To sell or not to sell my art?

For years I’ve relaxed by doing needlework, crafts, and art, for friends, family, and just for myself but I have been asked a few times if I’d sell my work. So, having successfully taken on a couple of commissions lately, I’ve decided that the time has come to put my work out there. I need to start taking decent photos for one thing but here’s a few of of my snaps for now…


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Work in Progress… A surprise house warming present for my aunt. It’s her cute dog, Gizzi. Don’t worry, she’s not online. Shhhh!


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April 22, 2014 · 8:03 pm

The Outlaw, the Philosopher and Me


Recently I read Sara Gruen’s fascinating account of how she came to be inspired to write her bestseller, Water for Elephants, and the journey she went on to research the novel. It reminded me of the first time I met Elmer McCurdy, the real-life outlaw who would inspire me to write ‘The Consequences of Preserving Outlaws in Arsenic’. I was kicking back, flicking through the channels one night when I caught a BBC Timewatch documentary. It promised extraordinary things: the true-life story of a mummified outlaw discovered hanging in a California ghost train ride. I wasn’t particularly interested in Westerns – although I’d watched enough of them on Saturday afternoons at my Gran’s – but I was intrigued by the macabre. This tale was dynamite and it sparked off an imaginary ‘love-affair’ that I’m still having to this day. Not actually with McCurdy himself, the rather unsavoury and inept outlaw of the real West, but with my own character, Bill McCready, AKA Oklahoma Bill, who is a rather more charming, although no less inept, ruffian. I enjoyed the documentary immensely but I didn’t expect what happened next.

The next morning I woke with a western outlaw yattering ‘cornpone’ in my head. It sounds crazy – it felt a little crazy – but he was there and not ready to shut up. Let’s be clear, this was not a psychotic episode. I knew he wasn’t real, that he was an element of my over-stimulated imagination, and that he was my creative reaction to McCurdy. I also knew his name and that he had a lost grandson named Johnny Redfeather, and that while his story, in parts, would run parallel to McCurdy’s it was his own. This was years ago. At the time I had written my first novel, gained an agent, just finished the first draft of a second novel. I was also teaching and had quite enough to keep me busy, thank you. But Oklahoma Bill was not going to shut up and for some reason – unprecedented for me – he wanted to be written by hand. Fortunately, after a third of the novel was written he (or rather I) relented and transferred back to the computer, but for the first few months of the novel’s embryonic existence it was shaped within the bounds of a glittery green, hard-backed A4 lined work book that a friend had bought me for Christmas. The inside cover was pasted with a map of the USA and as the novel progressed I used a pencil to outline the journey Bill took.

The day I started writing ‘Consequences’ something terrible happened.

A couple of weeks before a good friend of mine – one of the best I’ve ever had – was assaulted and beaten by a group of kids and teens who lived on his street. Roy Hunt was a fellow lecturer, a bit of a flaneur, an eccentric, hot-tempered, and irreverent free spirit who painted his washing machine hot pink and taught English and Philosophy. He was shot at with an air rifle one day outside his house. He was furious and yelled at the kid; the next thing he was down on the ground. Two weeks later we were out together on a Saturday afternoon, having a drink in our favourite cafe, when Roy stood to go the toilet and was struck suddenly by a wave of dizziness. It got worse. He staggered to the toilet and was sick. When he came out he could hardly stand up; he had vertigo and appeared drunk, although he wasn’t. Neither of us had a car but I called a friend who took us to A&E. We waited for hours while Roy was wheeled in and out of various clinics. Jon stayed and was brilliant, but I also had someone else with me, and that person was Bill. For some reason I’d brought my green pad out with me that day – no doubt to start writing at the cafe if the opportunity arose. I pulled it out and started to frantically scribble. Bill’s voice was clear, his cadence and rhythm never faltered, and I could almost taste the dust at his heels and the smell of freedom utterly removed from the sterile, disinfected odour of the hospital. It’s an experience I will never forget.

