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Saturday, 20 December 2014

A shameless Christmas post by Sandra Horn

Sorry, Folks - I am suffering from run-up-to-Christmas fever. I was just about to shut down the pc tonight when I saw it was 19th. Here I am without a coherent thought in my head, so I'm cutting and pasting a Christmas story for children. Please don't drum me out of AE - I promise to do better in the New Year!

The Christmas Presents
     The December moon swung high over Ghyllside Farm, bright as a promise and round as pudding.  The first snow of winter lay crisp and white over the fields.  The farm folk were all abed, snuggled down and fast asleep, dreaming of plumcake and presents.  Down in the kitchen by the fire, Hob and Miss Minkin were toasting their toes.  There was a smell of pine-needles in the air from the sparkling tree in the corner, and there were two large stockings hanging from the mantelpiece.  The stockings belonged to the farm children, and had their names pinned on them: Ben and Susan.  The children had hung them there before they went to bed.  They had put a small glass of sherry and a plate with two mince pies on it, by the hearth.
     “In case he’s hungry,” said Susan.
     Miss Minkin had watched all this with great interest, and told Hob about it later.
     “Who did she mean?” asked Hob. “Nobody knows about me.  Nobody has ever seen me.”
     “She must have made a mistake.  She meant to say ‘she’,” said Miss Minkin. “She’s a good girl and she left the things for me, but you shall share them, my dear.”
     “Thank you, I’m sure!” said Hob.  They ate the spicy pies to the last crumb.
     “Very tasty!” said Hob.  Miss Minkin was not so sure.  Then they sipped the sherry, but it made Miss Minkin cough a little so Hob kindly finished it up.  He left a silver sixpence under the plate for good manners. 
     “This is all very pleasant,” he said, “It must be Christmas again, I suppose.”
     “Yes,” said Miss Minkin, “Jenny has been charging round the kitchen boiling and baking and getting hot and cross.  She even forgot my morning milk!I had to yowl to remind her, and then she slapped it down in a very grumpy manner.  I kept well out of the way after that.  I spent most of the day snoozing in the airing cupboard.”
     “Dear me, what a difficult day you’ve had!” said Hob. “She shall find a frog in her shoe in the morning for being unkind.”
     “Oh, please don’t bother,” said Miss Minkin, “she was sorry after and gave me all the bacon rind.  I have forgiven her.  Christmas is a trying time for her.  I like it, though, on the whole.  There is always plenty of leftover turkey.”
     Hob puffed on his pipe.  “It’s a merry time, right enough,” he said. “I remember in the old days there was always a great deal of eating and drinking and dancing and wassailing.  Neighbours went all round the houses and sang a song or two, and people gave them spiced ale and presents.”
     Miss Minkin put her head on one side and thought for a while.“I should like to have presents,” she said. “I have a very fine voice and you can play the fiddle pretty well.  What do you think, my dear?  Shall we go a-wassailing?”
     “Indeed we shall!” said Hob, “That is a fine idea.  The neighbours will like to hear some good old Christmas music.  It will cheer them up.”
     Hob fetched his fiddle and a sack to bring all the presents home in.  Miss Minkin washed her face and combed her ears.  They slipped out through the cat flap into the snowy moonlit garden.  Miss Minkin sniffed the air and said it was safe to be out.  There was no smell of fox or badger.  Hob looked up.
     “A fine night indeed, but there’s a nip in the air,” he said.  He was wearing a stout green jacket and hat, and Miss Minkin had fluffed up her beautiful fur, so neither of them minded it much. “Where to?” asked Hob.
     “Let’s try Berryman’s Farm first,” said Miss Minkin, “the farmer’s wife is fond of me and they keep a very good larder.”
     They set off across the round the henhouse, and ducked under the gate to Halfacre Field.  Their footsteps crunched on the frosty grass.  Only the moon saw them cross the wooden bridge over the murmuring ghyll and turn down the lane to Berryman’s.  Farmer Croft had just filled the coal scuttle and taken off his boots before going to bed.  Miss Minkin cleared her throat and Hob tightened his fiddle bow. 
     “Ready!” he said, “one, two, three!” 
     He played a good loud opening chord, and they began ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High,’ with all their hearts.
     Hardly had they sung the first line when a boot and three lumps of coal came flying through the farmhouse window.  The boot sailed over their heads and lodged in the branches of a tree, and the lumps of coal fell right in front of their feet.  They were quite surprised, but they remembered their manners and called out, “Thank you! Merry Christmas!”
     Hob looked up at the tree.“What was that?” he said.
     “I don’t know, it sailed by so fast and high,” said Miss Minkin, "but we must try to get it down.  It’s a present and the farmer will think it very rude if we leave it in the tree.  He’ll think we didn’t want it.”
     “True enough,” said Hob.  Then he waved his fiddle bow three times round and pointed it at the tree.
     “Come!” he said, and the boot came tumbling down at his feet.  Hob scratched his head. “I’m sure this is kindly meant,” he said, “but one boot on its own is a strange sort of present.  It will be heavy to carry home, and then what would we do with it?”
     “We don’t want to hurt his feelings,” said Miss Minkin, “shall we hide it somewhere?”
     They pushed the boot a long way behind the staddlestones, where nobody could see it.  In the spring, a pair of mice moved in and raised a family of ten.  They were very snug.

