Saturday 31 October 2015

Women In Cages

Whenever I mention that I write Victorian crime fiction, people always comment upon the infamous crinoline. Why on EARTH would women put up such a monstrosity? Well, they did, and surprisingly, with great relish. The crinoline, or hooped skirt was actually based on a design from the 1840s. In 1856, the American W.S.Thomson patented the metal cage crinoline and it became a huge hit in the USA, France and Britain. It was the first fashion to encompass all classes - rich or poor, you could still afford to wear it.

Although we find it hard to believe, women really loved the cage crinoline. At the height of its popularity, enough steel was produced in Sheffield to make half a million hoops in one week. It freed women from the constricting two petticoats: one flannel, one cotton, that they wore previously and gave them more ability to move their legs. And it was easy to hoick it up at the back when you needed to go to the privy or relieve yourself in the street (no public toilets).

Crinolines came in a variety of shapes, but they were not especially expensive, retailing at a third of the price of a dress. And if you were a skillful needlewoman - as most young women were in those days, it was easy to transform the style of an existing dress by the addition of a cage.

Spring steel shapes crinolines were light and flexible, and could be pressed out of shape temporarily, a useful attribute when trying to sit down, or get in and out of carriages and buses. Together with the tightly-laced corset, which emphasized a woman's tiny waist (the record was 13 inches), the crinoline gave the wearer a very ''sexy'' shape. This was enhanced by the way women had to walk: placing the foot outwards and describing a semi-circle, which gave a swaying motion to the hips. It was almost impossible to go at speed, so the slow, swaying gait was considered very alluring.

A 'waspie'

And cages and stays came in very nice colours. In Diamonds & Dust, Josephine King and her fashion mentor Isabella Thorpe visit a big department store, where they are informed by one of the female assistants that: ''We have some delightful articles in scarlet, Mademoiselle ... Zey came in last week, fresh from Par-ee.''  

However brightly colored and popular, cage crinolines were not all good news however. Sitting down had to be re-learned, and getting through narrow doors or down narrow passageways was a nightmare. And the there was the ever present danger of high winds, which could leave you scrambling to hold your skirt down lest (oh horror!) your drawers were exposed to male passersby. Add to this the danger from open fires and gas lamps and wearing the crinoline could have fatal consequences:

However attractive you felt, wearing a crinoline didn't make courtship any easier than it already wasn't. In November 1856, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine published a poem called 'Crinoliniana' which ended:

I long to clasp thee to my heart
  But all my longings are in vain;
I sit and sigh two yards apart,
  And curse the barriers of thy train.
My fondest hopes I must resign,
   I can't get past that Crinoline!

The crinoline seems a perfectly ridiculous item of fashion to us today, but for the Victorians with their sense of propriety, it was the perfect device to distance a woman both physically and psychologically from her surroundings, from the real world and to preserve her femininity and chastity for her husband. In a sense, it was the real-life equivalent of placing herself upon a pedestal.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Autumn Ambling (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Now that Little G is officially walking, and requesting to do it everywhere we go, our routine has taken on new vistas. Admitted they are only at ground level, but it is amazing how much stuff I seem to have missed over the years.

Cracks in pavements are a prime example. Who would have known there were so many? And all equally deserving of a stop followed by long hard stare. I remind myself, as it takes us 15 minutes to cover a distance that previously took 2, that You must be mad at a similar developmental stage had a thing about gates and couldn't pass a gate without touching it.

There are small flowers and weeds growing out of the cracks and in the gaps between buildings. Did you know? You do now. Happy to share. And bits of interesting shiny detritus that is just begging to be picked up and handed over for examination at a later stage.

Last week we found a brand new bright orange comb on our way into town. What riches. Forming our usual small human circle, we peered at it, studied it from various angles, commented on the colour, the resemblance to a carrot and whether it was, as Little G asserted, for cleaning teeth.