Roy was diagnosed as having Meniere’s disease, most likely caused by the beating he had taken to his head. Meniere’s is a rare disorder affecting the inner ear. Its symptoms are vertigo and severe dizziness which can cause nausea and vomiting. Sufferers also experience hearing loss, tinnitus, and problems with balance. It is incurable.

People can mistake Meniere’s sufferers for being drunk. This became bitterly ironic in the case of Roy. When I first knew Roy he wasn’t an habitual drinker. He could certainly sink a few and he did with his friends but he wasn’t an alcoholic and alcohol didn’t really suit him. The summer following the assault and diagnosis, I spent a lot of time with Roy, hanging out in the suntrap of his tiny courtyard garden or lounging in the fake fur-trimmed easy chairs he’d salvaged from some skip. ‘Tatting’ he called it. An old Nottingham word for seeking out free, salvageable goods. Trawling flea markets and skips was one of the hobbies that bound us as friends, long before the fashion for ‘vintiquing’ hit the magazines. Another key ingredient in the recipe of our friendship was our mutual love of stories, both written and oral. This brings me back to Oklahoma Bill. As well as spending a lot of time with Roy that summer, I was also writing and each new adventure Bill recounted I read out loud to Roy. Not since I’d forced my poor parents to listen to my stories as a child had I been allowed to do this. But Roy loved it. He ate up those episodes they like they were bowls of ice cream. He harangued me if I wasn’t writing them fast enough. He started to seek out sources for me – a trio of tiny books on Buffalo Bill, Butch Cassidy, and Annie Oakley, old copies of National Geographic Magazine, articles on America. I was doing the same of course, searching everywhere to find the sources to make the novel as authentic as possible. But the best resource I had was Roy himself. It didn’t occur to me until much later, but Roy loved Bill so much because he related to him. Roy had charm, a boyish mischievous twinkle in his eye and an anti-authoritarian impetuous nature that mirrored Bill’s. The tales he told of his own escapades were romantically inflated, liable to change from telling to telling and often very funny. He loved America – had lived there twice, for some time in New York and also in Arizona.

That summer Roy started drinking. It was subtle at first. I’d go round about ten in the morning and smell alcohol on him. It was mouthwash, he’d say. He’d turn up to the cinema for an afternoon showing and his eyes would be blurry. He swayed. Became disoriented easily. But these were symptoms of the Meniere’s too. He was always bumping his head or electrocuting himself; this was fairly normal for Roy who was forever re-wiring his house without turning the electricity off, or crawling onto a low roof and falling off – even before the Meniere’s. But it was happening more often. The injuries got worse.

The novel was written then redrafted again and again. Johnny Redfeather’s story changed dramatically three times. The final re-writing ripped out half the novel and I had to start afresh. Johnny’s story was always harder for me to find than Bill’s, but eventually I knew when I’d got it right. That was two years ago.

When Roy finally admitted to me that he was drinking (although he never acknowledged, to me at least, that he was an alcoholic) he explained he started when he found it was the only thing that would take the edge off his vertigo. Ironically being drunk made him feel less dizzy. He appeared more sober. But, of course, it wasn’t just that. Unlike Bill, who is smugly self-satisfied fictional character, Roy was a complex, sensitive man, prone to swings between manic energy and debilitating depression. More than the symptoms of Menier’s, terrible as they are, I believe Roy started his descent into full-blown alcoholism in reaction to the emotional trauma of being assaulted by kids in his neighbourhood; kids he saw every day.

So, does this story have a happy ending? Well, yes and no. Roy died in October last year. He moved to Spain a few years ago, living in small town tucked away at the foot of the Sierra Nevada’s. He led a quiet, drunken, but fairly peaceful life. Two years ago he fell down a flight of stairs and smashed himself up very badly. He had diabetes, liver damage, high blood pressure and other conditions linked to age, Meniere’s, and alcoholism. Yet he was living the life he used to envision when we worked as lecturers together. He had sun most days of the year in the dry, arid sort of climate he’d loved in Arizona. Most importantly he was writing and painting. In fact his family gave me the manuscript of the novel he’d written and when I’m brave enough I’ll read it. I’ll be able to hear his voice the way I can hear Bill’s.

