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Friday 30 May 2014

Beekeeping: Bothered and Bewildered...

Planning Something?
I don't know about March going out like a lion this year, but the month of May certainly had an exciting end  here. DD's first interview was almost hijacked by a swarm of bees!

DD wants a job, but as she also needs to build up credits as an archaeologist, her options for finding full-time work are limited. The digs she's targetting happen during the long summer break, and the shorter one in October. Luckily, a part-time vacancy has recently come up at her old school. If she gets it, she'd be working term-time only. That would be perfect.

Yesterday, she bought her dress (very smart). Today was her interview (very nerve-racking). I don't think she slept well last night - OH and I certainly didn't! We were all ready hours in advance of giving her a lift to the school. Rather than sit in the house, making her feel nervous, I went out to check the greenhouse. With only twenty minutes to go before we were due to leave home, I strolled back. That was when I saw it - a huge swarm of bees on one of wooden posts supporting some raspberry canes. The swarm must have arrived after I checked my bees yesterday, and rested there all night.

The Swarm's New Home
I couldn't leave the swarm where it was while I took DD for her interview. It would have moved off as soon as the day warmed up, and I didn't want our village subjected to the sort of panic that's been appearing in the newspapers and on TV. Given time, I could have coaxed the bees off the post and into a box by using smoke and a soft brush, but we didn't have any time! We had to leave for DD's interview, ten miles away.  Luckily, OH was working from home. He's very tall and strong, so he was able to uproot the wooden post with all the bees still attached, and shake the swarm straight into a nucleus box (a half-sized hive, used for building up small colonies until they're big enough to go into a full-sized home). They dropped in perfectly, I closed it up and we dashed off to deliver DD to her interview.

It'll be a while before these new bees decide if they like it here, and whether they're happy to stay. I'll let you know what happens - about the bees, and whether DD gets the job!

Monday 26 May 2014

Reading and Writing About The Big Ideas...

Exciting Story by Tihamer Margitay
Memorable fiction contains great conflict. Real life is always so much better when the only dangers you face can be safely shut away between the covers of a book. For a lot of people, that's not an option. When I was growing up, reading was my escape route. It kept me out of trouble (if I was quiet, there was a slim chance I'd be forgotten about) and it let me experience the whole world while staying safely hidden in a shed or greenhouse.

Isolationism, whether it's a child in a corner or putting metaphorical wagons in a circle, is dangerous. This week, results from the European elections have shaken up a lot of old, established ideas. This might be a temporary kick against authority, or it might be the first signs of something more. Any individual, or any party who dehumanises "others"of a different nationality, colour, religion or culture is reaching out to dystopia. When politicians from the left, right and centre seem dead-set on sending us all to hell in a handcart, it's up to writers to fight back. We might all look and sound differently from each other, but deep down, people are people the world over. We all have the same basic needs – food, water, shelter, dignity, and love. The global population keeps growing, but Planet Earth can't. We've got to learn to get along together somehow. Writing books for children communicates big ideas like this to small people.

S.F. Said is a British author whose fiction for children highlights divisions in order to bridge them. His colourful ancestry and background helps him bring new perspectives on the puzzles everyone faces, whether they're growing up, or grown. Where do we come from? What are we here for? How can we fit in, and who are we. really?  He says that as readers, we're all citizens of the mind. This is why encouraging children to read as soon as they're big enough to pick up a book is vital. Reading is, or should be, an inclusive universe, not an exclusive one.

You can listen to a talk S F Said gave as part of BBC Radio 4's Four Thought here

Monday 19 May 2014

Writing Brings Riches...

...and there were skylarks singing, too!
...although it may not be the sort you can take to the bank. Someone at the United Nations has been brave enough to suggest there might be other ways of measuring a country's wealth beyond balance sheets.  You can read the Daily Telegraph's take on the story; Lollipops, washing machines and sleeping patterns show a nation's true wealth here.

