Writer’s total lack of inspiration

Writer’s total lack of inspiration

Ah, book three. It’s not so much a question of ‘will it get finished’ as ‘will it ever get started?’

I’ve dropped right out of the habit of sitting and writing this summer. There are a lot of reasons for that. My physical fitness is back after years of being limited by a dodgy hip and subsequent surgery. There’s a puppy in the house to make full use of my time (and my resurrected walking skills) and we’re converting a barn on the farm to be our new forever-home, which is keeping me mentally occupied and absorbing every drop of my creative thinking juices.

I’m walking and riding and project mismanaging… I’m loving the time away from my desk. I’ve shed half a stone just by being more active (author’s bottom be gone!) and in my downtime, I’m reading lots of lovely books that other people have written. (It’s so much easier than writing one yourself).

I’m asking myself some deep and meaningful questions:

  1. Does it matter if you never write another book? (Answer: No, not a jot.)
  2. Will your finances be adversely affected if you give up writing? (Answer: No. The opposite is true, in fact.)
  3. Do you want your author’s bottom back? (I don’t need to tell you the answer to that one).
  4. Does anyone but you give a fig whether you’re writing or not? (Answer: Yes and No. A dozen or so people do. I was accosted this week at an Uncle Funk gig by a couple of  mates avid fans of my Draymere Hall Series who wanted to know when the next book would be out (Er, probably not this week). That happens surprisingly often and I’m always terribly flattered. But, contrarily, the Farmer is happy that I’m back in the real world; that there’s dinner on the table and the washing is getting done).
  5. So… WILL THERE BE ANOTHER? (Answer: Hell, yes! Just don’t ask me why. Or when.)

I know there’s another book in there. In fact, I’ve started several…

  • A tentative foray into detective stories with a nerdy (female) PI and a dollop of quirky love interest.
  • A WWII historical Anglo-American romance set on a USAAF airbase.
  • Another Draymere Hall romance (with Zoe as the heroine, you’ll have met her if you’ve read Brambles. You know, the one who worked with Hettie… one of Julian’s ‘volunteers’.)
  • A brand-spanking-new contemporary romance series.
  • A complete departure from any genre, with a narrator who’s already dead…

Dear Lord. What I need to have written is several K words of one book, not one k words of several. Is it any wonder I’m in a muddle?

I’ll pick it up in the autumn.

Oh, hang on, that’s today.

But the sun’s still shining and I must walk the puppy down to the barn. There’s a tractor parked up outside with my name on it and I’m riding this afternoon…

Maybe this winter, then. Watch this space (but not with too much anticipation).

 

Corn Dollies

Corn Dollies

You don’t often see them now, but the culmination of harvest this week and an article in NFU Countryside magazine on how to make them set me to reminiscing about the art of corn dolly creation.

In my early rural-school years we had a teacher who wove corn dollies as she taught. She sat in a battered armchair in the corner of the classroom and her hands rarely stilled as she counselled us in the ways of nature, with an old-country wisdom which resonates with me to this day.

I recall that the different dollies had meanings and potencies and that the spirit of the corn was encased in their form. Mrs Homewood crafted works of some intricacy whilst the class had a go at the simple, spiral ‘drop dollies’ (with mixed results!)

Some are traditional to an area, named after counties and places.

EssexTerret
This is an Essex Terret…
CambridgeshireHandbell
… and this one’s a Cambridgeshire Handbell.

Plump, comfortably dressed and slightly dishevelled, Mrs Homewood made a greater impression on me than even gorgeous, blonde, Miss Ford from my city-infant class who let me brush her long hair and handed out sweets from the drawer of her desk. I thought Mrs Homewood was ancient, but she lived on for decades after I left so that must have been an illusion of youth. I wonder if she was actually a pagan goddess of nature, even the name fits!

Our classes were often conducted outside (whatever the weather) and we walked the length of the village river to study the life and nature of its twisting path. I certainly knew what a tributary was long before I could spell it. Our very own forest school (before forest schools re-emerged as a trendy ‘new’ idea) but do not be misled into thinking that Mrs Homewood was saintly. Oh no. She chased one of the boys with a bunch of stinging nettles (he was chasing us girls with the same) and when a classmate told her he’d been stung by a bee she offered no sympathy.

‘Poor bee. You do know that he’ll die now?’

