Showing posts with label Lu Hersey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lu Hersey. Show all posts

Friday, 18 December 2020

A load of old baubles - by Lu Hersey

People have been celebrating the turn of the year at midwinter for thousands of years. Originally marking the winter solstice, people decorated their homes with evergreens and fir branches as a reminder of the coming spring. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia over the solstice period, with decorations to honour the god Saturn. With the coming of Christianity, the evergreens came to represent the promise of everlasting life with God. 

Christmas trees came much later, an idea thought up by either Estonians or Latvians (they're still arguing about who thought of it first). Either way, they first appeared in town squares thanks to the Brotherhood of Blackheads. I went down a google rabbit hole to find out more about the Brotherhood of Blackheads, so to save you a bit of time and effort, they were a group of Christian merchants (male, single) who banded together to put down an uprising by the indigenous pagan population of Estonia, who wanted to get rid of Christians and foreigners. The Brotherhood then started an annual Christmas celebration, dancing around the fir trees they put up in the centre of town.

The first indoor tree we know about was erected in in the guild house in Breman in Germany in 1570, and decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels and paper flowers. It possibly wasn't the very first indoor tree, but it's the first one someone took the trouble to make a note of in the town records.  

There are various legends as to why the people of Germany started bringing fir trees into their own homes. The most popular is that Martin Luther was gazing up at the stars sparkling through the trees one night, and thought of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. Luther brought a small tree indoors to tell the story to his children. 

Whatever the truth of this legend, indoor Christmas trees soon became popular throughout Germany, and were decorated with lighted candles (to represent stars), edible treats and roses made of paper or gold foil. A figure of the baby Jesus was placed on the top, later replaced with either a star, to represent the Star of Bethlehem, or an angel, who brought the news of the birth to the shepherds. Glass makers started making tree ornaments, and the Christmas tree bauble was born. 

Tinsel also started in Germany, originally made from beaten silver. The idea behind tinsel is connected to traditional folktales about the Christmas spider. All versions of this folktale centre on a poor family who can't afford to decorate their tree and leave it bare on Christmas Eve. Overnight a spider covers the tree in webs, and on Christmas morning the family awake to find the webs have miraculously turned to silver or gold. To this day, spider ornaments and silver webs for trees are popular in the Ukraine and over much of northern Europe, as they are considered lucky. 

Christmas trees were unknown in Britain until Queen Charlotte (the German wife of King George III) had one set up in Windsor Lodge in 1800. The idea caught on fast, and by Victoria's reign, anybody who was anybody had one in their home. All the first Christmas trees were decorated with lighted candles - which led to rather a lot of house fires. Fortunately someone invented strings of electric lights sometime in the early 20th century, and so these days few of us still run the risk of lighted candles. (Though I know one German family who do, and only put the tree up on Christmas Eve - and have to admit, candles look AMAZING)

Everyone has their own decorating preferences for Christmas trees. Some go for glittering white lights and themed baubles, which look tasteful and classy - and some don't. Our family always has coloured tree lights, for sentimental reasons - my grandmother loved coloured lights and she lived with us when I was a child. Every year, she'd repeat the story of how they reminded her of her honeymoon, which she and my grandfather spent visiting the Blackpool illuminations. Apparently they'd never seen anything so magical. (Of course it was a very long time ago, and neither of them had electricity at home back then). Anyway, our coloured Christmas tree lights remind me of her, and the warmth and love she brought into my life.

My mother aspired to white lights because she thought they were much more tasteful and had real class. But being a child of the war generation that wasted nothing, she could never bring herself to spend money on new white ones until the old ones broke. Unfortunately for her, my grandmother's coloured lights proved immortal (well, allowing for the odd blown bulb every year that my father painstakingly replaced - checking every single bulb until he found the faulty one) and somehow she never managed to achieve her white light goal. 

I often look wistfully at the beautiful white tree lights sparkling in other people's windows, and think of my mother. Perhaps one day I'll get some like the ones she aspired to and put them round the tree in memory of her - and that will tell a different story. And I will wish she could see them, along with the family she didn't live long enough to meet.

Our tree baubles are a hotchpotch, a family history of the last 30 years in bauble form. Some brought back from travels abroad, some given by friends, some chosen in shops, some handmade. Everyone has their personal favourites, and there's an annual squabble about which ones hang nearest the front (though this year, thanks to Covid, I got to dictate. But I missed the squabble. It's part of the tradition). 

If you have a Christmas tree, it probably tells your own story. But whether you do or not, I hope you have a peaceful and stress-free festive season, after what's been a very strange and difficult year for us all.