I have a terrible Daily Mail habit, checking the online headlines every morning before work.   I stick to the main pages, but it's impossible to miss the dozens of famous faces featuring alongside the more serious news items.   Most of them are famous simply for being famous, and what good does it do them?  Our celebrity culture builds people up, only to knock them down again. A woman might become a national heroine for the way she looks, then five minutes later will be rubbished for daring to go out to the supermarket without makeup. What sort of a country do we live in, when a person's appearance and size of their bank balance is seen to be more important than their happiness? When images of lavish lifestyles are the only things we see on line and in the press, day after day, it's no wonder may people feel dissatisfied and resentful of the old nine-to-five. But we're only fed the images the media choose to give us.  It's a highly distorted view. I'm willing to bet that at least 99% of us worry about money, and know what it's like to struggle to pay the bills.  Children brought up on a diet of "reality" shows (many of which are scripted, directed and otherwise faked, anyway) will have a skewed idea of what real life is like. It's setting them up for a whole lot of disappointment and disillusion.

One of mine. Probably.
We're always looking to improve ourselves, our lot and our position in life. It's part of being human. But be honest - once our basic needs for food, clean water, shelter, sanitation and health care are met, everything else is pure gravy. Yesterday the sun shone and the birds were singing. I felt better than I've felt for months, and sat in the garden doing nothing except listening to the laying hens cackling and watching my bees escorting their new queen on her first mating flight. None of that cost me a penny, yet I wouldn't have swapped places with Queen Elizabeth herself.  Incidentally, the life of a Royal looks far better than it lives. Exchanging personal privacy for unimaginable wealth is a step too far, in my opinion. Last week I skipped church, just to spend more time in the garden. The Defender Of The Faith would never get away with that one!

There's nothing wrong with working hard, and trying to improve your family's living standards. But as well as waking up and smelling the coffee, why not try kicking back and listening to the birds once in a while?

Friday 16 May 2014

Growing Wild...

The View From My Window
Today I'm publicising something that's as close to my heart as writing.  Anything that helps my bees thrive and produce plenty of delicious honey gets my vote, so I'm all in favour of the Grow Wild project. Their motto is "Flower to the People" (groan), and it's a project that's both useful and beautiful.

GrowWildUK is a nationwide project supported by the Big Lottery Fund and masterminded by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. It's a programme that will run for four years, bringing people together to sow UK native wild flowers. They want to transform the whole country, turning unloved spaces into wildlife-friendly wild flower havens.

Busy Bees, via Wikimedia
One of our neighbours has spent the last couple of years turning a paddock into a wildflower meadow. This is its first year of flowering, and the effect is stunning. Tottering Towers is following suit, but starting small. We've spent years building up the fertility here, so the patch we choose will have to be stripped of a lot of goodness, or big tough plants like nettles and bracken will out-compete the smaller (and usually prettier) plants.

Wild orchids have popped up spontaneously only a mile or two away from here, so with luck the spores will find us eventually. Until then, we'll be concentrating on the simple, annual flowers that bees love, such as all sorts and sizes of native daisies, along with poppies, foxgloves and other "pretty weeds" such as scarlet pimpernel. They're the type of thing that will thrive anywhere, from cracks between inner city paving to our country garden.

Watch this space for updates about how we get on!

Monday 12 May 2014

Three Top Tips For Moving Your Writing On...

By Antonio Litterio
1. DRIVE THAT DRY: When you’ve had a run of successful writing sessions,  it comes as a shock when you hit a dry patch.  Don’t panic.  The act of writing is like holding handfuls of sand: the harder you try, the more effort you put in, the closer to impossible it gets.  The first blank sheet, or coming back after a break, is always tough. Forget what you planned to write. Instead, plunge straight in to writing your most exciting scene. It doesn’t matter if it’s out of context, just get something down on paper. This works on the sink or swim principle. It may just take a prod to make the words start flowing again. If that doesn't work, there’s a point when sitting and suffering is pointless. Visit your own particular well of inspiration, even if it’s only snatching a nap or taking a walk. Chill out. Stop and smell the flowers. Sometimes you achieve more by trying less. 

