Sensory Inspiration

Snowy ViewIt snowed at the weekend. This may not sound terribly significant to you, but it doesn’t happen often where I live. When it does, the first thing you notice is the change in light – it is somehow both brighter and softer. There no longer seems to be a primary light source, instead there is a diffused glow. The sun is hidden by clouds and a falling flurry of white but its rays are reflected back from the ice crystals on the ground, the trees, the rooftops and fenceposts.  Its as if one is surrounded by the light.

Often, when people talk about snow, they mention how quiet it makes everything seem.  Well, all I can say is, those people must not live in an urban area.  Usually, snowy days bring out squealing, laughing children, adults swearing as they slip on icy footpaths and the strained sounds of over-revving engines, grinding gears and the occasional thunk of metal on brick/wood/metal.  But, we are in a lockdown, so my walk through the snow was unusually quiet.  Apart from a few fellow dog walkers and some dedicated runners (dedicated or crazy?  Who goes out in the snow in shorts and t-shirt?) we had the paths and parks to ourselves.

For the first time, I was able to really hear the sounds of snow.  When large clumps were falling, they brushed past the hood of my waterproof jacket making rustling, shushing noises.  When the snow was finer and more icy the sound on my hood was more like hissing rain.  Walking on snow covered pavements, the snow beneath my wellington boots went pop crunch, pop crunch.  On grass, my footsteps were more scrunchy.

After a while, I became aware that my body seemed comprised of several different temperate zones.  My legs, above my socks and below my jacket, were cool but not uncomfortable.  My feet were cosy in their woollen, waterproof cocoon.  My body was warm but my shoulders and upper arms were chilled where the snow was clinging to my jacket.  I was wearing a woolly hat under my hood and my scalp was hot and itchy.  The sleeves of my coat hung halfway down my hands, so one half was toasty warm but, where the snow had soaked through my knitted gloves, my fingers were cold and wet.  The scarf across my nose and mouth was moist from my breath, so my face was warm and wet.  How can one body handle so many different temperatures at once? 

I came back from my walk with a head full of ideas about incorporating sensory details into my writing and eager to put them into practice.  By the time I’d stripped off my outer layers, defrosted my fingers, scratched my itching head and dried off my over-excited dogs I was more concerned with finding slippers and a hot drink than pen and paper.  

It’s raining now.  The crisp chill of my snowy walk feels like it happened weeks ago rather than days, but by thinking about the sounds and the sensory effects on my body, I can relive the experience.  If I can get those sensations into my writing, maybe my readers can experience them, too.


What’s the difference?

If you follow me on Twitter (@Kim_A_Howard), you may already know this, but I like to say ‘good morning’ to people when I’m out walking the dogs.  I like to say it to elderly people who may not speak to many other human beings during their day; to small children who might feel anxious about meeting dogs in the park; to people of different ethnicities who may not always be greeted warmly in their daily interactions with others.  I say ‘hello’ to people I know and people I don’t.  I smile and greet the walking world without discrimination.

The reactions I get vary greatly.  Some people are open to the greeting.  They smile and say ‘good morning’ back.  They may make a comment about the weather or the dogs or the day.  Sometimes people respond with a nod and a grunt – not the warmest of replies, but still an acknowledgement.

I’d like to say these two groups are in the majority but, unfortunately, they aren’t.  Many people look startled, worried or confused when I address them.  Some look downright terrified and others take a huge swerve to keep out of arm’s reach.  It’s as if they think this short, fat woman in late middle-age –  armed with dogs, poo bags and dog treats – is about to launch an unprovoked attack.  It makes me sad, but doesn’t stop me from continuing to make human contact whenever I can.  There are people who I see on a regular basis with whom my tenacity has started to make a difference.  I am gradually chipping away at the reserve and fear of my fellow walkers and some of them now respond to me rather than ducking their heads and turning away.  Result!

So, I gave you that bit of background information so I can ask a question.  What’s the difference between ‘good morning’ and ‘happy new year’?  Why do some people react like ‘good morning’ is a weaponised phrase?  No one has responded in that way when I’ve wished them ‘happy new year’ or, a week ago, ‘merry Christmas’.  Those two phrases have universally been responded to with a smile and a returned wish for my own happiness.