     The farmer looked all over the yard for his boot the next morning, but it was well hidden.  It was his good boot, too.  It was the other one that had a hole in.  He had to hop on one leg all over Christmas until the shops opened again. 

     Hob picked up the lumps of coal and put them in the sack.  He covered them with straw for tidiness. 
     “This is very generous,” he said. 
      Miss Minkin would have helped him, but was afraid of blackening her beautiful paws.  Hob said he didn’t mind a bit of honest dirt.“Where to now?” he said.
     “The Bird and Hurdle, I think,” said Miss Minkin. “They keep a good kitchen and I have done them some favours in the matter of rats.”
     Off they went, over the crisp white fields, through the hedge and across the lane, to the back door of The Bird and Hurdle.  The landlady, Peg Brewer, was already fast asleep and dreaming of Christmas pudding.  Her husband Tom had stayed to lock up, and had just poured himself a last pot of Christmas ale before bedtime when Hob struck up on his fiddle and Miss Minkin began to sing at the top of her voice.  She had not got much further than ‘Silent Night, Ho –‘ when the door opened and the pot of ale came sailing out.  Hob dropped the bow and caught it one-handed.
     “Oh well done!” said Miss Minkin, “how clever!”
     “It’s nearly full of good ale, too!” said Hob.
     He put the pot of ale carefully in the sack, waved his fiddle bow three times round it and sang:

“Stay right side up, 

Neither spill nor slop.”

     And it didn’t.
     “This is more than kind of our good neighbours,” said Miss Minkin. “I expect he remembered me and the rats and he wanted to say thank you.”
     In the morning, Mr Brewer looked everywhere for his favourite pewter pot, but he never did find it.

     “The sack’s middling heavy now,” said Hob. “Shall we be getting home-along?”
     “Yes,” said Miss Minkin, “but let’s call at Windlemoor as we go.  It’s on the way home, and the Missus has always had a soft spot for me.”
     Hob shouldered the sack and off they went.  The moon was beginning to set, and the stars were very bright as they went back down the lane towards Windlemoor.  An owl swooped low over their heads on silent wings, and Hob wished it good night and good hunting.

     At Windlemoor House, the whole day had been busy with Christmas preparations, and Mrs Biggins was still up and about with some last-minute jobs.  The back door was open to let out the heat of the Christmas baking.  Mrs Biggins was sorting out chunks of marrowbone for roasting in the morning when Hob and Miss Minkin came through the garden gate and up the path.  They stopped outside the door and began ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’  Mrs Biggins jumped, screamed and threw the chunks of marrowbone up in the air.  They came bouncing out of the door like skittles, and Miss Minkin had to step smartly out of the way.  Hob picked up the marrowbones and put them in the sack.
“Really, our neighbours are very good,” he said.  He called out “Merry Christmas!” but a gust of wind must have caught the door and made it slam shut.
     In the morning, when Mr Biggins asked for the Christmas marrowbones, his wife gave him a very black look and told him he could have cold mutton and like it.