Of such is our day. The highlight right now is a walk to our small local park, where the leaves are falling in a profusion of reds, yellows and golden brown. So many colours. So many different shapes. So many leaves to be carefully studied, selected, collected and handed over, to be replaced by other better leaves as they too are discovered lying on the ground.

I am never sure of the criteria, which seem to vary from moment to moment. All I know is that I end the day with a pocket stuffed with what to you might appear to be bits of utter rubbish, but to a small 20 month old is treasure unlimited. And why not?

To be continued ...     ....

Saturday 24 October 2015

The PINK SOFA meets writer& blogger Vivienne Tuffnell

Vivienne is one of the many people I have come to know and admire via social media. Vivienne (like so many creative people) suffers from periodic bouts of depression. She does not attempt to hide what afflicts her and in this, she is a lot braver and more honest than a lot of people. The PINK SOFA is thrilled to be hosting her and has got in her favourite cake as a token of its undying admiration.

 ''Well this is nice. If you would just pull that soft fleece blanket over me, I can have a nap after that wonderful cake...How did you know I love Battenburg?
Oh, sorry, Carol says I can't snooze now. But I'll pull the blanket over me anyway. I like blankets. And duvets. They're good to hide under when the world gets too much. Some of my best friends are blankets. That's because we spend so much time together, quality time.

 I'm hesitating to use the word, but I'm a depressive. I first started experiencing depressive episodes from the age of six. In my late forties I have discovered that a weird genetic anomaly that affects my collagen is almost certainly a large factor in the anxiety and depression I've endured during my life, but there's little to be done for that except constant physio to keep muscles strong to protect dodgy joints. The neurological aspects are going to just be freaky for the rest of my life.

I began writing as a kid too, as much as anything because creating a world within a book meant I had some sense of control and some sense of order. Fiction has to make sense even when life, quite frankly, does not. Story is a profound way of exploring the universe and the questions that life throws at us without giving us many clues about the answers. I wrote my first novel when I was ten, and there are boxes and boxes of fading typescript hidden away in my home.

 I had a couple of long breaks from writing, one because I went away to university and read the best and most respected literature in the world (nothing like excellence to put a wannabe in her place) and one because trying to get published almost cost me my life. That's a long story I won't tell here. It ended with me shutting the door on writing until it kicked down the door, grabbed me by the throat, shoved a pen in my hand and stood over me until the book was done.
But a half dozen novels later and a folder full of wonderful letters from publishers and agents all ending with the traditional Dear John bit, I was left in limbo. I'd always thought of vanity publishing as the bitterest of jokes, and it took me a while to realise that the new opportunities in SELF-PUBLISHING were completely different from the old vanity model. Fast forward a few years and now I have four novels, two short story collections, a novella, a poetry collection and most recently a collection of essays from my blog, exploring my old nemesis Depression.

Depression has never gone away. I've never concealed my fight; indeed, my blog has been remarkably well read, especially the posts on mental health. So after writing over 800 posts (about a LOT of things) I selected twenty of the ones I have understood have been of most relevance and comfort to those also affected by depression. I asked Suzie Grogan, author of Shell Shocked Britain, and also editor of Dandelions and Bad Hair Days (a collection of writing by people affected by mental health challenges) if she would write me a foreword. You see, the shelves of both virtual and bricks and mortar bookshops are packed with how-to style self help books on depression, and celebrity memoirs on their fight against the infamous Black Dog.

But there's not much written by ordinary folks. I'm not a c'leb. I'm a novelist and poet, and essayist. I believe I have things to offer, questions rather than answers, that may be of great value to others facing the same sort of darkness. There's no single answer for depression, because there's no single cause. Indeed, there's much debate about what causes depression and it's something neither psychiatrists nor psychologists nor philosophers will likely ever agree about.