The varieties of wheat we grow today have stalks too short for successful dolly making. It’s been cultured that way to prevent the crop falling and to accommodate combine harvesters. But maybe I should give it a try anyway…

The dolly should be kept over winter and laid in the first turned furrow of the plough to set the spirit of the corn free again. Bless Mrs Homewood, whose spirit is free now too, bless all the teachers who shaped us and the spirit of the corn which makes our bread.

 

Plain Barny – Project (mis)management

Plain Barny – Project (mis)management

I’ll admit I’ve snorted at the fees demanded by architects to project manage a build.

I’m not snorting now.

I’ve just spent 30 minutes providing a detailed explanation of our roof cladding requirements to a bloke who, it turns out, I’d asked to quote for our stairs. He must think I’m barking. He asked for a picture of where it was going.

Bemused, I sent him a photo. DSC_1196

He tried to explain the coarse, sharp-edged character of galvanised steel… did I not want a powder coating?

I robustly rejected that option.

When I finally twigged and confessed with horror that while he’d been talking stairs I’d been talking roofs, he admitted to wondering why I’d been going on about an overhang and a 30° pitch.

I nearly ordered a corrugated steel staircase.

And then there’s the ongoing saga of those bloody windows. Supplier selected, deposit paid, FULL AND FINAL DETAILS to be submitted by the end of the month to secure our October production date(!!) for these beauties from Velfac:

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That isn’t our barn by the way

Decisions and questions and details which are sorely exposing my limited knowledge. Stir in half a pound of building regs and a cupful of *SAP requirements and combine to create the perfect soup of confusion.

*The Standard Assessment Procedure for the Energy Rating of Dwellings (SAP) was developed by BRE based on the BRE Domestic Energy Model (BREDEM) and was published by BRE and the Department of the Environment in 1992. In 1994 it was first cited in Part L of the building regulations and it has now been adopted by the UK Government as the methodology for calculating the energy performance of dwellings.

The most recent version, SAP 2012, came into force for building regulations compliance on 6 April 2014. The 2009 version SAP 2009 may still be used on projects for which transitional arrangements apply, see 2013 changes to the approved documents for part L of the building regulations for more information.

You stopped reading that definition after five words, didn’t you? So did I.

I asked the window suppliers to make sure I’d met the building reg requirements for fire escapes. Their emailed reply was somewhat cryptic:

  • Study 1  can be used as means of fire escape

  • Study 2 cannot be used as means of fire escape

  • Bedroom 2 west elevation cannot be used as means of fire escape

  • Bedroom 2 west elevation can be used as a means of fire escape

Given that Study 1 and study 2 have exactly the same windows… and that bullet points 3 and 4 are actually the same window, and bedroom 2 faces south-east… um, does anyone think that makes sense?

Here’s a flowchart to illustrate my current confusion:

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My project management has become as disordered as my thoughts.

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So, here I am, looking for answers.

 

How much did that architect want? Trust me, it’s a steal.

Trusses and purlins and joists… Ooh, look at that view!

Trusses and purlins and joists… Ooh, look at that view!

We’ve got them all in the barn, but I struggle to pinpoint exactly which one is which.  The line “Run that by me again…” has become a response that I use to delay while I try to work out which bit of the jigsaw the builders are talking about.

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I do know that the wood is beautiful. I just love the symmetry of it, the airiness and the different views through the lines of the structure. Craft with purpose. It was sad when the plywood went up, screening the skeleton of the building from sight.

But the barn does begin to look more like a house.

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And with the arrival of those mahusive steels that I told you about…

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… the big build reached first-floor level. The builders are eyeing the roof now and the timber discussions are becoming ever more complicated. Trusses and purlins and joists, lintels and collars and plates…

It’s a relief to talk about bricks for a change.

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I know what they are, they’re Cambridge Whites. I knew the barn they belonged to as well. The Farmer probably had a den inside its walls, back in the eighties, before the building was demolished.

We had to move this beast to extract our bricks from their 30-year hiding place:

And their reuse has justified The Farmers belief that you should never chuck anything away (damn it).

My bricks are beautiful too, but nature wins the day and it’s the views out of our soon-to-be windows that really take my breath away.

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Plain barny – Grand designs, less than inspiring vision

Plain barny – Grand designs, less than inspiring vision

In hindsight, maybe I should have learnt how to read a plan before we started building.

We went window hunting last week. The Farmer and I scaled the east on a mission to source our glazing. I’ve seen Grand Designs (and Building The Dream and The House That 100k built… Restoration Home, Big House, Little House… I could go on. I fear I do.) so I know that windows take an age plus a month to construct and I’m not intending to get caught out by that little build-stopping trick. Clever ol’ me.