This last two weeks has been positively joyous.  I’ve been met with warmth and friendliness from everyone I’ve greeted.  How long can I reasonably go on wishing everyone a Happy New Year?  I’m not looking forward to going back to ‘good morning’ and ‘hello’.  I wish the seasonal good will would last all year and so I will continue greeting everyone I meet and hope for happy faces.

Good morning to you!

Soggy Socks and Surprising Birds

Purple training shoesI can take pleasure in almost any sort of weather – ice, snow, wind, rain, sun, fog – providing I am prepared for it.  They say there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.  I concur – especially when it comes to footwear.  I detest having wet feet and soggy socks. Unfortunately, I’ve been having a spot of bother in that direction of late.

It started with the snow.   I love taking the dogs out for a tramp through those soft, white drifts.  They absolutely adore jumping and chasing like bat-dog crazy things and they make me laugh out loud at their antics. During the first flurry of snow I pulled out my trusty green not-Hunter wellies and headed for the park.  After a while I realised that my socks were starting to feel a bit chilly and somewhat damp.  When I got home I found a couple of cracks and, with the help of some glue and gaffer tape, sealed the gaps.  By the time our second spell of wintry weather had arrived my poor boots had more gap than seam and were consigned to the bin.  I have been looking for new wellies for some time but have failed to find any that (a) comfortably fit my feet, (b) have room in the leg for my sturdy calves and the legs of my jeans and (c) are at a price I can afford.

Never mind.  There are always my trusty white trainers – my dog-walking footwear of choice for many moons.  Ah – not so trusty any more.  Cracks had started to appear in the places where they bend when I walk and, suddenly, they were having an uncomfortable affect on my poor socks.  Sloshing up the drive I decided that these, too, had come to the end of their working life.

So, last weekend found me on my knees in the bottom of my wardrobe, looking for neglected footwear that could get me through the spell of wet weather being forecasted for the Easter weekend.  I always have a pair of black training shoes to wear for work and was delighted to find a worn and tatty pair hiding under some summer sandals.  Brilliant!  For two dry days they did everything I wanted them to.  The dogs and I were thrilled.  And then it started to rain.  This time, I didn’t even wait to get indoors before ditching the damp footwear.  I ripped them off my feet and chucked them into the wheelie bin, then squelched (my socks) and squealed (me – gravel drives are not the most comfortable things to walk on) to the front door.

Another day, another rummage round the bottom of the wardrobe and – joy of joys – I found the pretty purple trainers you can see at the top of this post.  I hadn’t worn them for years and couldn’t remember why.  It didn’t take me long to find out.  They HURT!  Fortunately, I had plenty of wildlife to distract me from the pain on our walk this morning.  As well as the usual collection of pigeons, sparrows, blackbirds and robins I met a couple of surprising birds – not unusual in wide open spaces, but most unexpected in urban Basingstoke.

The first surprise was a cock pheasant.  When I lived in the countryside they were a common site, but I can’t say I’ve seen one in the middle of town before.  I certainly haven’t witnessed one scratching up the gravel of someone’s drive in its hunt for bugs.

Heron on ridgetiles of house roofThe second bird is one I see frequently – a heron.  We have streams and ponds running through the local parks and an egret and two herons are regular visitors.  I’ve seen them sitting in trees in the streets adjacent to the park – and I have to say that watching a gawky heron trying to land in the spindly upper branches of a eucalyptus tree is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen – but to find one perched on the ridge tile of a roof in the middle of a housing estate is not so common.

By the time I got home, the heel of my left foot was totally shredded.  So now I have a dilemma.  Do I give my pretty purple pumps to a charity shop in the hope that someone else’s foot will fit into them more comfortably?  Do I save anyone else from the pain and consign them straight to the bin?  Or do I persevere in the hope that, in time, I’ll be able to break them in.  After all, my socks stayed perfectly dry.