That's why I feel Depression and The Art of Tightrope Walking is unique. It asks questions, it questions the answers, and it doesn't give easy ten step solutions to the problem. Having spent a lot of time (and money too) trawling through self-help manuals of various sorts, I am cynical about them. I probably ought to have marketed the book as a book to cure depression because there is an all mighty hunger out there for a quick and easy cure, a pill to swallow, a regimen to follow. I couldn't do that, tempting though it was. For me, that would be dishonest.
Anyway, is there more cake? Oh there is. Good. I might take that nap now, too. I'll try not to snore, or drool. Thank you for having me, here, Carol. It's been delightful.''


Amazon page


Dandelions and Bad Hair Days:

Monday 19 October 2015

Baby Sitter (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

 Little G is now a fully paid up member of the Anglican community, having acquitted herself brilliantly at her christening. All the pre-prep and risk analysis certainly paid off. The four small babies in long white robes and a variety of headgear howled dismally. The same-age toddler kicked off, refused to go to the lady vicar and was forcibly christened (not sure if this counts).

Little G, in contrast, submitted to the various procedures like a veteran, merely patting her hair and remarking loudly: ''Man, water head,'' after regaining her seat. Couldn't fault her performance, and I am quietly taking full credit. The fact that she now thinks the same thing is going to happen every Sunday is neither here nor there.

And so to my first adventure in baby-sitting. Last Saturday You must be mad was invited to one of those 'no children' weddings, so I did my first ever evening stint. To make sure Little G didn't notice that her bedtime routine had suddenly devolved to the shaky hands of an unreliable amateur, I was given two pages of closely written instructions to ensure nothing could go wrong. And it almost didn't.

Bathtime proceeded as per most of Page 1. Donning of night attire as per end of Page 1. Stories and songs as per top of Page 2. It was only when Little G performed her nightly manoeuvre of turning off the light and closing her bedroom door (middle of Page 2) that I suddenly realised that: a) I couldn't find the cot in the dark and b) I couldn't read the final instructions.

Luckily an improvisatory deviation from the worksheet involving an unauthorized interaction with the landing light meant Little G finally landed up in her cot, facing the right way, all tasks completed in order and successfully. And nobody was any the wiser.

To be continued ...     .....

Saturday 17 October 2015

Yours Sensationally

In case it has escaped your notice, the third in my Victorian Crime series is being marketed on Amazon as a murder mystery but you, canny prospective purchaser that you are, have already noticed that it actually says: A Victorian Sensation Novel' on the cover.


The Sensation Novel was a particular genre of fiction, dating from 1860 -1880. The Victorian Web defines it thus: The Sensation Novel features a beautiful, clever young woman who, like Magdalen Vanstone in Collins's No Name (1862), is adept at disguise and deception —such women are doubly dangerous and generate social instability because they possess and threaten to use secret knowledge. 

Other strategies employed by Sensation authors include the exposure of hypocrisy in polite society, intentional and unintentional bigamy, adultery, hidden illegitimacy, extreme emotionalism, melodramatic dialogue and plotting, and the brilliant but eccentric villain with gentlemanly pretensions. Reginald C. Terry in Victorian Popular Fiction, 1860-80 employs the term "detailism" to describe yet another aspect of the Sensation Novel, its rigorous realism that catered to a contemporary "taste for the factual" in its descriptions and settings, a feature that novelists such as Collins skillfully blended with the exciting "ingredients of suspense, melodrama and extremes of behaviour".

In addition, Terry notes how the plots of such novels often utilized "the apparatus of ruined heiresses, impossible wills, damning letters, skeletons in cupboards, [and] misappropriated legacies". P. D. Edwards adds yet further "ingredients" to the Sensation formula: "arson, blackmail, madness, and persecuted innocence (usually young and female), acted out in the most ordinary and respectable social settings and narrated with ostentatious care for factual accuracy and fulness of circumstantial detail" . To all of these features we should add the realistic and sympathetic investigation of individual psychology and an exploration of the female psyche.''

I loved the idea of trying to write a Sensation Novel, albeit slightly pared down for modern taste, but as the book features Detectives Stride & Cully, who also appear in the first two books, it is easier to shuffle the book into the previous genre as Amazon doesn't have a category for Sensation Novels.