     Hob and Miss Minkin made their way home in the fading moonlight, under the Christmas stars.  Hob stumped along with his fiddle in one hand and the sack over his shoulder.  Miss Minkin watched where she was stepping and took care not to get her paws too snowy.  They were very pleased with their night’s work.
     “Wassailing is a very good thing,” said Miss Minkin. “I’m glad I thought of it.”
     “Yes, my dear, the folk round here are very kind, although their manners are a little rough,” said Hob. “In the olden days, if I remember rightly, they didn’t throw the presents at people – but times change, I suppose.”
     “Hurry along now, please,” said Miss Minkin, “my fur is getting damp.”

     They slipped quietly through the cat flap at Ghyllside Farm, and into the shadowy kitchen.  It was late into the night, and the fire was dying.  Hob and Miss Minkin were feeling a little chilly.  Hob blew on the embers to make them glow, and piled on the straw and the three lumps of coal.  He soon had a good blaze going, and he and Miss Minkin were warm and cosy once more.  Then Hob took the pewter pot and put the ale to warm on the hearth.  Last of all, he set the marrowbones to roast on the grate.  While they were sizzling, he lit his pipe and blew several perfect smoke rings round the star on top of the Christmas tree.  Miss Minkin washed her face and paws, ready for the feast.
     “Merry Christmas!” she said as she eyed the sizzling marrowbones.
     Hob lifted the pewter pot, “Wassail!”
     They feasted and danced until morning began to light up the eastern sky, and had just nodded off to sleep when there was a noise of feet scrambling down the stairs, and the children came running in.  Hob slipped into the shadows and was back under the hearthstone in no time at all.  Miss Minkin opened one eye.
     The children took the bulging stockings down and began to shout, “I’ve got a doll!”
     “He’s given me a train!”
      “Look, a chocolate mouse!  A spinning top!”
     They ran upstairs to tell their parents that Father Christmas had eaten the mince pies and drunk the sherry, and had left lots of marvellous presents in the stockings and two old bones and a pewter pot on the hearth.
     Miss Minkin closed her eyes and settled down for a long Christmas Morning nap.

Friday, 19 December 2014

A CRIME WRITER COOKS! by Chris Longmuir

This month I thought I would tempt you with something from the Authors Electric recipe book Cooking the Books. as you can see it's a mix of the ridiculous and the helpful. You may find a recipe to suit you within the pages, or you may prefer just to have a laugh with us as we tackle this alien enterprise. After all, we are writers, not celebrity cooks.!

Excerpt from Cooking the Books

Cooking – definition – an unpleasant occupation but something you have to do to ensure continued life. It requires a well stocked cupboard, fridge and freezer. An aptitude to combine any ingredients found into something palatable. And a burning desire to take part in Ready, Steady, Cook!

Are you sitting comfortably? We shall begin.

Contents of Detective Sergeant Bill Murphy’s fridge – a prehistoric egg, bacon with white wriggly things on it, cheese that is green and furry, and something indistinguishable (Bill can’t remember what it was!).

Contents of Chris’s fridge – don’t know, haven’t looked in there for yonks!

Cooking tools – Chris doesn’t know what most of them are for, but she has a great library of beautiful cookery books. She bought them to drool over the pretty pictures.

Check freeze, choose from a selection of ready meals, remove cardboard sleeve, pierce film top with a knife (remember to remove it from the body and clean the blood off), and nuke for the required amount of minutes in the microwave.

Job done.

Once a year Chris is sentenced to cook. She dines well with family providing great festive meals over Christmas and the New Year, but then comes payback time. Yes, you’ve guessed it. It’s time to invite the family to the annual post New Year dinner. Well, one has to show willing!

Switch off computer. Lock study door. Hide iPad. Close eyes, relax, and go ‘Um’ over and over again in an attempt at self hypnosis. Give up and get started.

Remove turkey crown from freezer in garage. Imperative to take this out at least 2 to 3 days beforehand to thaw out.

Check freezer – no turkey crown – forgot to buy.

Go to supermarket – no turkey crowns left. Scream!

Visit friendly butcher, get talked into buying a haunch of venison. Take it home. Look at it. Scream!

Check cookery books. Some lovely pictures but no venison.

Unlock study door. Switch on computer. Google ‘How to cook venison’. Read several and groan. Too complicated.