One week before he died I received a letter from him. We were friends to the end. Fittingly enough the letter was about Oklahoma Bill. I’d sent him a copy of the book – ‘The Consequences of Preserving Outlaws in Arsenic.’ He was mentioned in the dedication and I wanted him to see it. The book had been proofed and edited by numerous people, professional and otherwise. What Roy sent me was a very detailed list of typos, suggestions, and comments. He still loved it, he said, but thought it was now more of Johnny’s story. I think so too but it still revolves around Bill. He is the sun in that galaxy. I feel it is more of a balanced book than the one I wrote and read out to Roy that summer. Life is like that. Our friendship was platonic but intense back then, given to ups and downs. I met my partner, Roy moved to Spain (the two events were unconnected) and we both visited him there. Our friendship remained loyal and constant despite the distance and perhaps more balanced for it.

It seems fitting that one of the last things we wrote to each other about was Bill. He seems so central to much of our friendship. We’d talk about him as though he was real. Elmer McCurdy was a real person but after death no more than a mummified husk being dragged from carnivals to fairgrounds across the states. Bill ‘Oklahoma’ McCready only exists in an imaginary world. Roy Hunt was real. He was loved by many people and he exasperated all of them. He was a slippery storyteller; a master embellisher, his versions of events could change from listener to listener, day-to-day, but, like Bill, every time he told a story he believed every word he said. And very like Bill, the seeds of Roy’s self-destruction he often planted himself, sewing them unwittingly into every best-laid crazy plan, until they exploded like tiny bombs blowing up in his face.  One of my favourite Roy tales was about the time he and a friend saw a horse in a paddock (this was in the states) and Roy took it into his head that he was going to ride it bareback. Now, Roy had no experience of riding horses, fully saddled, and trained, not least bareback, but small details never deterred him. He did manage to leap on the poor creatures back, before landing resoundingly on his own after it bucked him off. He cracked his head (of course) and gained a concussion, but the tale he had to tell and the laugh it always got made the injury worthwhile. Once, in a boring, bureaucratic meeting with the new vice-principle of the college, Roy suddenly rose, vaulted over a desk, and exited through the fire escape. It was quite a drop to the ground below and twenty gobsmacked people watched as Roy dropped out of sight, only to reemerge a few moments later legging it as fast as he could across the grass.

Roy Hunt was my friend. I will hold in my heart the sight of him disappearing into the distance as nineteen envious people wished they had the guts to slip the shackles of mediocre conventionality and make a run for it. His is the voice I listen for now. I think Bill listens for him too.


Drinking a can of Dandelion and Burdock



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Open Up To Indie Authors

Great post by Dan Holloway on the day of the Open for Indies launch at the London Book Fair.

dan holloway

It was a great privilege to speak at today’s launch at Kobo’s London Book Fair stall, of Open Up To Indie Authors (download it here), which I co-authored with the wonderful Debbie Young, published by the Alliance of Indie Authors thanks to the tireless efforts of Orna Ross. The book is more than just an essential campaign document and rallying cry. It’s a guide to working with every sector in the global literary sphere, from bloggers through prizes and bookstores to festivals, making the case for the inclusion of indie authors, helping indie authors to understand the industry and helping the industry to see why it needs indie authors.Image

l-r Debbie Young, Jessica Bell, Hugh Howey, Orna Ross, Diego Marano, Me

Here’s the text of the speech

Those of you who know me will know that, among other things, I am a fairly outspoken atheist. Nonetheless, by training…

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Christmas Reading – Friends Old and New

Merry Christmas T'woo

Merry Christmas T’woo

Every December I love to read stories set around Christmas time or that at least have a Christmassy feel to them – magical, fantastical, wintery. But as I get older Christmas comes round quicker each year, so that in a blink of an eye I’m back to re-reading a book I seem to only have just finished. Again. And much as I love my old friends – some of whom I’ve known since childhood – it’s too soon to meet up. There’s no more chat, nothing new to exchange, nothing we haven’t said a hundred times before. I don’t like to admit this to them as they fidget, whispering on the shelf, faint strains of sleigh bells and puffs of icy air escaping their pages, alongside whiffs of roasting chestnuts, or tempting Turkish Delight. I want their familiar comfort but I also crave something new, like that one additional decoration for the yearly tree; the one which glitters and dances in the shop and longs to come home with you.