Anyway now you know what to expect from the book, here is a little taster from the opening:

London, 1862. It has been a cold summer – the coldest on record, they say, and the autumn nights have come early and bitten hard. Wind batters the city, rattling the windows and inn-signs, whipping up the Thames into white-capped rage. 

Wind whirls rooks into the sky like cinders. Wind prowls across narrow quadrangles and round unsuspecting corners, blowing dead leaves into nooks and stairwells. In weather like this, right-thinking people wrap up warm and stay indoors in front of the fire. 

Not all of them though. Look more closely.

A tall man is making his way towards King’s Cross station, his shoulders squared, tilting forward as he walks. He is darkly handsome, the sort of man who causes women’s heads to turn when he enters the room. He knows this. His name is Mark Hawksley (though not all of the time). 

As he reaches the entrance, a gust suddenly rocks him on his heels forcing him to make a half-step backwards. He takes a deep breath, the wind pummelling his face, the richness of the oxygen making him feel temporarily light-headed.

Steadying himself, the man enters the shadowy arch of the station and heads for a specific platform where a train is expected to arrive at any minute. In the station air he can hear it coming, the sudden frantic chugging of a locomotive, a series of clanks as it passes over the final set of points, then a long exhalation of steam as it pulls alongside the platform and comes to a halt by the buffers. 

Instantly all is bustle and bedlam. Dogs bark, porters shout, and trolleys are hurriedly trundled towards the baggage carriage at the back.

Two respectably-dressed men alight from the front carriage of the train, turning to help down a small female figure, heavily-veiled and clad in deepest black. They escort her along the platform, steering her carefully through the milling throng of passengers, the meeters and greeters, the mounds of luggage, and the cabbies touting for fares.

Reaching the barrier, they hand over three tickets and are allowed through and onto the forecourt. They glance around apprehensively, their faces clearing as Mark Hawksley steps forward into the light, lifting his top hat in a smooth elegant gesture.

“So here you all are at last,” he says.
“Here we all are. Just as we telegraphed you,” one of the men replies.
Hawksley gestures towards the heavily-veiled woman.
“May I?” he asks.
“Be our guest,” the other man nods.

He lifts the thick veil, then steps quickly back, uttering a gasp of surprise.
“Amazing,” he breathes. “She is exactly as you described her in your letter. You might almost believe … But come, we need to get our guest to a place of safety before she is recognised.”

Mark Hawksley steers the little party to where a line of cabs are patiently waiting. He signals to one driver, gives him careful instructions, then bundles the group into the rear of the cab. He closes the door. The driver whips up the horse. As the cab rattles away into the night, Hawksley’s handsome, chiselled features break into a wide smile.

“Oh yes,” he murmurs. “You will do nicely. Very nicely indeed.”

If you have read the book, you will have picked out some of the 'Sensational' traits! I hope you enjoyed spotting them.

Monday 12 October 2015

Gran the Baptist (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

This Sunday, Little G is going to get christened at the big cathedral church she goes to every Sunday with You must be mad. Normally, christenings happen in the first 6 months of a child's life, but for some reason or another, it has taken until now to get it sorted.

Little G was aware that something was going to happen, but the exact details were hazy, so I have been doing my best all week to prepare her for this significant event in her life. We have visited the cathedral and looked at the font, with me explaining how the vicar would sprinkle her head with special church water. From the expression on her face, I'm not sure she believed me.

We have also practiced baptizing some of the toys - yes, I know I am on extremely shaky ground theologically here, but I couldn't think of any other way to explain it. Thus Clanger, Panda, Baba the sheep, Owl, sundry cars and a selection of wooden fruit have all been baptized, twice in some cases, and thus are all (if you believe it) now regenerate.

Mind you, despite all the pre-prep I am not holding out much hope that things will run like clockwork on the day. Little G has taken to lugging around with her a blue flowered quilted coat, a pink knitted cardigan and a 2 from the stick-on bath numbers. These accompany us everywhere, so I expect she will arrive at the font laden with baggage.