Giving Thanks for the Good Days

Digital image of snowdropsIt’s easy to let the doubts, the dark days and anxieties live in the front of your head.  Some days they seem so much stronger than the positive things in our lives.  The last three days have been really good and I’ve decided to celebrate them; to actively appreciate them in the hope that, by doing so, I will remember this feeling when the grim comes knocking again.

On Friday I worked two different jobs.  In the morning I led a workshop at a large local library.  The session was entitled Kickstart Your Creative Writing and I had a lovely group of seven learners.  It’s not intended to be a ‘how to’ course, more an opportunity to try different types of writing prompts and talk about creative writing as a process.  To share ideas, get a little inspiration and have fun with writing – something that so many people have had beaten out of them through their work or school lives.  The feedback at the end of the session as very positive and I felt that the learners enjoyed themselves as much as I did.  For me, though, there was an added bonus.  I realised that I actually know a lot about writing.

Now, maybe that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.  In the four or five years since I started to take my writing seriously I have undertaken a masters course in writing for children, attended dozens of talks by authors, illustrators, publishers, editors and agents, been part of several writing and critique groups and been involved with several writers festivals.  However, I still think of myself as someone who is a beginner on their writing journey – an enthusiastic amateur rather than a professional.  That changed on Friday morning.  Here were people who were at an earlier stage in their writing – most of them didn’t even know what sort of writing the were hoping to do – and they were asking me questions.  They trusted that not only would I give them answers and suggestions, but that they would be good and accurate.  And, for the most part, I found I could do that.  When I didn’t know for sure I was still able to signpost them to organisations, books, magazines and web sites where they could get the help the wanted.

Friday afternoon was the same – but very different.  This time I was working as a library assistant at a smaller library that plays an active role in the life of the local community.  They have run a Chatterbooks club for some time and, when children grew too old for that group, set up something similar for teenage readers.  I spent a very happy hour with some lively children; we talked about books for children and teenagers; I listened to them talk about the idiocy of some of the grownups in their lives; I lead them on some writing adventures using story dice.  In this group I was acknowledged (and tested) as the grownup in charge, but also welcomed as an equal when it came to creating stories and sharing book recommendations.  The time flew by and I can’t wait to work with them again next month.

Saturday was glorious for totally different reasons.  For a start, I woke early.  At the weekend this would normally mean a groggy trip to the loo before either going back to sleep or snuggling down under the duvet with my storybook of the moment.  Yesterday, however, I was wide awake and full of fizz.  The dogs were startled to find themselves in the park before 7:00 am, watching a scarlet sun rise above the trees and smelling the multitude of scents rising into the air as the frosty ground steamed in the early morning light.  We walked for over an hour then came home for our breakfasts.  The dogs and cats ate in the kitchen, but I brought my coffee and marmalade sandwich straight upstairs to the computer and got on with editing my current WIP.  By the time my OH was up I had polished and printed nine chapters and was ready for elevenses.  Having accomplished so much so early I felt justified in idling away the rest of the day, snuggling on the sofa with my family.  A sense of achievement and of contentment should never be underestimated.

The Song from Somewhere Else, Paperback BookSo now you are nearly up to date with my positive few days.  This morning has been just as good.  It started with three out of the four furry family cosying on the bed while I read a few pages of The Song From Somewhere Else by A F Harrold and stunningly illustrated by Levi Pinfold (I’ve not finished it yet, but so far can heartily recommend it).  Then another long, frosty walk with the dogs and straight to the computer on our return.  I have been falling behind my self-imposed writing/task schedule recently.  Today I have done enough to bring me almost up to date.  Just one task to do before I can get back to my WIP.

I have had a happy grin on my face for the past few days and can recommend a cheerful and positive outlook for promoting productivity and a sense of inner peace.  Grasp the good days and hug them close.  The light CAN drive the darkness away.


Welcome to 2018 – Zero Draft

Holly leaves and berriesThis is where I should be wishing you all a very happy new year and listing all of my good intentions for 2018. Sorry – not happening.  Not today.  You see, despite reading lots of lovely inspirational posts on my social media and really believing this was going to be the start of a great year, it hasn’t started out like that.