Lu Hersey 

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Phantom animals to chill the blood - by Lu Hersey

As background research for a new book, I've recently been reading all about animal phantoms, signs and portends. And as dusk deepens (at only 4pm on a November afternoon) I'm about to light the fire in an attempt to convince myself these are mere folktales. But are they?

Let's start with the Beast of Bodmin Moor as a sort of intro. Over the years, there have been numerous accounts of sightings of a great black cat roaming the Cornish countryside - I've seen pictures in local newspapers (always distant and usually blurry), read stories of dog walkers whose poodles have been terrified by something much bigger than a domestic cat, and read a fascinating exercise book full of people's hand written accounts of Bodmin Beast sightings (kept in a cafe in Minions in Cornwall) from cover to cover. Urban myth, I thought. Highly unlikely there's anything out there. Then one night, driving back late across a stretch of empty Cornish countryside, I saw a fleeting shadow, something that took the shape of a giant feline leaping across the narrow road in the headlights. Far too big to be any normal cat - so fast it was there and then gone in the blink of an eye (which I was trying to keep on the road).  Even though my heart was racing as I drove on, I tried to rationalise what I'd just seen. The mind plays tricks on tired people, driving late, and they make shadows into shapes that aren't real. Hopefully. 

Not the Beast of Bodmin Moor - just a neighbour's idea of a gateway ornament. But it is huge (and very alarming at dusk...)

Which brings me on to Black Shuck, the ghost dog of the fens. Seen by many people over the last thousand years or more, Black Shuck gets about too - versions of this beast have been spotted over much of Northern Europe. Folkloric rumour has it that he could be one of Odin's spectral hounds, or even one of Odin's two wolves. (Odin was known to the Anglo-Saxons as Woden - as in Wednesday, originally Woden's Day). Others suggest this ghostly black hound is tied in with the Wild Hunt, when spectral hunters ride out for the souls of the living to drag them back to the underworld. Either way, he's considered an omen of death - and that makes him pretty damn scary. 

Here's an early (translated from Middle English) account of phantom black hounds from the Peterborough Chronicle, one of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, written in about 1127: 

'Let no-one be surprised at the truth of what we are about to relate, for it was common knowledge throughout the whole country that immediately after (Abbot Henry of Poitou's arrival at Peterborough Abbey), the Sunday when they sing Exurge Quare, many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats and the hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch that night declared that there might well have been as many as twenty or thirty of them winding their horns as near as they could tell. This was seen and heard from the time of his arrival all through Lent and right up to Easter.'

But the most famous account of Black Shuck (shuck is derived from scucca, OE for demon) comes later, in August 1577, in the church of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk. This is the contemporary account published by Abraham Flemming: 'A strange and terrible wunder wrought very late in the parish of Bongay: a town of no great distance from the citie of Norwich, namely the fourth of this August, in the yeere of our Lord 1577, in a great tempest of violent raige, lightning and thunder, the like wherof hath been seldom seene. With the appearance of an horrible shaped thing, sensibly perceived of the people then and there assembled' (Flemming obligingly drew his version of this horrible shaped thing 'in a plain method according to the written copye'.)

Anyway, he goes on to tell us: 'this black dog, or the divel in such a likenesse (God he knoweth al who worketh all) running all down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people in visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant, clene backward, in so much that even at a moment where they kneeled, they strangley dyed.'

Apparently there was a clap of thunder as the great dog raced into Holy Trinity Church and killed two of the congregation, simultaneously causing the church steeple to fall through the roof. The dog left great scorch marks on the north door as he left, which can still be seen to this day. 

So what actually happened? A whole congregation of people saw something terrifying - but what was it? One explanation might be ball lightning, or some freak weather phenomenon - but the legend of Black Shuck stuck, and he has since been seen by many lone walkers across the Fens. Last century, a midwife in the 1930s recounted being followed by a phantom dog as she cycled home through the lanes near Tolleshunt Darcy. The dog was huge, and silently kept pace with her however hard she pedalled, until it suddenly vanished. Black Shuck was also (reportedly) seen by several people after a man out walking fell into the River Great Ouse and drowned - and as recently as 1953 a sighting of a great black beast was reported by a woman returning from a dance near Cromer. So maybe Black Shuck is out there still? 