So, every December I seek out a few more friends to place on my shelves. It’s tricky. They need to fit in. I find my other Christmas stories are never keen on romances – too perky and modern, no deep shadows to make the lights sparkle brighter. No, they tend to get jostled and even occasionally knocked off the shelf. Children’s stories are nearly always welcome, as is fantasy if it contains enough snow and/or magical tingle. The tingle must match the butterflies in the belly sensation from childhood Christmases that we adults spend a life-time trying to recreate. All other genre or general fiction must have a high quota of Christmas content and be able to withstand a sprinkle of sugar but not enough to rot the soul, the teeth, or turn the mind to aspartame mush.

My finds for this year have been, so far:

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum (author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). A gorgeous, paganistic re-imagining of Santa Claus. My nine year old self would have been utterly transfixed by the imagery Baum creates. Tingle factor 9

The Frozen Lake by Elizabeth Edmonson. One to read under the duvet. Deep snow, dark secrets and ivy-draped great houses make this an enjoyable tale of two wealthy families reuniting for Christmas in 1936. Not sure about the tingle but the mulled wine factor is high.

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. I’m not sure why I bypassed Susan Cooper when I was growing up. I remember seeing her books but have no memory of reading them. ‘The Dark is Rising’ is a very English fantasy set over Christmas. The story is dark, thrilling and uplifting, weaving English folklore into a mystical tale. Cooper’s writing is beautiful, crisply descriptive and hauntingly evocative. Tingle factor 10

Here is her perfect description of the dawning of a family Christmas Eve: “Christmas Eve. It was the day when the delight of Christmas really took fire in the Stanton family. Hints and glimmerings and promises of special things, which had flashed in and out of life for weeks before, now suddenly blossomed into a constant glad expectancy.”

Now that is Christmas!

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19th Century Seven Dials: There’s Nowhere Better to set a Murder

Doing research is one of the most rewarding aspects of writing fiction. I can almost hear my brain clanking and clicking like my central heating, valves expanding as new information trickles in, heating parts of my psyche long neglected.

I have files full of information, from the history of fairground rides to the first use of showers in domestic houses, to exactly how much a bus ticket from New York to Baltimore cost in 1963.

Much of that information is quickly gleaned from the internet, although not necessarily accurate. Wikipedia is a useful port to sail from but certainly not an end destination. It is simply too unreliable. The bulk of my research comes from reading books, journals, old newspapers, and so forth. As well as the indispensable library, second hand books shops are an absolute must, as well as specialist books produced by small publishing houses. One I was lucky enough to find second hand (or pre-loved as the current consensus calls it) is Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888: An Unconventional Handbook by Charles Dickens Jr – yes, the son of that Charles Dickens!
Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888
I was looking for a seedy location in 1880s London for my novel The Army of Righteous Deliverance. Whitechapel was overused, too much associated with the notoriety of Jack the Ripper for my needs, when Mr Dickens Jr led me to Seven Dials, so near to the heart of London’s West End, yet seemingly forgotten in the recent history of London’s poor – at least in popular imagination. What a rich seam it was to mine. His descriptions are wonderful:

“… the locality is a singular one, and … can be easily visited by those curious to see one of the seamier sides of the inner life of London…The stranger finds himself in a street that is altogether unique in its way. It is the abode of pigeon fanciers. Every variety of pigeon, fowl and rabbit can be found here, together with hawks and owls, parrots, love-birds, and other species native and foreign. There is a shops for specimens of the aquarium, with tanks of water-beetles, newts, water-spiders, and other aquatic creatures. Others are devoted to British song birds, larks, thrushes, bull-finches, starlings and blackbirds &c.”