Choose the simplest one, and check for ingredients:
Haunch of venison – got that.
Marinade – what the heck’s a marinade? Oh, well I suppose it’s not really necessary.
3/4 lb fat bacon strips ( I thought we’d gone metric, but I know what pounds and ounces are).
1/4 pint of burgundy (Another run to the supermarket to buy it).
Seasoning – that’s salt and pepper isn’t it? At least I know that.
1/2 lb butter (I definitely have that, margarine or spreads never darken my door).
Olive Oil (Yup! Got that as well).
1 tablespoon of flour (I don’t suppose it will matter how old it is!).
Juice of half a lemon or orange ( it will have to be an orange, I don’t like lemons).

Marinate the haunch for 24 hours – How the heck do you do that? Go off and check the internet.
OK now I’ve found out what a marinade is so let’s get started.
First of all find a tin or dish big enough to hold the venison and add the ingredients of the marinade to it;
4-6 tablespoons of olive oil;
1/2 bottle of red wine (another run to the supermarket);
1 onion sliced (wipe tears from eyes);
3 sprigs parsley;
1 bay leaf;
1/4 teaspoon thyme.

Mix them all together and put the venison into the dish, making sure the marinade coats it completely.
Leave the venison in the marinade for 24 hours.
Take it out the next day, rub it with oil, dab it all over with the butter, and wrap the bacon strips round it.
Now wrap it loosely in foil and place in the oven at 190C/375F/gas mark 5 (Don’t know what the first two are so I set my gas oven at 5).
Cook for 20 mins per pound, and baste every 10 minutes (How the heck do I do that when it’s wrapped in foil?).

Relax with remainder of wine and enjoy the aroma of roasting venison.

15 minutes before the end of the cooking time, unwrap the venison, remove the bacon strips and sprinkle flour over the top of the meat. Baste well and return to a hot oven for 10-15 minutes.
Place venison on serving dish and pour away all the fat in the roasting tin except for 1 tablespoon. Add flour and cook until brown.
Gradually add the burgundy, and lemon or orange juice. Bring to boil, stirring all the time, and simmer for a few minutes. Add the seasoning.

Serve the venison with redcurrent jelly.

I’m sure you’ll all be pleased to know that it looked okay, and nobody complained. Quite surprising considering Chris cooked it!

A festive meal is not complete without a selection of sweets, or puddings, if you prefer.

Black forest gateaux
Select biggest one from supermarket freezer;
Remove cardboard box;
Allow 2-3 hours to thaw;

Fruit salad
Buy a selection of tins of fruit from supermarket;
Open tins with electric tinopener;
Plonk contents in a bowl;

My Special Sweet and Sour Pud
Biggest size double cream;
Biggest size natural yogurt;
Enough tinned fruit (or fresh if you like) to cover bottom of a fairly large shallow dish; It’s best to have something tart like raspberries, blueberries, cranberries etc. My favourite is tinned fruits of the forest;
Brown sugar.

Whip cream until thick, add yogurt and mix together;
Layer fruit on bottom of dish;
Top with the cream and yogurt mixture;
Sprinkle brown sugar on top;
Place in fridge for several hours until the brown sugar looks melted.

And that’s it, folks. that’s how a crime writer prepares a festive dinner. Thank goodness there are 364 days between each banquet!

If you want to buy a copy of Cooking the Books to see what other writers get up to when faced with a hot stove, then you'll find it here Amazon UK and Amazon US 

Chris Longmuir.
Author of the Dundee Crime Series

Thursday, 18 December 2014

An Old Polish Christmas by Catherine Czerkawska

The Amber Heart on Kindle - Polish & Christmassy
When I was wondering whether to do a Christmas 'special offer' on one of my books and also wondering which one to choose, I found myself trying to decide between a couple of suitable books. But really, when it came down to choices, it was a no-brainer. It had to be the Amber Heart. Even the cover seems kind of Christmassy and in my heart, when I think about this book, I think about Poland at Christmas.

It is a big doorstop of a book but then it's a big story. Epic. Romantic. Heart rending. When one of my previous agents sent it out, she relayed a letter from an acquisitions editor who said that she had stayed up all night reading it and weeping. They didn't acquire it though. Poland was a non starter as a setting. Now if it had been Russia ...

No point at all in telling them that Eastern European borders have been so fluid and so deadly, in consequence, that this novel, set firmly in that part of mid-nineteenth century Poland called Galicia would, if set in the same physical place today, have to be in the Ukraine.