Folklorist Christina Hole points out in English Folklore that early humans saw little difference between people and animals, and believed they had spirits of equal importance. To this day, a great many superstitions are based on animal lore, and the appearance of various animals and birds is seen as significant, portends of things to come. Not all are bad - the cuckoo is welcomed as the embodiment of spring, and the wren, robin and swallow are (or were) considered lucky. But there are also many animals of ill omen, depending on where and when you see them - and Black Shuck definitely counts as one. 

Of course it's impossible to say whether the phantom animals of folklore exist or not. Along with Faeries, belief in such things was universal before the Puritans came along - and so people saw ghosts, faeries and otherworldly creatures all the time. There are far fewer reports of them these days, but that could simply be because when we no longer believe something exists, we no longer see it. Or we rationalise what we do see to make it something else, a bin liner flapping in the road, a waving branch, a shadow, optical migraine, freak weather. Or maybe people fear ridicule if they report what they see.

The shadow cat I saw in the headlights might simply have been plastic covering from a silage roll blowing across the road. A deer that my mind made cat-shaped. A monster created in my imagination. Such things our early ancestors made stories about around the camp fires.

Or maybe it was a massive ghost cat....the Beast of Bodmin Moor itself. I rather like the possibility.

Lu Hersey

Twitter: @LuWrites

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Things to do while spirits, ghouls and old gods walk the earth - by Lu Hersey

October 31st is the ancient Celtic fire festival of Samhain, now celebrated as Halloween, but a seasonal festival that predates Christianity. Most of the main pagan festivals were brought into the Christian calendar to entice people into the church, and the feast of Samhain became All Hallows Tide - but remained a time of year associated with spirits and death. It's a few days when the barriers between worlds are at thought to be at their thinnest, the dead can return from their graves and spirits and old gods walk the earth. 

Witches, Goblins & Ghouls - illustration by Arthur Rackham 1907

The festival celebrates the end of summer, when the last of the harvest comes in, and it's a good time to set goals for the future. Right up until Victorian times people celebrated with ritual fires and beacons lit on hilltops for the purification of the land, blowing their horns and circle dancing around Hallow fires. The bravest leapt through the flames or walked over the embers - or got drunk and set off on wild hunts to sabotage other people's beacons and fires, returning with burning peats fixed like pennants on the top of sticks. In Wales, as the fires died down, everyone fled back down the hill to escape the hwch ddu gwta, the tailless Black Sow, one of the terrors abroad on Halloween - and there are many of them lurking in our folklore that date well back into prehistory. 

Samhain was also the turning of the year, as the Celtic new year started as the harvest ended. Because the veil between worlds is at its thinnest, it was (and still is) considered a good time for any kind of divination for the year ahead. (If you're at all superstitious, some of the following rites are quite scary and probably best avoided!) 

A tradition in Wales and Scotland was to mark a white stone and throw it into the Hallow Fire (embers in your bbq bowl, fire or wood burner would probably work if you want to risk it). In the morning people went to look for their stone - if it was in tact, they'd be safe for the following year. If it was cracked, lost, had inexplicably moved or had a footprint near it, it foretold an early death. (See what I mean? You'll probably be fine whatever happens to your blooming stone, and if not, do you really want to know?)

Many other Halloween traditions are ancient divination rites, once taken very seriously. One involved courting couples placing two hazel or chestnuts in the embers to roast - if they cooked well, it foretold a happy marriage, but if they burnt or exploded, the marriage was doomed. Another was to find the initial of your future partner's name (my grandmother actually used to do this with me) by peeling an apple carefully, all in one strip, and throwing the peel over your left shoulder. It invariably falls in the shape of a letter... (though trying this several times with my grandmother over the years, I found that your partner is almost certain to have a name starting with S, C or possibly a lower case E, P or D if you squint or look at it upside down) 

Apples feature in many Halloween rites

Another apple rite is to stand in front of a mirror at midnight, with one candle lit, eating an apple with one hand and brushing your hair with the other. The form of your future husband or wife should appear over your left shoulder. Frankly if a shadowy figure appears over your left shoulder at midnight, you're more likely to choke on the apple or run screaming - but apparently this was a common practice and taken very seriously. A variation is to cut the apple into nine pieces, eat eight of them with your back to the mirror and then chuck the ninth piece over your left shoulder - if you turn quickly enough you might catch a glimpse of your future partner in the mirror. 

A widely practised Hallow-tide rite was to melt a lump of lead in a spoon and drop the melted lead into cold water - the molten lead forms the shape of your future partner's trade. (This probably takes a leap of faith - a bit like reading tea leaves or coffee bubbles. Otherwise everyone would be partnered with a shapeless blob. However it probably works very well if you're looking for the clues to your new manuscript...)