Next job, measure the windows for a quote (I need to shave 70% off that dashed Crittall dream).

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Taking careful account of the changes I’ve made (I’m holding my hands up to that) and the lintels/steels/trickle vents that the structural engineer and building control seem to think are essential, I set to work with my scale-converting ruler. (We’re four weeks into the build and I’ve only now discovered that scale-converting rulers exist. What joy!)

Or maybe not…

I’ve seen Grand Designs (did I say that already?) so my wonderful plans include all the modern essentials – patio doors and wide-portal vistas, Juliette balconies, en-suite wet rooms, open plan living and corner windows on (almost) every angle. (Those windows are giving the builders a headache. I’m told that ideally, every angle should be 90°. They aren’t in our tilting old barn. So the builders are jacking and propping, bracing and levering… or something like that. I tend to tune out when they start talking technical at me.)

I’ve got my ruler.

But this can’t be right.

Our architect has drawn patio doors opening off the master suite (Grand Designs talk for ‘biggest bedroom’). Building control notated these glorious doors as a ‘means of escape’ and demanded a Juliette balcony.

The structural engineer wanted mahusive steel beams (to span the open-plan living) and mahusive lintels (to span the expansive glazing).

With the girding beneath and above it, my bedroom wall appears to have shrunk to a measly 1600mm (that’s 5 little feet in English).

My patio doors are hobbit height.

Not exactly the grandly-designed, awe-inspiring vista I am envisioning.

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Oh well. I can see through them. The Farmer may have to limbo.

 

 

Rustic Guest Neil Quinlan ~ Free-Range

Rustic Guest Neil Quinlan ~ Free-Range

fafneilquinlanNeil farms in Cheshire, rearing dairy heifers, and returned to the industry after a break from farming (you can read more about that on his blog – Quinlan and Cows. Or find him over at twitter @neilquinlan)

I’m sharing a post he wrote earlier in the year which I first enjoyed when I read it on Haynet.

I hope you enjoy it too. Free-range milk in your tea?


Free-Range

The free-range debate still seems to be rumbling on over on twitter….

I fall into the category of free-range farmer I suppose. Our heifers “went out” in April 2016 and we still had some out in January of this year! We were feeding silage outside as the grass doesn’t grow at this time of year. It was also frosty, but the cows were happy. Frosty cowsHow do I know this?

Well if they weren’t happy they would be stood at the gate mooing their heads off!

So free range milk. A value added product in the age of a volatile market. Great I thought. That was until I watched Friday Night Feast on Channel 4 who were promoting the product.

The connotations and insinuations that were made on the programme were very misleading. Housed cows are unhealthy and unhappy was the impression I was given. Not taking anything away from Jimmy Doherty as I think he has done a great job promoting British agriculture on the whole.

I take umbrage with this because, if done correctly, housed cows have been some of the happiest I’ve seen. Also due to the grass growing season of the UK “free range” cows will have to be housed for a portion of the year. So saying cows are unhappy when housed is damaging to the free range brand and the industry as a whole.

It’s not the system that defines the health and wellbeing of animals. It’s the person managing it. Same applies to organic.

So as a free range farmer what authority do I have to speak about housed systems? I visited America last year. I have to say I was concerned about what I would see on arrival at the farms I was visiting but my fears were unfounded.

housed cows

This was typical of the farms I visited and the cows were happy, contented and in peak health!

Here is our winter housing. A light airy barn in which we get very few health problems Again if these animals weren’t happy they’d literally shout about it! They are cleaned out twice a day and get fresh straw every day and as much silage as they can eat! What’s not to like!?

our housing

So my point is not to persuade you away from free-range. Far from it. I want people to have a choice. I just want it to be an informed choice.

In the UK we produce quality, antibiotic and growth promoter free, sustainable and traceable products. So if you see the red tractor on something you pick up in the supermarket you know this is the case as that farm has been inspected.

Anyway. Back to the day job.

Rustic Guest – Lorna Sixsmith

Rustic Guest – Lorna Sixsmith

I’m delighted to have Lorna Sixsmith as a guest in my Farmhouse Kitchen this week and, as we both married farmers, I think we’ll find plenty to talk about.

Lorna lives and farms in Ireland and she’s published three books about her farming life: Would you Marry a Farmer? How to be a Perfect Farm Wife and An Ideal Farm Husband (hmm, I really must get that last one for the other half.)