I grew up with a Polish father and an English/Irish mum. Christmas was one time of the year when we became thoroughly Polish, and celebrated in the Polish way, with a Christmas eve dinner and Polish carols like this one  Lulajze Jezuniu, that always made my late dad cry. Then, on Christmas Day, we did it in the English way as well. Nothing like having the best of both worlds.

But really, in order to celebrate in the Polish way, you need to be in Poland. I spent a couple of Christmases in Poland when I was in my twenties, teaching EFL in Finland and then when I was working for the British Council at Wroclaw University.

Wojciech Kossak - one of the family forebears - was the artist.
I used the setting - and perhaps even these characters - in the novel. 
It was magical.

I still remember wandering through a big indoor market in Warsaw, with it's peculiar scent of horseradish, smoked cheese, apples. I remember the extreme cold, the snow and the plentiful mistletoe for sale on the street flower stalls.

On Christmas Eve my father's cousin and her partner took me to a house in the Zoliborz suburb of the city where the Kossak family - relatives by marriage - still lived. The Christmas Eve meal was traditional and extraordinary: twelve small but delicious 'courses' with beetroot soup, lots of fish but no meat. Lots of flavoured vodkas too. And makowiec - a luscious Christmas cake made with ground poppy seeds and rich yeast pastry. Straw was placed under the tablecloth and if you 'drew the short straw', woe betide you because your life would be a short one as well. To be honest, I think they made sure that all the straws were fairly long!

Great Uncle Karol Kossak: my favourite uncle.
I can't remember everyone who sat around that table but there were lots of them and they were all related in some way, however remotely. They had to place me very firmly within the family - even though for most of them, I was only related by my great aunt Wanda's marriage. I was Julek's daughter, and Julek was the son of Wladyslaw who died in the war, and my Great Uncle Karol (Wladyslaw's friend) had married Wladyslaw's elder sister Wanda and they were the children of ... It went on and on, until they had established exactly who I was and where I belonged in the family hierarchy. I remember too that they kept a tortoise, a large one, that clicked and clattered across the wooden floors as the party progressed.

I think this is actually signed by one of the Kossak family. Note the Galicya name
Christmas Day involved a round of visits to other family members and friends throughout the city. In every house, I was offered a plate of the substantial hunter's stew called bigos and of course it was rude to refuse. I began to feel a bit like Dawn French in that episode of the Vicar of Dibley with all the Christmas Dinners.

It was a busy and blissful time.

But one thing that I remember perhaps more clearly than any other, was a friend of the family taking me around the walls of the old town of Warsaw, a perfect mediaeval town, destroyed by the Nazis not by overhead bombing, but its buildings deliberately and maliciously blown up from the ground, to prevent the people from ever returning.

Warsaw from the air, after the Warsaw Uprising. 
Except that they did return, and rebuilt it. It is a place with the most extraordinarily poignant and beautiful atmosphere. I remember walking along quiet alleyways on a cold, clear night, the twilight just coming on, and the lamps lit. I remember my cousin's friend Michael telling me about his wartime experiences, and how he could not come here now without thinking about all the people he knew who had died, but how he still loved the place anyway. Even now, thinking about it, brings a lump to my throat.

My dad in the snow, in Galicia, Poland.
The Amber Heart is set at a much earlier time - the mid 1800s. But my dad's stories informed it. Fortunately, because he died when he was only 68, I had encouraged him to write things down for me.  I used all kinds of stories that I had been told over the years about our fascinating family history. It's fiction, but it has a basis in some very intriguing facts. It's a snowy novel (but not always). It describes a traditional Christmas - but it describes a traditional Easter too.

All the same, if you read it, I think you'll see what I mean when I say that it always seems to me to be a Christmas novel - or perhaps I mean that it's a good long Christmas read. And for seven days beginning 24th December, you can download it onto your Christmas Kindle for the bargain price of 99p or 99c in the US.

And can I take this opportunity to wish all Authors Electric readers a very happy holiday season - and a new year that brings you all you could hope for.

Catherine Czerkawska

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Getting together with other writers - Elizabeth Kay

The Scattered Authors Society – yes, the other SAS  – recently had a get-together at Folly Farm in Somerset. This is a group of mainly traditionally-published children’s writers, and although this is obviously not open to all, beginners can get similar benefits from joining a creative writing class.