Okay, last one for now - and keep the fire hydrant handy. This is a divination game for a group of people to find portends for the year ahead. Place 12 candles on the floor in a circle. Each candle represents one month of the year, so starting in November (remember Samhain is the start of the Celtic year), the players take it in turns to leap over each candle, one month at a time. If the candle falls over or goes out with all the activity, it doesn't bode well for that particular month - but if it stays alight, the month will be good. 

Witches and their familiars - illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1907

If you want to try any of the above, good luck. You're more likely to be busy dealing with small people dressing up as ghosts and witches and eating too many sweets. Probably simpler to spend some quiet time casting off all the negatives from the past year and setting your goals for the year ahead. A bit like New Year's Eve. Because once upon a time, that's what it was. 

Lu Hersey

Twitter: @LuWrites


Tuesday, 18 August 2020

The positives of watching trash TV - by Lu Hersey

Lockdown was difficult for everyone - but for some of us there were also unexpected upsides. I'm still waiting for a dentist to stick my front tooth back in (it fell out on day 2) but was fortunate to spend the whole time with my two youngest children, both now in their twenties. It's an interesting experience when family who left home ages ago move back in for a while. We hadn't spent such intensive amounts of time together for so long, I'd almost forgotten about their weird dietary habits and just how much trash TV they're able to watch.

What I (re)discovered is how easily you can get sucked into trash TV with them. It's a bonding family experience (or at least, that's my excuse). Soothing in very stressful times when you can't face gritty drama, or yet more Covid 19 news. Anyway, I found some surprising benefits watching it, and now I want to inflict that experience on you.

Thing is, a LOT of trash TV is American and comes in series on Netflix. Whether it's Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Skin Wars, if you watch one episode, you're immediately sucked into the next - and before you know it, you actually CARE who wins season 10 of RuPaul's Drag Race. Worse, you then go on to watch season 11 and 12. Evie Oddly in season 11 becomes your new hero. Seriously, the best woman won... a reference you'll only get if you watch it. Tempted yet?

Anyway, I found plenty of quotes from RuPaul's drag queens are totally transferable to a writing life, so I'll share a few with you...

Americans are very different from the British. They are so damn enthusiastic, it's exhausting. But I've grown to love their enthusiasm. They don't apologise for much because it's considered negative thinking and you have to shape up. Acknowledge mistakes, yes - but no apologies unless you've caused pain to others. As someone who apologises for my own existence when I fall flat on my face, even if I'm in agony, there's a lot to be said for allowing yourself to express your pain and expect support. 

And pain is something many of the contestants in RuPaul's Drag Race know all about, whether it's because of family rejection, brutal violence, being forced into exorcisms or having to undergo gay 'conversion' therapy.  Yet they've learnt to transform all the knockbacks into sheer determination to succeed with help and support from their own community.  

And when you think about it, we writers also have a wonderfully supportive community -  it's just we tend to spend more time in pajamas and we don't wear quite so much makeup. 

Each week in Drag Race, one of the queens is eliminated. But very few of them wail or complain - they know just being chosen to take part shows they have a fair degree of talent and they'll make the best of it anyway. They also take any criticism on board in a positive way. Week on week, everyone ups their game. 

So maybe if you're rejected as a writer, whether by an agent or a publisher, just listen to any reasonable criticism you're offered and try to work harder, okay? (You're also allowed to swear, tear the rejection slip into tiny pieces and therapeutically compost it)

The optimism of the contestants in these shows is amazing. But then what's the point of being pessimistic if the outcome is the same either way? If you're an optimist but get rejected, at least you enjoyed the ride. (At this point, I'm online ordering some glitter eyeshadow...if I don't get that zoom call from an enthusiastic publisher wanting my latest book, at least I'll look dazzling...)

Worst case scenario, you just pick myself up and write another book. And the best case scenario? Just eliminate the competition and take the crown, gurrl! 

by Lu Hersey (with help from RuPaul's Drag Race)

twitter: @LuWrites


Saturday, 18 July 2020

Jumping through hoops - by Lu Hersey

So you think you've finished writing your book - it's taken ages, you've gone over it carefully, there's a beginning, a middle and an end and you've taken out all the saggy bits (usually saggy middles, a kind of middle book spread - the writing equivalent of soggy bottoms). So now it's time for someone else to read your masterwork, whether that's your critique group, your agent or your editor. In my case, it's my agent, who tells me what changes he thinks the book needs before he sends it out to publishers.