The kettle’s just boiled, so I’ll hand you over to Lorna, and she’ll tell you about the ‘hoppity dance’…


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I think farmers and writers are quite similar really. People in both careers tend to like spending time alone, enjoying the peace and quiet, are resilient and often have a dog as their best friend. Therefore, being a farmer and a writer means that all of the above applies to me – doublefold!
Brian and I returned to dairy farming in Ireland in 2002 after spending 12 years in England, most of which was spent living and working in Salisbury: Brian as a scientist and I as a teacher. I’m not sure if it was the time spent away from farming that helps me to see the humour but it’s certainly the “if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry” moments that inspire stories for my books.
Just like how you, Sam, gain inspiration from your surroundings for your rustic romance books, I do the same but my books are nonfiction, with a tongue-in-cheek look at what life is like on the farm complete with tips on how to survive it. Wives will discover “how to wear an apron and wellies with flair” and men will find out how best to introduce a new girlfriend to the farm and how to ensure his mother will approve. They are best described, I suppose, as useful tips with plenty of tongue-in-cheek humour.
My first book was inspired by a session of sorting Friesian calves into two batches: males and females. I was standing in the gateway with the job of turning back any male calves and letting female calves through while Brian tried to send female calves my way. It was impossible for me to see between their legs to tell the sex so I was reliant on vague instructions like “The BLACK ONE – quick, the BLACK one”. Now, did that mean that I was to stop the black one or let it through? All three of the calves coming towards me were black and white. I couldn’t tell that the one he meant was slightly blacker on the other side, the side that my beloved could see. My limbs ended up doing an involuntary “hoppity dance”.3(a) hoppity danceMy body didn’t know whether to stay in the gateway, run after the “wrong one” that had got through or try to skulk off.
That evening I wrote a blog post entitled “Advice to those considering marrying a farmer ” and within a relatively short time, it had 60,000 views which inspired the idea for a book. But would people read it? They were interested in my blog post but would they pay for a book? The only way to find out was to run a crowdfunding campaign asking people to pre-order. It was successful and within another three months Would You Marry A Farmer? was published. That was November 2013.
Two more books followed: In How to be a Perfect Farm Wife I give others the benefit of learning from my mistakes and also share tips on how to CHEAT and convince others you’re perfect. An Ideal Farm Husband shows him how to cope when he discovers his new wife isn’t telepathic, amongst many other things.
Farming is one of those occupations where things don’t always go to plan. Yes, we have the “if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry” moments more often than we care to admit. If I can help even one person to have a better day, it’s great news to me. One of the best compliments I’ve received was from a farmer saying my books were the best money he ever spent. His wife was city born and bred. Whenever he made any of the “mistakes” outlined in my book, she knew it was typical farmer behaviour. Rather than arguing, they both laughed!


If you want to hear more from Lorna visit her blog the Irish Farmerette or find her on Facebook and Twitter.

And if you are actually thinking of marrying a farmer I suggest that you read these first!

Lorna Sixsmith and 3 books

Plain Barny

Plain Barny

We live a jammy, comfortable life in a lovely home with running water, central heating and his&hers studies. (We’ve been wed 32 years, and farmed side by side for all of them, but we’ve yet to achieve the heady compatibility of shared office space.)

Our kids grew up in this house, pets and sagas have come and gone. The rooms wear the tale of our lives like a favoured sweatshirt; baggy and washed-out with age. There’s a simile there which suits us rather well these days too. We turn a blind eye to the peeling wallpaper, the leaky roof and the scuff marks. The house has become an old friend and her quirks are easy to tolerate.

But the indolence of our mid-life comfort is about to be shaken. We’re downsizing, into a barn, which currently looks like this…

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THE EN SUITE (!)

Our barn hasn’t got running water, central heating or sewers, but I am reassured that these vital amenities are included in the plans. As are his&hers offices (to avoid the alternative – his&hers houses – which would be altogether more costly). There are also a lot of indecipherable ciphers on our drawings, which I’m desperately trying to interpret.

building reg snip
PRAY TELL – WHAT FIENDISH LANGUAGE IS THIS?

I’m sure it will all be fine. The Farmer has chopped down some trees (a knee-jerk reaction to stress), we’ve got artisan mates primed to start work and I’m mugging up on Celotex and feather-edged boarding (whilst surreptitiously pinning pretty pictures to Pintrest).

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LEYLANDII  (NOT REAL TREES)

And I’m learning a lot. Primarily, I’ve learnt that my notions are more romantic than my budget. Is there such a thing as a dream editor, to keep things realistic?