2. PLAY FAST AND DIRTY:    When you’re first grabbed by an idea, don’t get bogged down in detail. As long as you’ve done the groundwork on your characters and conflicts, try this. Charge straight through your story, writing only the dialogue. Scribble away as fast as you can, getting down on paper or screen all the juiciest exchanges. Start the beginning, and work right through to the end. You’re not looking to write the whole novel at this stage. You’ll probably change a million things about it before you’re satisfied with your final draft, but that’s in the future. What you want at this stage is a big boost to your self-esteem. The explosion of your idea into visible words will power you on to the finish.

3. FINE TUNE THE FUTURE: Your first, “dirty” draft captures all the interpersonal, edge of the seat stuff – the interplay of character and conflicts that first got your idea up and running. If you’ve invested in plenty of thinking time and done your research, your second draft should be pure pleasure. Go back over your work word by word, and line by line. Use your character sketches to make sure everyone is doing and saying the things they should - or at least, in the way they should. Season your writing with a dash description, and a lot of character development. Let your fictional people drive their story on.  Crank up the conflict. Make them laugh and cry, and you'll make your completed story a guaranteed page turner. 

For more writing tips, visit my website by clicking here. You can sign up for my occasional newsletter by mailing me at christinahollis@hotmail(dot)co(dot)uk, putting "NEWSLETTER" in the subject line. 

Thursday 8 May 2014

Food, Men and The Weekend...

...complete with travelling tins!
Last week, my husband celebrated a significant anniversary as a systems analyst. Supplying cakes at times like that is a tradition in his office, so I grabbed my First Edition of Mary Berry's Ultimate Cakes and started baking. Her recipes are foolproof, and you can see three variations on her theme of traybakes in the photo: chocolate, lemon, and orange-and-sultana.

I also made Victoria sponge, which is the perfect quick tea-time treat. Here's the recipe –


The weight of four eggs in caster sugar, self-raising flour and soft margarine (I use the organic butter/sunflower oil spread made by Pure)

1. Cream the margarine and sugar with a food mixer until it's light and fluffy.
2. Break the eggs into a jug, beat them with a fork then incorporate them into the margarine and sugar mixture a little at a time, whisking hard after every addition.
3. Sift in the flour, and fold it in gently. Divide the mixture between two greased and lined 8" (20 cm) sandwich tins.
4.  Bake in the oven at 180 degrees c, 160 degrees fan, 350 degrees F, Gas Mark 4 for about 25 minutes or until the cakes are light brown and spring back to the touch.
5. Allow them to cool on a wire rack, then sandwich them together with raspberry jam. Delicious!

By Healthnutlady
I must admit I balked when I was introduced to the blogs of Chuck Wendig (via writer Lynne Connolly) but the man talks a lot of sense about the art, and sheer graft, of writing. Don't try reading his blogs at work as the language is ripe, but check out his instructive entries. Five Common Problems I See In Your Stories and The Full Time Writer are good starting points.

This weekend I'll be checking my bees, and hoping they don't swarm. On the other hand, I'm all ready and waiting to capture anybody else's swarms that happen to come my way!

What are you doing this weekend? Have you got any writing planned?

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Creative Writing: The Selling Business...

By Antonio Litterio
Once you’ve finished writing your book, it feels like the hard work’s over. Then you discover it's only just beginning. Unless you’ve got a literary agent, you’ll have to come out from behind your keyboard and start selling–yourself, as well as your books. This is the toughest part for many authors. Most of us like to spend every spare moment shut away in our own little worlds. The bright lights of publicity are dazzling, but here are some great ways to cope:

