Saturday, 25 June 2011

Chain Letter with Currants

Ten days ago, a dear friend knocked on our door and proudly handed my husband a small food container and a sheet of instructions. This was our introduction to Herman, the Friendship Cake. Like the ginger beer factory that was doing the rounds when I was a child, it's a yeast mix that needs to be nurtured for several days, fed occasionally, then split into portions - one to be used and the remainder to be handed on to other 'lucky' recipients.

Our heads told us to quietly put it in the bin. Our hearts told us this would be unfeeling and unfriendly. So, we poured Herman into a bowl, grabbed a wooden spoon - and started stirring. Ten days of arguing and worry had begun. To start with, it was just a case of investing a little time - stirring every day and admiring the bubbles that started rising to the surface on day 2. Then on day 4, we were faced with feeding the thing: milk, sugar and self-raising flour. We have a cupboard full of plain flour and different bread flours - but hadn't bought any self-raising flour for years - so bought a small bag specially for this.

Now we'd started investing more than just our time, we faced the fact that in less than a week we would have 5 little Hermans to deal with. I started asking friends if they would like a portion - not wanting to put them on the spot at the last minute. And that's when I found that this thing was sweeping through our little town; everyone I spoke to knew about it - and most of them had already killed at least one so far.

In the middle of one of the busiest work-weeks of the year, I found myself taking time out to try and decide what to do. Flushing down the loo was still a favoured option, but that would mean wasting the ingredients we'd used so far. At one point, I suggested cooking all 5 portions and donating the extras to the church produce stall - until we realised this would involve 15 eggs plus copious amounts of flour, sugar, fruit etc.

I managed to get one friend to agree to take 2 portions - and if she's reading this, going away for the weekend is not a good enough excuse - they'll be waiting for you when you return.

After a second feed on day 9 - yet more milk, sugar and flour, we came to the final stage. At an ungodly hour this morning, we separated it all into different boxes and kept one portion back. As I weighed out the final set of ingredients - trying to ignore the part of my brain that was adding up all the sugar in this thing - I had one final moment of lucidity. There's still time to end this madness. Don't crack those eggs; put the flour back in the cupboard - but too late. As I write this, I can smell cinnamon - it's almost like Christmas. The cake is rising beautifully - and we may even get to share some of it with the friend who started this whole thing for us.

My parents warned me about chain letters when I was very small; I have no problems with hitting the delete button on every petition, sympathy call or other electronic device to draw me in. My head still wonders why we got pulled in to this one. I'll ponder it anew later over a cuppa - with maybe just a little slice of cake.

Anyone fancy giving a home to little Herman?

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Literary Festivals

In July 2009, I stood in the sunshine at Dartington Hall and listened to Kay Dunbar describe how Ways With Words had grown from tiny beginnings into the hugely successful event it is today.

We could do with something like that in Chudleigh, I thought!

One month later, at the launch party for Chudleigh Writers' Circle, I suggested we might want to publish our own anthologies at some point - and that we might even have our own literary festival one day. Well - be careful what you wish for!

In November 2010, just in time for the Christmas trade, we published Lavender Chickens, an anthology of work by members of CWC. We have 20+ members and nearly everyone contributed to this anthology. We got a great thrill out of seeing our names in print - and spent our launch day busily passing round copies for everyone to sign. Sales are going well and we may even need to go for a reprint in time for the 2011 Christmas Fayre.

Now, less than two years since that sunny day in Dartington, plans are in full swing for the first Chudleigh Literary Festival. Wanting it to be a real celebration of words, we are catering both for writers and readers. The flyers are ready, tickets are being printed and plans are being made for refreshments and a book store. It will be a tiny event compared with Ways With Words - no competition at all - but from little acorns etc etc.

I will be at Dartington as usual this year, enjoying listening to all the authors - and also picking up tips. The new kid on the block is going to be a fast learner.

Full details of the Chudleigh Literary Festival can be found at:

For details of Ways With Words, see:

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Doing the Maths Helps Clear the Block

So there I was, stuck on chapter 8 of a textbook I'm writing with a colleague in the US. He'd written part of this chapter and I needed to finish it. I had no idea what I was going to write or where the words would come from. It seemed a huge task and I felt myself starting to panic.

Then I attended an Arvon Foundation course where one of the tutors was author Richard Beard ( He talked to us about structure and the way maths comes into the planning of his books.

Back home, I looked at the number of words I already had and the number I needed to complete the chapter. Then I did some research, reminding myself of all the things I'd forgotten I knew about the subject. I listed the points I could make and calculated the number of words I needed to write about each point. It was surprisingly few.

Four hours later the chapter was finished, edited and winging its way across the Atlantic for my colleague to review. Bringing a bit of left-brain thinking to a right-brain activity seems to have worked. Now to tackle the other chapters I've been trying to ignore!

What about you? What devices or structures do you use to help you plan your writing?