Writers frequently live very isolated lives, beavering away at home on their computers and, at this time of year, rarely acknowledging the light of day unless they need to do some shopping. This was the fifth get-together I’ve attended since 2004, and each one has been thoroughly worthwhile, from the topics we’ve tackled to making new friends. Mixing with other writers is a delight, and the opportunity to do so in such lovely surroundings is fantastic. Friends and relatives, however well-meaning, simply don’t understand the frustrations, moments of euphoria and plain hard grind of an author’s life. Sharing this with others in the same position is brilliant. Of course, it’s not all fricasseed frogs and eel pie. We do some work as well! There are times for people just to go off and work if they want, talks, walks and fab food. I did a Powerpoint presentation about how travel has influenced and inspired my writing.

I used lots of pictures and a wide selection of vodkas to illustrate particular moments. The banoffee vodka was a huge hit, and we got through the whole bottle.
            Workshopping a book that’s got problems is something at which other writers excel. Idea after idea came tumbling out, and I realised that in the manuscript I’d chosen to use I simply had too many themes. Narrowing it down to one will be far more effective, but not something I’d realised on my own. It’s a bit like having a focal point in a painting – too many, and you don’t know where to look and subconsciously feel slightly anxious. We sorted out a better ending, as well. Sometimes an ending doesn’t have to sew up absolutely everything, and it’s better to leave one thread open to keep the reader thinking long after they’ve turned the final page. Of course, all this means I’ll have to dump 40,000 words and re-write what remains but hey – you have to be prepared to do things like this every so often.
            We learned about fan fiction, which was something new for a lot of us (I’ve had one of the characters in Back to the Divide The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, for instance.
killed off in the most gruesome way!) and discovered that it is being taken
more seriously these days. A lot of young writers use it to get started, as their characters are fully-formed and they know the setting. Mind you, glancing at some of it I now realise that mixing together different worlds is a popular pastime…

There were some lovely walks, although we did get lost on one occasion. We saw the most amazing collection of spiders' webs on the grass, which shimmered in the light breeze and looked like a fine silver net.        
              We did a poetry session, which was something I hadn’t dabbled in for a while. We had to come up with a collective noun for something, and incorporate it in a poem. This was my effort:

First there was The Killing,
Then there was The Bridge;
Slots that needed filling,
With bodies in a fridge.
No more Morse or Lewis;
Discreetly ended lives,
Our TV drama has become
A Scandinoir of knives.

            I often use photographs from magazines when I’m trying to describe a setting or a person. We did a fascinating exercise when we took a painting, and analysed the portrait in detail, wondering about the character’s clothes, facial expression, situation, what happened before, what happened after. The National Portrait Gallery is a terrific place to go for all sorts of material. In the days before the internet I used museum libraries, which usually had a dedicated and knowledgeable librarian to point you in the right direction, and you’d come up with all sorts of information that would never otherwise have occurred to you. The British Library is wonderful, although it doesn’t quite have the atmosphere of The Reading Room at the British Museum, which now only remains in my memory as it was from a bygone era. It was there that I discovered the way people sometimes advertised their wares in the past. A builder created an entire mansion so that he could demonstrate his prowess in secret passages and priest-holes. What a pity it was demolished…

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Where Does a Writer Write? by Wendy H. Jones

I have had a great time today as I have been on a day trip to York. This was a round trip of nine hours by train and I loved every minute of it. With my trusty laptop in hand I was able to spend several uninterrupted hours writing. This got me thinking about where do writers actually write and what might be the most unusual place any writer has spent time writing?

Today I wrote in number of places the train being one of them. I also wrote at the station in a cafe, whilst listening to a steel band. Now I'm not sure if I should actually admit to this in a blog, but I actually quickly whipped out a piece of paper and pen and wrote something down whilst in the toilet on the train. One confession too many maybe.

The train gave me many different thoughts and scenarios for future books. This meant I had to interrupt writing my current WIP in order to jot down the ideas for the future. All great stuff though. As I write murder mysteries I will leave it up to you to decide what I have in mind.

I spent a pleasant half hour mulling over the most unusual place I had ever written. In the end it came down to a mud hut, in a Nepalese Jungle, in the middle of a hurricane, by the light of a candle. I thought that couldn't be beaten. I was proved wrong on my return to Dundee. Walking from the station to my car I passed a young woman who was begging. It was 10 pm, freezing cold and dark. Whilst I, and possibly most others, were thinking only of a warm house and bed, she was sitting on the pavement, under a blanket, writing as though her life depended on it.

