterflies completed the count.
For a small garden I thought this quite a good selection especially as I recall reading some years ago that a good butterfly site was one where you could see at least eight species in around twenty minutes.
The Butterfly Conservation Group are doing their usual count from July 14th to August 6th this year and it is certainly a very pleasant way to spend time in the garden or on a walk in a park or other area. You can enter results online or via an app that can be downloaded. Details at
I much prefer a real Christmas tree and last year bought a pot-grown one which has done well throughout the year, with new buds appearing at the tips of most branches. Will bring it in nearer to Christmas as do not want it in a centrally heated environment for too long.
Out and about, though, trees are appearing everywhere from town centres to front gardens, glimpsed through lighted windows or spied up poles!
One local council has hung these trees from the posts erected to hold hanging baskets in warmer months.
LED lighting is replacing energy-guzzling traditional lamps but sometimes the effect can be lost with these tiny bulbs, especially when lit during sunny days. I found this example rather odd when juxtaposed with giant ice cream cones at a nearby store.
A visit to Upton House, a National Property on the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire border, at the weekend helped to get into the Festive spirit even if the chosen period depicted was the austerity of 1945 after the WWII had ended yet with rationing still a stark reality.
The house was set up to replicate its use by a London bank for the duration but there were lots of social elements, too including real trees in many of the rooms. Decorations were of the make-do-and-mend variety. Newspaper was a popular choice but some glass baubles and paper lanterns – perhaps saved from previous years – were around and it seems artificial trees were also used where real firs were unavailable. One particularly delicate tree was made from goose feathers. (Now there’s a little snippet that can be incorporated into writing sometime.) Enlivened by carol singing and enactors in costume, altogether an enjoyable visit. Very glad we pre-booked our timed tickets, however, as it was very busy.
Craft items requested for a Christmas Fair and stocks of small knitted items, my usual contribution, were low. Supplies of oddments of wool had diminished, too, so a trawl of the local charity shops seemed in order. A few years ago I needed some yarn for a similar situation. Whilst craft and yarn shops are thin on the ground, charity shops seem to be a boom area locally and many have donations of yarns, often incomplete balls as projects create an inevitable supply of these. On one occasion I found some variegated yarn and was delighted with the pattern revealed when a hat was created using some of it. Plenty left for further hats or mittens.
My recent trawl resulted in a cone of white yarn which can be used alone or as a contrast in striped or patterned designs and some bright cherry red yarn with a glitter thread throughout which will make great seasonal offerings. Maybe a few knitted decorations if there is time once the hats and mitts are complete. Each time these requests come in I promise myself I will make things steadily throughout the year but always end up with a deadline to match.
White Christmas – no not the song from Holiday Inn constantly relayed through speakers at this time of year nor the odds for a sprinkle of snow on December 25th – this was the theme for a demonstration of Floral Christmas Decoration I attended recently in hopes of gaining some inspiration for the festive season ahead.
Flower arranging is not a skill I aspire to although I can admire the results achieved by others. I went along more in hopes of capturing the spirit of the season. The speaker was witty and undoubtedly skilful although I would have welcomed more frequent glimpses of the display from the front. It felt at times as if actors – the flowers and foliage – were performing with their backs to the audience. However with half a dozen very different arrangements on display, all executed in green and white, it was a different take on things. However, whilst many were taking notes of the foliage and flowers used I found myself looking at the structures – that wreath made out of short lengths of wood painted white or the dipped birch twigs for example giving them a ghostly effect in the arrangement. I certainly got something out of the evening even if it was not the outcome expected.
Recently a couple of members of our craft group attended a course on making Christmas decorations using ribbon and at our last meeting they demonstrated what they had learned – the cascade method of teaching as we used to call it. Amazingly in just a couple of hours everyone produced at least one and in many cases two or three very attractive decorations and left armed with instruction sheets to enable more to be done at home. In this case bright colours were the order of the day but the decorations could be produced in white and silver to the White Christmas theme. Although we all started with the same template our choice of ribbon colour and embellishments meant that no two decorations were alike.
Writing about a huge topic such as Christmas is just too general. Writers therefore choose a theme or an angle to pursue to have something new to say. The floral demonstration and the making of decorations were not new but linking the skills to a theme gives them an original feel.
The garden and other commitments have put updating this blog on hold for a while but I have found time to get out and about recording signs of spring.
Of course, in many ways we have had had spring for several months now as the daffodils bloomed at Christmas (I still have plenty in bloom in the garden today with more varieties to come) and lots of plants really never died back at all. Even the few frosts we had here did little damage and many of the supposed annuals from last year have plenty of greenery on show now. Hopefully we will not have late frosts to finish them off.
I have photographed sticky buds, celandines and many of the usual signs of spring in recent weeks. Primroses and bluebells have been observed when out and about and at the weekend I found quite a few patches of blackthorn in bloom.
It is a very common hedging plant in this area and one of the glories in the coming weeks will be passing fields edged by what could be mistaken for drifts of snow as the blossom comes into its own. Beautiful though these hedgerows look, the blossom hides their vicious thorns, one of the things that makes them such a good hedging plant. They grow quickly yet the wood is very dense and hard making it a popular choice for walking sticks.
With the early Easter, the lambs are only just appearing in the fields but all these signs of new beginnings spur us on to make new starts, too.
With Easter so early this year the shops are struggling to keep up with changing their seasonal displays from Valentine’s Day to Mothering Sunday (Mother’s Day if you must) to Easter. These shots taken in Oxford Market on Monday show just some of the items being suggested as suitable gifts for the latest occasion. All very traditional with eggs and rabbits and cakes but online we are bombarded with special offers and suggestions for all these events. So don’t worry if you didn’t get that new vacuum cleaner for Valentine’s Day or Mothering Sunday. Maybe it will turn up for Easter for these days everything under the sun seems to be pushed as a suitable gift.
Of course every day is special for some reason. The anniversary of a birth or death, a Saint’s Day or a festival of some sort maybe or the date of a battle, a natural disaster or other memorable occasion. Then, as if all those were not enough, we now have days, weeks and even months dedicated to foodstuffs, medical conditions or anything else requiring promotion.
This week for example we had International Women’s Day, it is British Pie Week and it is part of National Reading Awareness month. Just checking out some of these annual observances widens the scope for seasonal or anniversary pieces for the writer but so often we only hear them mentioned when they are upon us. Perhaps worth noting all these on a calendar as they are highlighted by promotional emails or get a mention in the media. All grist to the mill for future years.
March 1st, St David’s Day and officially the first day of spring in meteorological terms. Generally this has been a day for judging how harsh a winter we have had in our garden. Always touch and go whether there would be daffodils in bloom for St David’s Day but this year, with some species having been in bloom as early as Christmas, it has been more a case of whether they would all be over before the day. However, daffodils are a hardy bunch and they have weathered a few frosts, some very strong winds and heavy rain to offer a great show with buds promising more to come.
Writers can take a tip from Nature with the promise of things to come. Fiction writers employ the cliff-hanger chapter ending to leave us wanting to turn the page to find out what happens next. Writers use the technique to motivate themselves to carry on their writing. Some leave a sentence half-finished when clocking off for the night, other may jot a few notes for the next day at the end of their work and non-fiction writers may keep some snippets back they know they are going to use to ensure they have a starting point next day. When the work is completed and edited and submitted some have left promise of a sequel to their story or a follow-up article on a related theme. The promise of things to come is so inviting.