She has also started to walk (finally) but as it takes her ages I reckon by the time she gets up the very long cathedral aisle, clutching all her treasures, it will be Evensong. But hey, we shall all enjoy the occasion whatever chaos ensues. Meanwhile it's nice to think that if there are any furry toys in Heaven, they will all probably be hers.

To be continued ...   ......

Friday 9 October 2015

The Big C & Me

October is  in the UK, so in acknowledgement of this extremely important event, I thought I'd interview somebody about their experience of having and surviving breast cancer. Step forward then, one survivor ...... Me.

So Carol, how was your cancer discovered?

I learned that I had early stage breast cancer from a routine NHS breast screen three years ago when I was 63 -  you know the sort: you go to a big white van in a carpark and it's always cold. I had noticed no lumps, bumps or changes so it was a shock to be recalled to the Luton & Dunstable Breast Cancer Clinic a week later.

What sort of cancer did they find?

I had DCIS ( Ductile Cancer In Situ). It's a kind of pre-breast cancer. It was in several tubes in my left breast and was ''high grade'' which meant it was getting ready to progress to the next stage.

So what happened when you received the diagnosis?

I was stunned - after all, I hadn't had any visible symptoms. I had been on low dose HRT for a long time - I reacted very well to it, but I came off it immediately, even though there was no proof that it contributed to the cancer. And I thought naively that I was too old to get the illness.

How did your family react?

My husband was shocked also, but supported me brilliantly at every stage of my journey. I kind of played it down with my daughter, who was in the last few months of pregnancy. I'm not a big over-sharer anyway, and I didn't want to upset her.

What was next?

A very unpleasant needle biopsy, which led to an appointment being made for an operation to remove the cancerous ducts. It all happened so quickly and efficiently I barely had time to take it in. I went in as a day patient, had radioactive dye injected into the area (sadly, I didn't glow in the dark afterwards) and then had the operation. The surgeon cut into the breast underneath, leaving a long but not overtly visible scar.

Did you have to go for follow up treatment?

Ah. Now here it gets a bit controversial. The surgeon recommended radiotherapy, but after researching it, and talking to others on social media, I chose not to have any follow up treatment. I wasn't happy with the side effects, nor with the fact that it wouldn't stop further cancers developing. My surgeon was convinced he'd removed all the cancerous cells and I trusted his judgement.

And then?

I got on with my life and put it in a box labelled 'OK, that happened'. I had my first annual mammogram check up last November, and it came back clear. My second one will be in two weeks' time. It takes 5 years before they are prepared to say you are totally free of cancer.

What was the worst part of all of it?

You may think this is frivolous ... unless you are a survivor also, but I had to take all the wires out of my lovely underwear, because it hurt too much to wear. And I wasn't sure for some time whether I'd look ''normal'' and be able to wear lovely stuff again. Luckily I can ... and you would hardly be able to tell I am a tad lopsided!

Finally, do you have any advice to offer?

I think the MOST important thing is to TURN UP for your FREE NHS routine screening. I was horrified when the nurses told me how many women fail to attend. Yes, it's uncomfortable and not very pleasant having your boobs squeezed between two X ray plates, but cancer doesn't always present as an obvious lump or change in the breast - mine didn't.
So ladies, don't think you can skip an appointment because you've checked your boobs and you didn't feel any lumps. Go - I urge you. Had I not gone, I might not be writing this blog today.

Monday 5 October 2015

Bag Lady (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Last week I decided it was time to change from the jolly yellow summer bag to the slightly more sombre dark red autumn one. This involved the usual contents swap, which, prior to You must be mad handing over Little G, meant extracting my purse, lipstick, mirror, mobile and sundry tissues and placing them in the new bag.

This time the contents swap consisted of extracting and disposing of: a grape that had gone soft, 5 raisins, a 0.2 cm layer of biscuit crumbs, a small green car that I don't think belongs to Little G or to me, a bus ticket with baby scribbling on it, a packet of crayons with one missing, and a postit note to myself reminding me of something that I can't read (see grape) but I can just make out the words 'Important' at the top.