I think this demonstrates the true nature of a writer. That compulsion to write no matter what. I drove home excited at the prospect of getting all this down in writing.

My question to you is, Where is the most unusual place you have been felt compelled to write? Please share in the comments. I am looking forward to hearing the answers.

Monday, 15 December 2014

A Christmas curse by Jan Needle

I get very jealous when I read all you other writers’ blogs. You all seem so effortlessly serious in your choice of subject and the erudition and application you so generously put in. And here am I, pushing the monthly deadline to its outer limit (not for the first time, or the second, or the third). Look at Dennis. Spends half his life zooming around the planet enjoying himself, and still has time to produce a wonderful new volume, and make me dribble with longing for his buckshee television. And then a spiffing blog on top.

As you can see, deadline or not, I haven't got a thought in my head as to what to write. My brain is wrecked. I'm seven-eighths of the way through revising a big thriller, I've just spent a week doing a final polish on the second of my nautical novellas about Charlie (Craven) Raven, and in the interstices (try saying that to a voice recognition programme!) I've hammered out an outline and pitching document for a novel about Napoleon.

Fascinating chap, even more fascinating as a personality than Horatio himself. Did you know, for instance, that his wife Josephine was not called Josephine, and that he had two other mistresses he called Josephine as well? Weird, or what? And did you know that the Duke of Wellington hopped into bed with both of them? If they taught this sort of history in schools, I suspect we'd be much more educated as a nation.

How I see myself. Handsome, debonair author
What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that I'm tired. Writing fiction, however hard I try to kid myself, is dashed gruelling. I'm jealous of you lot for your seriousness, and I'm jealous of people who write songs. However brilliant they are, they are, like most poems, short. I could do that, I'm bloody sure I could! Except for the times I’ve tried, of course. You wouldn't compare my efforts to a summer's day.

So, I'll leave you with a curse. I know it's almost Christmas, the season of goodwill and all that tosh, but life's too short. I'll tell you an Irish story about a woman whose favourite farmyard beastie was slain by an unknown passerby. People who know the history of that island will tell you that it has a hidden meaning. So what? It's a wonderful piece of sustained cursing, and I dedicate it to all of you. Bah. Humbug.

Nell Flaherty's Drake

Oh my name it is Nell, and truth for to tell,
I come from Coote Hill, which I’ll never deny.
I had a fine drake, and I'd die for his sake,
That my grandmother left me and she going to die.
The dear little fellow, his legs they were yellow,
He could fly like a swallow and swim like a hake.
Till some dirty savage, to grease his white cabbage,
Most wantonly murdered my beautiful drake.

Now his neck it was green, and most fit to be seen,
He was fit for a Queen of the highest degree.
His body was white, and it would you delight,
He was plump, fat, and heavy, and brisk as a bee.
He was wholesome and sound, he would weigh 20 pound,
And the universe round I would roam for his sake.
Bad luck to the robber, be he drunk or sober,
That murdered Nell Flaherty's beautiful drake.

May his spade never dig, made his sow never pig,
May each hair in his wig be well thrashed with a flail.
May his door have no latch, made his roof have no thatch,
May his turkeys not hatch, may the rats eat his meal.
May every old fairy from Cork to Dun Laoghaire
Dip him snug and airy in river or lake.
That the eel and the trout, they may dine on the snout,
Of the monster that murdered Nell Flaherty's drake.

May his pig never grunt, made his cat never hunt,
May a ghost ever haunt him in dead of the night.
May his hens never lay, may his horse never neigh,
May his goat fly away like an old paper kite.
That the flies and the fleas may the wretch ever tease
May the piercing March breeze make him shiver and shake.
May a lump of a stick raise the bumps fast and thick
On the monster that murdered Nell Flaherty's drake.

Now the only good news that I have to enthuse,
Is that the old Paddy Hughes and young Anthony Blake,
Also Johnny Dwyer, and Cornie Maguire,
They each have a grandson of my darling drake.
For my treasure had dozens of nephews and cousins,
And one I must get or my heart it will break.
To set my mind easy or else I'll run crazy,
So ends the whole song of Nell Flaherty’s drake.

I sang it at the Cross Keys last night. With a pint or so of John Willie Lees’s bitter. Made me feel a whole lot better!

Or as others see me?