Winter Downs: Interview with Jan Edwards

Jenny Barber

Winter Downs Jan Edwards front coverAnnnnnd, welcome to the next stop in the Winter Downs Blog Tour, celebrating the launch of the ever excellent Jan Edwards’ new book – Winter Downs – a thrilling ride of 1940’s crime fic starring the kick ass Bunch Courtney.   I interrogated Jan to find out more…

Winter Downs is the first in your Bunch Courtney Investigates series – who is Bunch and what can we expect from future books in the series?

Bunch Courtney is a well connected young woman who is set adrift  by the changes that the coming of war has imposed on her, and knows that the life she was brought up to lead will never return. When she stumbles on a murder she discovers a talent and taste for sleuthing as she interacts with the local police force; and with Chief Inspector Wright in particular.

Bunch Courtney Investigates is an open ended series with…

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My Writing Day : Pauline Woodhouse

A different take on my series of guest blogs about how writers write.



Some days, way more than actually writing,

I do more drinking coffee, (yes let’s call it coffee) while pondering;

Allowing my thoughts to do some wild-walk wandering,

You know, like trimming words and pruning phrases,

Then mentally planting them in sunnier places.

And occasionally I may get an inspirational inkling

To rebel and do some radical free-thought sprinkling.

But then, to allow growth for my new little seedling,

I have to do some radical … ‘weedling’.

So now, I’ve uprooted and rearranged the literary undergrowth of jungle (in my head)

And transported redundant chunks of it, in bulk, to a wordy-weed infested dump instead,

Which I might take a sneaky peep at now and then;

When, inevitably, I feel the overwhelming urge … another poem to pen.

And when, at last, I feel enough’s enough,

I may get round to actually writing stuff.









It’s not Rocket Science

Delicious recipe just right for our asparagus season. Thanks Barry.

Being Britalian

I was watching a British chef on television this week enthusing about risotto; in fact he was making so much noise about it’s preparation that you’d think he was solving complex equations rather than making a simple Italian rice dish. I turned off the TV and went shopping for some ingredients to make my own and so here’s my recipe for pancetta and asparagus risotto with none of the bells and whistles. For this recipe which serves 4 people, you’ll need:

1 red onion. 500g Arborio rice*. 500g asparagus. 100g soft cheese. 100g cubed pancetta. 400 ml vegetable stock and 2 garlic cloves. You’ll need salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon to season. A glass of white wine and my special asparagus stock.

To make my asparagus stock for extra flavour, Snap off the bottom inch or so of the asparagus using your fingers; the stems…

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My Working Day: Lynn Smith

My guest writer today is Lynn Smith. As always it is fascinating to learn how other people work.

Lynn's photo

I’ve done my usual five-minute browse of the world beyond the window. Nothing exciting to report. Dull sky, noisy crow on next-door’s roof, but no real diversions.  A promising day. I’m in my writing space, small, but big enough. It has all I need, laptop, notebooks, pens and an array of non-essentials.  It’s here, among the clutter, that I try to bring life to an imaginary world.

Creativity involves thinking before doing.  My characters are often born in those mundane moments of domestic boredom, when it’s possible to allow the creative part of the mind to wander and let the practical one get on with chores.  Mine wandered so much one Christmas that the preparation of dinner produced a thousand-word story which featured my grandchildren and a sprout called Cyril.  Can it ever be a waste to wander?

But at times there are static pauses devoid of any kind of creativity.  That has been my problem recently.  Like neglected puppets thrown to the back of an under-stairs cupboard, two of my favourite characters are now still and silent.  The truth is that I have become so detached from them that I’ve been tempted to just leave them in that cupboard.

I want to get back to serious writing.  Enough of diversions and distractions, I need motivation and inspiration.  I find these in music and poetry and in quotes where someone else’s experience and wisdom can clear the fog.  So, ignoring my usual weaknesses, Twitter, Facebook and emails, I opt for Brainy Quotes.  Coffee and croissants at hand and feeling optimistic, I am, hopefully, absorbing the insight of the gifted.

Ernest Hemmingway said that, “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people not characters.  A character is a caricature.”

Sounds like my problem.  I’ve forgotten who and what my characters are. They are certainly not living right now.  It’s depressing to recognise that I’ve failed them, but it happens.  I’m annoyed and frustrated.  Too eager to get to the last full stop, I cut corners.  That doesn’t ever work.  I know that and yet, for a while, I indulged in idle writing, assuming that it would turn out ok.  It didn’t.  I have no excuses.  So, life got busy, disorganised.  Happens to everyone.

I need to revive my characters.  I need them to be Evie and Harry again.

Time to go back, to read about them, not as a writer looking for errors or faults, but as a reader looking for a connection.

More coffee, a comfortable chair and a browse through the draft. There are chapters that catch the essence of both the story and the characters.  The Talk in the Park is one of them.  I’ll start with that.

