‘Tis the season

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and here at Downie Towers we are celebrating in the traditional way, with a merry 24-hour cacophony of coughing and sniffing. It’s a sound that has roused the Ghost of Winters Past, and to my surprise she looks very much like the diminutive form of a long-retired Headmistress.

There were many good things about my old school, but the School Hall was not one of them. It was designed to be impressive rather than practical, and  like its much grander cousin the Albert Hall, it suffered from a terrible echo problem. The use of a microphone merely set the echoes bouncing around the walls from several competing sources, so that the noises had to be reassembled like a jigsaw before anyone could make out their meaning.  To stand any chance of working out what the Head was saying, the other 600 people at morning assembly had to remain completely silent.

The problem was infinitely worse in winter, because it was the season of colds.

If you had a cold in the late 1960’s/early 70’s, you were faced with a choice. You could stay at home, where with luck from time to time your Mum would come clattering across the lino of your unheated bedroom with a cup of Disprin, a bowl of steaming menthol mixture, and a towel. You would then be expected to sit above the bowl with a towel over your head, inhale the fumes, and Clear Those Tubes.

Alternatively, you could arm yourself with your own Disprin, stagger into school and spend the day wandering from one warm classroom to another in the company of your friends. The menthol mixture had to be left at home, but a similar effect could be achieved by consuming Fisherman’s Friends (a lozenge so powerful it can only safely be eaten when the tastebuds are dulled by cold) and sitting in a room whose radiators were brightly festooned with the damp socks and gloves of students hoping to get them  dry before getting them wet again on the way home.

Of course this had a dire effect on Morning Assembly, where one echoing cough could undo all the efforts of the Head and her microphone.  Every gathering was therefore prefaced with the words, ‘If you want to cough, cough now!’  The Head would stand and wait until the resulting explosion of sound had died away before attempting to improve our hearts and minds and tell us about the exploits of the First Hockey XI or the lunchtime practice arranged for the Senior Choir Third Altos.

Despite this tactic there remained patches of ignorance throughout the hall, caused by the stifled convulsions of girls trying to control throats that had begun to tickle outside the allocated time. People who needed to know things often left assembly comparing interpretations of what they thought they had just heard.

On reflection, it’s hardly surprising that Whole School Assembly is pretty much a thing of the past. Many schools now contain thousands of pupils and I’m told it’s possible to spend several years in one without ever finding out what the Head Teacher looks like. Perhaps we are the healthier for it, although the current industrial scale of consumption of Lemsip and tissues at Downie Towers suggests not.

Dear reader, through a festive haze of Hall’s Mentholyptus, I wish you a very merry Christmas, and a happy and healthy New Year.

If you want to cough, cough now.

An interview with Jane Finnis

Today I’m delighted to welcome Jane Finnis to the blog.  Jane is the author of the Aurelia Marcella mysteries set in Roman Yorkshire.

I’m always interested in the way other writers approach their work, and the first thing I wanted to ask Jane was about her choice of lead character.

Jane Finnis

Me:  I once heard a writer say he wouldn’t have a woman as a lead investigator in a historical novel because it would be too restrictive – ‘men got out more’.

Is there anything you’d like to say to him?

Jane:  He’s missing a trick, in my view. Of course he’s right that men had “got out more” in most past eras…in theory. Certainly under ancient Roman law, males had all the political and most of the economic power…but I repeat, that’s in theory. It wasn’t always so in practice, because then as now, you can’t keep smart women down. And that’s precisely why I decided to have a woman sleuth in Roman Britain, and show how she could work the system and be much more independent than her legal status would suggest. My Aurelia is an independent-minded innkeeper. Her brother is the legal owner of the inn, but he leaves it to her to run, because they both know she is the brains behind it.

Me:  Aurelia’s inn is in Yorkshire – while this is God’s own county, does she have any plans to travel?

Jane:  Her next adventure will be set in and around London; she’s going there for a wedding, which promises to be a happy, trouble-free occasion. But…

Me:  What’s surprised you most in your research into Roman Britain?

Jane:  How similar many details of Roman life were to our own. Like their custom of holding birthday parties and inviting all their friends. Like the way rich men flaunted their wealth so blatantly they made themselves ridiculous. Like the politicians’ habit of feathering their own nests.

Me: My copy of ‘Danger in the Wind’ is on order. Tell me what I’ve got to look forward to!

Cover shot of Danger in the WindJane: A cracking good read, of course…sorry, that isn’t what you mean, is it? Well then: Aurelia is invited to a birthday party by her cousin Jovina, who lives at a quiet, rather dull fort north of York. Jovina’s invitation includes a warning of danger in the wind, and the day it reaches Aurelia, a soldier is murdered at her inn, carrying a coded message indicating some impending threat will disturb the fort’s peace. Aurelia goes to the party with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The trepidation is well founded; the excitement turns to nightmare.

Me: Are you a writer who plans, or one who plunges in?

Jane: I start with a setting, a basic idea for a murder or several, and whodunit. Those don’t change. Then I try to work out the plot in more detail, and I write a lovely synopsis, but I’m incapable of sticking to it in practice. I must be free to include ideas that come to me as I’m writing, adding twists of plot or following up a character’s reaction. This keeps things fresh for me. I’d be bored if I had to stick to a prearranged plan, and if a writer is bored, then the gods help the poor reader!

Me: You had a career as a radio presenter before becoming a novelist. Do you think that experience has influenced the way you write, and if so, how?

Jane: It’s helped me to write first-person narration, and dialogue. I hear words in my head as I pound the keyboard, as I did when preparing radio scripts, and alarm bells usually ring if something doesn’t “sound right”.

Me: Any top tips for mystery writers?

Jane: Never get hung up on “rules” for any sort of writing. There’s some wonderful advice around for mystery authors; use it if it helps, and some of it will. But even the tips that come presented as “Ten Rules for…” or “Ten ways to…” are only guidelines, not rigid laws. Write how you want to write.

Me: Finally – What question do you wish interviewers would ask you but they never do? And what’s the answer?

Jane: I’ve always wanted someone to ask me what dishes I’d serve at a Roman banquet. I’m assuming money was no object, and I could prepare a wonderful variety of foods and wines from all over the Empire, with plenty of time to savour them; Roman feasts could go on all night, with cabaret acts between courses. (I’m sure everyone knows by now the untruth of the myth that guests deliberately made themselves sick during banquets in order to eat more.) There isn’t room for a full menu here, but any banquet I gave would have to feature these three dishes: seafood rissoles (could be lobster, squid, cuttlefish,) with cumin sauce which included other spices plus honey and vinegar; roast duck with hazelnuts (the nuts were combined with herbs and spices into a kind of crunchy coating;) and finally patina of pears, a puree with an interesting sweet-sour flavour involving honey and sweet wine, pepper and the famous (or notorious) Roman fish sauce. Hmmm…I’m feeling hungry already.

DANGER IN THE WIND is now available in America and is published in the UK this month. 

Other books in the series, SHADOWS IN THE NIGHT (formerly GET OUT OR DIE,) A BITTER CHILL, and BURIED TOO DEEP, are being re-issued, so now is a good time to catch up.

Find out more at Jane’s website and blog –  www.janefinnis.com, http://janefinnisblog.wordpress.com