There was a double mirror with small claggy fingerprints all over it, and an orange lip pencil that had orange lipstick smeared all over the top - because Little G runs on the basis that if I tell her NOT to play with my possessions, the ban only applies while I am actually in the room. Once I go somewhere else, it is open season on my bag and coat pockets.

I also discovered a small spoon, some hand gel, and a packet of unopened chopsticks which Little G must have lifted from Wagamama on one of our visits and I noticed that my mobile was currently showing a time and date of 8.45 on the10th August. I don't know how she does this, but the baby is clandestinely good at demonstrating her communication tool expertise. The last time she left the camera on standby, and drained the phone battery.

I have now placed all MY essentials in the red bag. In six months time, I shall have to sort through it all once again before transferring the contents back into the yellow bag. And goodness knows what on earth I will find ... the mind boggles.

To be continued ...    ......

Saturday 3 October 2015

How to Make A Million From Writing

Yes, I thought that would get your attention.

Over the past few weeks I have seen several requests on social media forums from new writers or self-published ones asking if anybody knows a good agent, or can advise on submitting to top mainstream publishers.

I have blogged before about my experience of literary agents. Basically, they are there to make money for the agency, not you. They will take 10 -15% of your earnings, and unless you have an exceptionally good one (I am told they exist), they may well not bother to submit your stuff if it is not taken quickly. Small agents are in competition with the large established ones in a field that is decreasing all the time as publishers shave their margins and take fewer risks to stay in business.

Agents are certainly useful for sorting out publishing contracts and making sure your rights are protected: pre-agenting, I had a very bad contract from OUP (yes!) which my former agent was disgusted at. BUT the Society of Authors - well worth joining, can do that. And few publishers nowadays make you sign rip-off contracts - we are all too well lawyered for that to happen.

So, let's move on to the mainstream publishing trade. Forget all those 'X signed a 3 book contract and has been offered eight squillion in advances and a film contract with a top Hollywood director!!!' 
I now see these in the same category as those 'teaser' rates offered by big banks.

The sad truth is that 0.00000006% of writers submitting to 'one of the Big 5' will be taken.
These lucky souls are probably:

1. Very young, very attractive and with a very heart-tugging backstory (see JK Rowling)

2. Have an MA in Creative Writing from a university where one of the publisher's top writers tutors.

3. Is a friend, girl/boyfriend, employee of a publisher or is in the media business already.

4. Is a celeb.

5. Has just happened to write something that the publisher feels they can put out to compete with a rival's book that is just taking off.

6. Has been 'discovered' in one of those 'competitions' where the lure of publication is offered to  unpublished writers. This is a useful way of getting round paying agency fees or having the hassle of dealing with them.

Then there is the vexed question of Royalties. This is the money you get as a % of each book sold via bookshops or other platforms. If you are a new author, you start at the bottom.

The Royalty rates offered by most standard (UK) publishers are:
10% on the first 5000 copies
12.5% on the next 5000 copies
15% over 10,000 copies

Yep. You are shocked. I checked my Usborne contract the other week and sure enough, 10% is the amount offered. Bear in mind that my then agent took 10% of that, which left me with 8% ...about 60p on every £6.99 book sold.

So why bother?

I return to my title. IF your only reason for writing is to make money, then go find a job in your local supermarket. Or do the National Lottery. Or find yourself a rich partner. If, however, writing comes in the same category as oxygen for you, then keep at it. Enjoy what you write, marvel at your luck in having such a wonderful gift. Start a blog. Enjoy chatting and sharing with other writers on social media. Self-publish. But do not hope or expect to make a fortune from it.

Of course, I don't expect you to listen to a word of this, because YOU have written the one book in the history of the publishing universe that defies all of the above. Good luck, fellow scribe. You may or may not believe me, but you are going to need it!