I was determined that this year I would make more of an effort: be kinder; be positive; be supportive; be less judgmental; get fitter; write more often… you know the kind of thing.  And I really meant it when I thought it.  I still do. But, after a long night of trying to settle dogs made hysterical by fireworks, then being woken at irregular intervals by drunken revellers slur-singing their way home, I was a bit grouchy when I got up this morning.  My mood wasn’t improved by almost falling on my face when I stood up and found my knee was swollen and very painful.  Even then, I was determined to try harder and do my best.

Two small dogsIf the dogs and I had taken a different route on our walk, I may still have clung on to all my good intentions but, when we reached our destination, the footpath was blocked – by Park Runners.  Now, I know that keeping fit and socialising are great things.  Making active and regular use of public spaces helps stop them being built on.  But it’s a MONDAY.  That’s not Park Run day.  And that’s when all my good intentions went out of the window.  I watched the sea of lycra and exposed flesh jostling their way down the footpath and my chest was a seething knot of resentment.

Perhaps I should explain that, over the years, the dogs and I have had some rather unpleasant experiences with Park Runners.  The majority of them, I’m sure, are lovely people but there are some who are so intent on shaving a millionth of a second off their best time that they think nothing of barging, kicking, spitting and swearing at other park users.  For this reason, we usually avoid that particular park on a Saturday, as do many other dog walkers.

As we waited for a chance to get on the path and continue our walk, sweaty people I don’t know smiled at me and wished me a happy new year.  Did I smile back and return the greeting?  Did I heck as like.  I snarled and grunted and glared.  When I spotted a gap we leapt onto the path, walking against the tide of runners and I almost wanted someone to knock into us or shove us out the way so I could vent my spleen.  Not good.

I couldn’t shake the pent-up Grinch feelings, even when we were free of the runners and striding over the soggy grass into the public orchard – definitely not helped by spotting the remains of a firework display someone had set up on the Old Common and not bothered to remove when they had finished.  Even when we were nearly back to the safety of home, I was still seething.  You may know that I have a pathological dislike of litter.  Whenever we go for our walks I pick up as much as I can and drop it into the bins in the parks.  Today, just a few doors up from our house I spotted an empty Budweiser bottle, abandoned by the aforementioned revellers.  Did I pick it up and bring it home?  No.  I growled at it and said “Why should I?”

Some of my writing friends say the first version of a story they write isn’t the first draft – it’s the Zero Draft.  All the ideas they’ve been mulling over in their minds spewed out onto the page, just to get it out of their head.  That’s how I feel about today.  It’s the start of 2018 – Draft Zero.  So, please ignore me today.  Tomorrow I fully intend to smile as I wish total strangers a Happy New Year.  It can’t be that hard, can it?


The Ernie Tree

In the spring of 2013 a group of people started digging holes in our local park.  We didn’t see them do it.  Whenever we went back, something had changed.  More holes appeared.  On one visit we found heaps of compost and stacks of wooden stakes.  Then trees began to appear in the holes.  Eventually there were four straight rows of Row of young fruit treestrees, all carefully staked and evenly spaced.  More time passed and little wooden posts started to appear in front of each tree with plaques giving it’s location in the orchard, information about the type of tree it was and when the fruit would be ready for harvest.

Map of orchard layoutEventually an information board appeared telling anyone who was interested that this was Incredible Edible, North Hampshire.  A community orchard planted and maintained by volunteers for the benefit of the local community.  The half-dozen paragraphs of text and the colour-coded map of the orchard gave you all the information you could want and, if you felt you needed more, there was a QR code and a web address.  Brilliant!List of fruit trees

When I looked down the list of trees, I got a shiver of excitement.  One of them was called Ernie’s Russet.  I headed across the field to find tree location B3.

Identification plaque for Ernie's RussetThere was a sturdy little apple tree with another information plaque in front of it.  This told me that Ernie’s Russet was a desert apple, ready for harvest in mid September.  “So what?” I hear you ask?  Well, Ernie was the name of my father-in-law.  He was a lovely man with a very sweet tooth.  His favourite part of any meal was pudding.