They are sitting on cold metal chairs outside a small café overlooking the lake.  It’s a chilly autumn morning.   Evie is cold.  Harry is ordering hot chocolate. It’s a simple, but vivid scene and within the first few words, I am part of it.  At the point where Harry notices Evie’s tears fall into her hot chocolate, I am feeling.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader….”   Robert Frost.

I’m making shambolic notes now. Thoughts and ideas coming fast and it’s exciting to feel this enthusiastic again.

Notes:   little things make the biggest impact.  Need to be in the room, not looking through the window.  Harry needs a scarf – don’t know why yet, just know he needs a scarf.

Another two chapters and I’m feeling more optimistic.  I do know these two.

I know that Harry makes Evie happy, but I don’t know what makes her dance around the kitchen when no-one is there.  He is her rock and even rocks must crumble at times but I don’t feel it, so he doesn’t show it.

Notes:  characters hesitant and fragile.  No confidence in the writing – no pleasure in the reading.  Too black and white, no shades. Too many spaces, too little emotion.  No fun. But I can fix this.  We need a party.

Hans Christian Anderson: “Where words fail, music speaks.”

So, lunch, a thirty-minute break with iTunes and playlist one, then time to let Evie and Harry out of the cupboard.

The best thing about imagination is that anything can happen when your eyes are closed.

Evie would have been a wild child, given half a chance.  Harry is Harry and always has been.  Solid, dependable, a perfect foil for Evie.  She’s dressed, sixties style and Shakin’ all Over with Johny Kid and the Pirates. He’s still in 2017 and he’s donned jeans and trainers to fit in, although, given half a chance, he’d be Leaving on a Jet Plane with John Denver. Evie’s having a ball and he’s watching, tapping his feet and despite feeling out of place, enjoying her enjoyment.

These people…people now…not characters, are living in the moment. Me too.  I can’t keep up with them, my pen is on fire and so am I.

Note:  Why the scarf?  A whole chapter taking shape.

When the dance hall in my brain closes, I’ll head for the keyboard and hit it – hard!   I think I may be back on track.  Perfect day.






A day in the life of a writer: Richard Ayres

Today I’m posting the first of a series of guest blogs by fellow writers, inspired by the Guardian’s “My Working Day”.

 Richard Ayers

‘Writing a novel is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a bout of some painful illness. One would never willingly undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’ (George Orwell, ‘Our Opportunity’ 1941)

I have been suffering from such bouts of painful illness for over ten years. Each time a novel is complete (but is a novel ever completed to one’s satisfaction?) I put it to bed with a sigh of relief, resolving never again to expose myself to such self-inflicted torture. But after a few weeks, the demon starts to drive me again. Ideas start to come, prompted by things I’ve read, conversations I’ve overheard, sights, sounds and smells encountered in everyday living. I know I have to commit them to paper.

The ghastly process begins again. On my early morning walk I resolve to go straight to my study as soon as I get home, to type ‘Chapter 1’ (I can’t use pen and paper, the resulting scrawl is illegible even to me), and start composing. I have no plan, just a few notes: I hope that the story and the characters will evolve as I write.

But once home, I need a coffee first, of course. Then there are emails to read, most of which need a reply. And it’s a beautiful day outside, isn’t it? Shame to waste it: I’ll do a spot of gardening. Two hours later, the need for more caffeine, and maybe a cigarette? Back to the PC: the first sentence is typed, then the first paragraph is complete. I start to get into the flow; more paragraphs follow. But then, doubts. Would this opening grab a reader? Maybe that sentence is a bit clumsy? And isn’t that a cliché? No, don’t edit yet, press on. But inspiration has deserted me. Well, it’s nearly time for lunch.

The afternoon follows the same pattern. By three o’clock I’ve had enough. Leave it until the evening; writing seems easier then. And indeed, I manage another few paragraphs. It would have been more, but I had to check something on Google. And once you get on to Google…

The next day, when I finally get to the computer, what I wrote yesterday confronts me. It needs editing, drastically. I enjoy editing, a more mechanical process that trying to be creative. But will the story ever progress? I am haunted by something else that Orwell wrote. He said that the creative life-span of a writer is about 15 years and that ‘many writers, if not all, ought simply to stop writing when they reach middle age’ (‘As I Please’, 1946). Not very comforting for someone in his mid 70s.

My Published Novels.

A Pennine Incident: Contemporary social realism, set on Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Pennines. The Further Education of Mike Carter: Contemporary social realism, set in a Further Education college in the south midlands. Letters and Secrets: Contemporary social realism set in Shropshire, Warwickshire and Milton Keynes, with flashbacks to the 1960s and 70s. Tired of London: More social realism, set in London in the present day and in Leeds in the 1960s.

Soon to be published

Friends Disunited: Set in north Staffordshire and south Buckinghamshire in 2002, the story of disfigured, isolated man and his attempts to make contact with his old school-friends through Britain’s first social media website, Friends Reunited.