1. Buddy Up: To be an author, you only need to put words down on a page, or up on a screen. Telling a story needs an audience. Actually selling a book needs readers willing to hand over good money. Start gently, with your friends and family. If they like your work, they shouldn't take much persuading to set up a daisy-chain of sales by recommending your book to their friends. News spreads like ripples in a pond, on the Six Degrees of Separation principle. Make friends with your local librarian (see the next point!) as they're often keen to give publicity to local writers. Join groups such as the  Romantic Novelists' Association, whose members are keen readers as well as writers. They're a fund of useful advice when it comes to book-selling opportunities. Go online where the readers are, too, on sites such as GoodreadsTwitter's a great way of networking but remember, the most important thing is actually to build friendships and find out what readers like, rather than go all-out to sell. The internet lacks the subtlety of face-to-face contact. Make sure you only include a sales pitch once in every dozen tweets or so. Make contacts, have fun, and see any effect on sales as a bonus.

2. Go Equipped: Never leave home without something you can hand out to people you meet. A picture tells a thousand  words, so get illustrated! If you don't have a good local printer, you can pick up some great stuff online; bookmarks, flyers with your book's cover on one side and a teasing quote on the other, and business cards. Make sure your contact details are on everything. If your book's available in hardback or paperback form, carry a couple of autographed copies, too. Libraries are aways glad of donated books, and you can give them some bookmarks at the same time. It all helps to get your name recognised, and that'll help widen the audience for your work.

3. Contract Out: This is where literary agents and virtual assistants can really save you time and stress. Ok, you have to pay for their time and expertise, but they spend their working days honing their specific skills. Wouldn't you like to do the same with your craft? Employing someone to do all your non-writing work gives you more time to be creative. You can read more about the pros and cons of literary agents here. I did a blog tour with Nas Dean for The Weight of The Crown, and it was an easy, fun way to connect with readers. While Nas did all the organisation and paperwork, I dropped in at every blog to answer questions, and reply to comments from readers. It was great–the dates, scheduling, formats, information spreadsheets and prize draw admin was handled by Nas, while I spent all my time doing what I love: writing, and chatting online with readers.

For more writing tips, visit my website by clicking here. You can sign up for my occasional newsletter by mailing me at christinahollis@hotmail(dot)co(dot)uk, putting "NEWSLETTER" in the subject line.   

Friday 2 May 2014

Refilling the Creative Writing Well...

By Martyn Stanley
The surge of spring is well under way. These bluebells surround our house like the sea, and  for a few precious weeks each year their blue tide sweeps through the wood.

Growing things gives me a break from writing and gives my mind a chance to freewheel. I can develop fictional characters and formulate new stories. This week, I've been planting salads out in the Greenhouse #1, and looking forward to the first tabbouleh of summer. Tomato plants give off a powerful fragrance which reminds me of when I was little, as my father used to grow hundreds of the things. The perfume of lilac blossom is another trigger for memories. The house where I grew up had double white lilacs all along one boundary. In the low light of dusk and dawn the flowers glowed like banks of snow. I used to think it was an extra present, as my birthday falls this month. Things were so much simpler back then!

The dawn chorus is another powerfully evocative spur for me at this time of year. The birds start singing before first light. That's when I like to go outside for some thinking time. Sitting in the garden with a cup of tea, waiting for the performance to begin eases me gently into my working day. It's usually a robin who starts singing first here. There are two song thrush nests close to the house, one in the kitchen garden and a second in  a holly tree on the lower lawn. I like their songs second only to the nightingales that sing a few miles up the road. There are blackbirds nesting in the ivy encrusting our old shed, and once the male starts warbling from the ridge of the bigger greenhouse, I know it's time to get ready for the school run.

Sunday, 4th May, is National Dawn Chorus Day. The thought of yet another "day" to add to all the other weird and wonderful promotional activities dreamt up by marketing men usually provokes yawns of boredom. Not this time. We'll be heading off to Highnam before 4am, to see if the famous Gloucestershire nightingales are on song. Then it'll be back home for a great British breakfast. The smell of frying bacon is another memorable experience. It makes me want to write a piece on why I could never be completely vegetarian...

What inspires you to write?