The idea of a ‘desert’ apple tree with his name was brilliant.  His children were born at the end of August and the beginning of September – the tree was even close to his own personal ‘harvest’ time.  Since then I’ve been watching the orchard with interest.  At irregular intervals I’ve taken photos for my partner so she can see how Ernie Tree is coming on.  It has been a heartwarming experience.Young apple tree in orchard

I have built up a small collection of photographs of the tree, taken over a period of several months.  It now feels like a project.  I plan to shall share the photos I have taken this spring so you can see the progress the tree has made.  I will keep taking photos so that , hopefully, you will eventually see a harvested russet apple.  In the meantime, here is the first photo I took of Ernie Tree.Head shot of Ernie

This week would have been my father-in-law’s birthday.  It would also have been his & Mamie’s wedding anniversary.  Sunday will be Father’s Day.  So, to mark these occasions, here is a picture of the man I called ‘Super-Ern’.  Fancy an apple crumble, Ernie?  More custard?

Why EVERYONE should have a pair of welly boots.

Dog and wellie boot in puddle It’s definitely been wellie boot weather just recently. There’s something very satisfying about splashing through puddles, feet safely encased in their rubber shields.

Scout loves puddles, too. She sticks her snout into them, up to the eyebrows for preference, and roots out interesting things from the bottom. They get unceremoniously dragged to the surface and killed, terrier style, by a jolly good shaking.  If I kick at something floating on the surface or flick water at her she pounces and bounces, yipping and growling with happy excitement.  I feel sorry for the children being walked through the park by adults who carefully steer them around the puddles.  What fun they are missing!

Book coverI’ve been thinking about the story I’m going to write for my dissertation and reading other people’s stories on similar themes. As part of my story takes place on a river, I read Minnow on the Say by Philippa Pearce.  It was written in 1955 – 4 years before I was born – and feels like a different world.  Eleven year old children earning money from a paper round; travelling the countryside by bicycle and canoe without adult supervision, but not until after they’ve finished their household chores.  Taking packed lunches wrapped in sheets of paper and bringing home treasures in their handkerchiefs.

I’m not saying that was necessarily a better way of life, but sometimes I feel like modern children are missing something special.  I understand that parents feel protective, but are the pictures on television as thrilling as those we see for ourselves?  Can finding out about flora and fauna on the internet ever compare to finding a bird’s nest or watching a newt slip into a pond at first hand?  What about climbing trees, padding in streams, building dens. They miss so much … and then I saw this.

Temporary shelter made from roughly assembled sticksAfter the dogs had finished investigating the den, we left the park and headed home.  I had a huge grin on my face.  For all those parents steering their offspring around the ‘dangerous, dirty’ puddles, there are still children who are out exploring and creating their own adventures.  Am I foolish to find hope in this this small thing?

Once Upon a Time

… I thought I would try blogging.  There was no real reason why I should, it just seemed like the thing to do.  My heart wasn’t in it and I produced the grand total of ONE blog post.  Now I am working through my MA, it seemed appropriate to have another go.  To mark this momentous occasion I thought I would include the text of my original first blog.  It has nothing to do with writing, but it is a true tale that gives me happy memories.

The 32 Crew in the Garden

Three of my gardening supervisorsToday we decided to spend a bit of time working in the garden. None of us are keen gardeners – we subscribe to the ‘let nature find it’s own way’ school – but we have a free-standing pond and a big wooden planter arriving next week, so we needed to do some tidying up. This included breaking up an old planter and spreading the tired compost over the garden. Nothing very exciting about any of that, except we had some unexpected company.

I was bent over the planter, scooping the old soil into a bucket, when I felt something in the gap between the top of my jeans and the bottom of my t-shirt. I squawked and jumped and disturbed a robin who had perched on my behind to watch the proceedings. It was a juvenile who spent the next couple of hours supervising our work, darting down to collect the odd worm or wood louse, then bouncing back to the fence to sing out encouragement.

As if that wasn’t exciting enough, when I lifted a piece of tarpaulin to put in the rubbish I noticed a movement and spotted three frogs – one adult, one youth and one babe. We don’t have a pond yet, but the wildlife seems to be gathering in preparation.

We stopped work just before the heavens opened and we’re both pretty sore from our exertions, but neither of us could stop grinning.