It is hard now to imagine a street in central London teeming with caged fauna, crammed into one cacophonous space. Can you imagine the stench? The noise? Still, the image of it almost seems enchanting until you read on:

“Passing through this lane we are in the Dials, a point where seven streets meet… Here poverty is to be seen in some of its most painful aspects. The shops sell nothing but second or third hand articles… old shoes so patched and mended that it is questionable whether one particle of the original material remains in them. These streets swarm with children of all ages… it is evident that the school board has not much power in the neighbourhood of the Dials…”

Today Seven Dials is a gentrified upmarket extension of Covent Garden, home of on-trend boutiques and the flagship store of Neal’s Yard Remedies, exuding the joys of natural organic beauty products – a far cry from the Victorian Seven Dials where, according to Dickens Jr: “Nowhere can such a glimpse of the poorer classes be obtained as on a Saturday evening at the Dials.”

I will never be able to step back in time to witness this scene for myself but thanks to Mr Dicken’s Jr and the fabulous job publishers like Old House Books do by reproducing these old texts I feel as though as can. And when that happens my imagination takes off and I start to write.The Army of Righteous Deliverance is available as an e-book and will appear in print in December ’13


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First home made Christmas decoration for 2013


Handsewn with felt. Shaded with watercolour pencils. Antlers are lily stem twigs from garden.

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Wanted Dead or Alive: Outlaw spotted on Piccadilly line…

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Late night leave on the Piccadilly Line. The consequences of preserving outlaws in arsenic @ScMaxfield #BotU #books

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So, what do I mean by free-hand tapestry…?

Eagle owl

Tree tapestry

Flower border

 As a child did you have difficulty learning to tie up shoe laces? Was plaiting (or braiding) your hair a skill that took years and years to learn? Was colouring within the lines designed to flummox you and knowing your right from left was simply an abstract idea flouted by other people?

If any of these sound familiar it may be you have dyspraxia.

What does that have to do with tapestry?

In my case, quite a lot.

I was forty before I realised that my odd inability to master certain motor skills and patterns had a name. In fact it was only through teaching a severely dyspraxic student English that I became familiar with the term. Dyslexia I’d know about for years, and although I have a tendency to use malapropisms and spoonerisms in speech, I knew I wasn’t dyslexic – I teach English Literature and have worked a lot with dyslexic students. My student gave me a list of potential symptoms for dyspraxia – a wide and varied list – that I dutifully read to help me understand her needs.

Reading the list, my childhood struggles, and to a lesser extent adulthood ones, fell into place. I recognised myself.

Sooo… tapestry! More importantly free-hand tapestry. How does it fit in with my diagnosis? I’ll tell you how.

I remember doing tapestry and embroidery in primary school. I was terrible at it. I couldn’t pick up the neat little stitches. I couldn’t remember how to do them from one week to the next. The back of my canvas looked like knotty mess of vivid worms, the front little better. Other little girls were producing charming little samplers while I was producing misshapen monstrosities – at least according to the teacher’s reactions. I could see the difference between mine and my friends’ pieces but I couldn’t make the connection between my hands and my brain. I felt frustrated and stupid. And angry. It was a fairly familiar feeling; the same one I had when at three, another girl mocked me for colouring outside the lines. (Damn you, Audrey!) I could not, for the life of me, stick within the lines.

Then, about four years ago I decided to try to do a tapestry the way I paint with acrylics. Free, lots of building layers and colour, slapdash, bright, cheerful and joyful. I didn’t bother with the set types of stitches because I can’t retain them and I don’t understand why you have to keep to straight lines just because the canvas is a grid. I started small. A lot of things didn’t work but some did. And I got better – am still getting better, I hope. Most importantly, though, is the feeling that I’m creating something on my own terms, something that gives me pleasure, and something that feels organic, not prescribed.

Finally I realised it doesn’t matter about the lines. There are no lines if I don’t want there to be.

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October 16, 2013 · 8:26 pm

A Big Thank You!

Mucho thanks to the 750 people who entered the giveaway of my novel ‘The Consequences of Preserving Outlaws in Arsenic’ on Goodreads. The giveaway closed today and 5 copies are winging their way to the winners as we speak. 

Good reading and good night!

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