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£70K FOR WINDOWS? YOU’RE HAVING A LAUGH.

We may have to reconsider the pretty windows, but we will have windows of some sort… I think. There will be hilarity (hysteria), cock-up and heated discussion (argument) aplenty before we get this job done. I fully accept that my comfortable, baggy-sweatshirt existence is about to be disrupted.

Bring on the sequined crop-top, I’m (almost) ready.

 

Farmer by Day, Author by Night

Farmer by Day, Author by Night

My family farms 735 acres of arable land in North Essex. This isn’t the TOWIE incarnation of Essex that you see on the telly. It must be an hour’s journey to the nearest chic nightclub (farther if you measure in cultural miles). The pub is a goodly hike and you couldn’t throw a stone to strike the nearest retail outlet, not even if you had olympian capabilities and hurled in the direction the crow flies. This is rural Essex, agricultural Essex. It’s picturesque, and it’s home. In my part of the county, there are country lanes and ancient hamlets, Tudor farmhouses, feather-edged barns and land which unfurls with a lack of drama that is soft on the eye.North EssexI’m romanticising, of course, because that’s what I do when I’m not on a tractor or up to my elbows in nutrient-rich soil (read mud). I write rustic romance. I’m a rural authoress.

I’d like to call it a farm diversification but that wouldn’t be honest. A diversion from farming would be closer to the truth and I fear the husband and son might often have cause to wish I was less, er, diverted. But the writing has grown out of the land that raised me and a childhood which taught me to love the outdoors through the turning seasons and petulant weather. It’s inspired by friendships forged in drafty sheds; by harvest, family dogs, autumn bonfires and cider-fuelled, amorous escapades.bonfireI’m no longer youthful, but when my cheeks are wind-stung and the feet are numb, I’ve still got a romantic world to escape to. It might be winter in Draymere too, there may be mud or even snow, but the characters warm the story (and me) with a wealth of diverting antics. My mind can romp alongside them for hours. Be it out in the fields, on a dog walk or while I’m cooking the dinner, you’ll probably find me at Draymere. I’m seldom present in everyday life.

That’s escapism for you.

I blame Jilly Cooper. She introduced me to the possibilities of jodhpur-clad heroines’ who kicked off their wellies instead of slipping out of stilettoes. And that, my friends, was something of a hallelujah moment, back in the day when I lived in jodhpurs and rarely stepped out in anything other than waterproof boots.WelliesBe it town, village or farm, we all fall in love, and we’ve all experienced passion, heartbreak and unwise attraction. The emotions play out no matter where in the world you live.  But I write it rural, earthy and rustic.

The books are raunchy; I should warn you of that. But, hey, it’s nothing that nature isn’t doing outside my window as I type and, trust me, the countryside is as sexy as hell.

Not convinced? Just spend a weekend at Draymere…

draymerehall (1)  A Bed of Barley Straw Cover RADIANT MEDIUM WEB  A Bed of Brambles Cover MEDIUM WEB

April fools on the farm

April fools on the farm

We’re running around like April fools now that spring has arrived on the farm. The men are loading lorries, dispatching the last of the corn which is still in the barns, and when the barns are empty they’ll have to be cleaned and readied for this year’s harvest. The lorries arrive at random times and often with little warning. Sometimes our early wake-up call is from a driver who needs ‘talking in’ from whatever situation his sat nav has landed him in:  “I followed the postcode, but it’s taken me to a pub/tree/housing estate…” Much like our internet connection and mobile signal, it seems satellite navigation can only be relied on in cities.

This year’s crop is still green in the fields and, as the earth warms up, needs tending with nutrients and never-ending pest control. The autumn drought in the east of England, followed by an onslaught of pigeons and deer, has hammered our oilseed rape this year. We’re nurturing it, and trying to remain optimistic. There are hopeful buds on the plants, and only time will tell if they come to abundant fruition.

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Back at the farmhouse, it’s also the end of the tax year, so alongside tidying barns we’re tidying paperwork too. Filling in forms while the hedgerows bud, scabbling data together on rainy days when the land is too wet to run on and the lorries aren’t queuing up.

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Thrown into the mix of April madness there’s Easter, and work on our barn conversion scheduled to start any minute. Preparations which require thinking ahead, another barn to be cleared, foundations to be excavated and a row of hideously overgrown Leylandii (planted to shield the stable from a westerly wind) which have to be taken down before we can get going.

And then there’s the biggest time consumer of them all: Barley the puppy, who’s got us all spinning like April fools.

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Writing? No chance.