Family Arts Conference


From young children, to grandparents and every age in between, how can people and their families be involved in the Arts? And indeed why should they be?

These were some of the questions tackled at the Family Arts Conference in Bristol this week. Delegates spoke about the need for inclusion, for family friendly performances, for access for people who are disabled. Among other topics there was mention of role models for various disadvantaged groups, among which older people can be included. Some are isolated through circumstances, or ill health, others are on very low incomes and all of us have been castigated by the media for robbing the next generation of any hope of owning a home of their own, taking their jobs and being a huge burden on the NHS.

Whatever our circumstances, being older is not currently valued in our society and however hard you try this attitude does inevitably affect the way you see yourself. Being an artist, in whatever discipline, however, allows you to value yourself and your work.

I took part in the Family Arts Conference as a delegate from Ages and Stages Theatre Company. ages-and-stages-5When Jill Rezzano our director, co-ordinator, leader, I’m not sure which title adequately describes all that she does, asked for volunteers, Jackie and I said we would be interested in taking part.

At our session on Intergenerational Work for Older Families, Jill gave a succinct run down of the inception of Ages and Stages and all the work the company has done since then. Jacky and I talked about how we joined the company and what being part of a theatre group has done for us.

My involvement came about by accident. I’d gone along to the Live Age Festival fully intending to take part in one of the writing workshops. When I got to the venue however it occurred to me that taking part, and/or leading workshops is something I’ve done numerous times and maybe opting for the drama workshop would be an opportunity to challenge myself.

I enjoyed the session so much that I came along to the next meeting of Ages and Stages at the New Vic and the rest as they say is history.

On a more serious note, being challenged is one of the reasons why taking part in the Arts is so important. It is so easy to stay safely ensconced in the comfort zone, but, once you dare to set foot outside it, life becomes infinitely richer and more exciting.

I found myself acting in public for the first time since my university days. I was challenged, not just by performing, but because I had to attain the same high standard as the rest of the group.

It is this striving for excellence, even though you know that you will never reach it, which is why the Arts matter so much. It is also the reason why, one day, in some glorious future, there will be no need to have conferences about inclusion because people will be valued for what they have contributed to their art, not for who, or how old or young they are.

In the meantime, I had a great day in Bristol. The sun shone, the sky was blue, Jill, Jacky and I ate our picnic lunch outside.240px-Stgeorgeschapel The venues were great and I learned so much  from the speakers in our session; Fergus Early and his inter-generational work with The Green Candle Dance Company, Susan Langford, the director of Magic Me and Emma Robinson of Age Cymru and Kate Organ whose talk on the Inclusion for Older Family Members was truly inspirational.


Wardrobe Malfunction: Part three of a Bulging Wardrobe


I haven’t been keeping up to date recently with clearing out my clothes. Life got in the way and it didn’t seem that important, until I wanted to find my blue striped cardigan. I knew it was there somewhere, I’d seen it only a few days before, but at the crucial moment it was nowhere to be found.

Half the cupboard had to be emptied before it was located, scrumpled up in a sad heap on top of a pile of shoeboxes. Another casualty of my propensity to keep every garment I’ve ever owned, it did however re-start the life-laundering initiative.

Today’s selection is a top I’ve not worn for years. I bought it when I went shopping with my younger daughter, before her daughter was born, so that is at least five, if not six, years ago. In those dim distant, pre-grandchildren days, we could spend hours wandering around the shops, trying things on, stopping for coffee and cake and a long chat about life.

She might be looking for clothes for work, or a specific occasion. I’m not a great buyer, just a humongous hoarder, so I’d often come away with nothing, but I was instantly drawn to this particular blouse. Not only was it a perfect fit, but at first glance I thought the fabric was Tana Lawn.

This amazing material, which is light as silk, and even though it’s 100% cotton doesn’t crease, was named after Lake Tana in the Sudan, by one of the buyers from Liberty, William Haynes Dorrell in 1920.

When I was a student in London, a boyfriend who was studying architecture would take me round various buildings he considered important. Apart from watching the original Barbican being constructed and a tour of Art Deco toilets in the Black Friar Pub, I was taken to Liberty, the famous mock Tudor store in Regent Street.Liberty.

To my shame, I’d never even heard of the shop, let alone seen anything like this. It was a magical place of infinite wonder. Oriental rugs hung draped from the balconies that overlooked each and every floor. Amber jewellery, Art Deco furniture, leather bags and belts, silk ties and designer clothes, were on sale, the list was endless. Most was way beyond the reach of a seventeen year old on a grant. About the only thing I could afford was a lavender bag made from Liberty fabric and it wasn’t until much, much later that I made myself a skirt, which is still in my wardrobe, from their lovely Tana Lawn.

My top, however fine the cotton, isn’t of the same quality and while the skirt stays, the top goes. It has, however, sparked another slew of memories and with any luck will provide a little more space in my bulging wardrobe.