And this is when the editing process really starts. You may have read through your manuscript a million times, and spent months (if not years) making all the changes you think it needs - but your reader won't necessarily see your book the same way you do.

'The end needs some restructuring - far too much happens after the death scene.'

Restructuring? *swallows* That means quite a lot of work. But yes, now it's pointed out to me...

Two months and one restructure later... 'I really like that cave scene - you need to make it at least twice as long.'

Do you realise how long it took to write that cave scene? And that it is practically perfect in every way? AND THAT'S WHY YOU LIKE IT, RIGHT??

Best not to say that out loud. Smile and say 'hmmm'. Try not to make it sound like you're being strangled. Just rewrite the cave scene. Add in a lot more cave and a lot more claustrophobia.

Oh. Maybe agent was right. More cave is really working out well. But now the perfectly formed bit before and after cave scene will have to change to fit extended cave scene. Adding an extra three pages in one chapter can mean another total restructure to keep the continuity. OF THE WHOLE BOOK. 

But you're pleased because the book is better. You send it back to the agent.

'I think chapter 7 has too much tell and we need to see that scene.'

Dammit. Have to admit, that's a slightly saggy (but plot necessary) bit I glossed over. Now I have to make it not boring and saggy but an exciting, tense episode where we meet the baddie....but of course that means the current meeting of the baddie in the next chapter will need to change completely, oh and that changes the whole continuity of the book, SO NEED TO CHECK THROUGH THE WHOLE THING AGAIN...

Back to agent. Boy this book is SO perfect now.

'You need to explain the red crystal. I don't get it.'

*Eye roll when he's not looking* 'Maybe I could just take it out.'

'No, I like the red crystal, I just need to know more about where it came from.'

'Hmmm.' I am the master of the neutral expression.

'I can feel you bristling and getting defensive, but just think about it...'

Obviously I'm not the master of the neutral expression. 'Okay.'

While you're at it, why is the bead yellow? Why isn't it blue?

BECAUSE IT'S A BLOOMING YELLOW BEAD, OKAY? Best not say that out loud. Think about why on earth he thinks it should be blue.

Oh. Actually blue possibly would work better...but then I'd have to change the next chapter, the previous chapter and, you guessed it, read through THE WHOLE THING AGAIN.

And that is how editing works. It's a process where you sometimes want to tear your hair out, rend garments and SCREAM... but it's worth it. Your agent/editor is trying to make it the best book it can be. Just another week or so, and I think I'm there. Blue bead and all.

Then, if I'm lucky, a publisher will like the book...and a whole new round of edits can begin.

by Lu Hersey
Twitter: @LuWrites

Thursday, 18 June 2020

When idols topple - by Lu Hersey

It's been a month of toppling idols. Some, most of us were delighted to see go - like Edward Colston, slave trader, whose statue in Bristol Centre was brought down in a peaceful demonstration and dumped in the very harbour his slaver boats sailed from. There's justice in that (though actually he's since been pulled out again to go in the museum, complete with his new graffiti). It was a symbolic moment, part of a far greater movement following the murder of George Floyd in America, to get white people to fully understand what lay behind the whole Black Lives Matter campaign. Teaching all white people (even those who don't consider themselves racist) to shut up and listen to people of colour who've been treated as second class citizens for generations. To understand what treating one group of people as though they're inferior simply because of their skin colour feels like to those who've had to endure it.
An historic moment. Photo by Dr Shawn Sobers (@shawnsobers)
It's led to a rise in sales of own voice books as people realise things need to change, that everyone needs to have a voice and be represented fairly in literature and publishing. It's also led to a kind of battle over statues, coming to a head when rival groups of demonstrators clash. Both Gandhi and Winston Churchill were given police protection in recent London demonstrations - and strangely, a far right group felt the statue of George Eliot needed guarding at an event in Nuneaton. You'd think George Eliot an unlikely target for anyone...
(Stolen from a tweet by Helen Macdonald)

...but maybe not. Idols come in many forms, and these days most aren't made of bronze. Who could have predicted there would be a day when JK Rowling fell out of favour? Her views on trans women caused anger and grief far beyond the vulnerable trans community, upsetting much of her fanbase too. For my youngest daughter, to have her childhood idol coming out with what she considers TERF thinking, really broke her heart. All her life, at times of stress, her go-to safe place has been re-reading Harry Potter. For her, and many of the Hogwarts generation, JK's stance has effectively destroyed that safety net.

Probably the most important lesson to take from this is to be very careful what you say on social media, especially if you're famous (unless you're like Trump or Katie Hopkins and enjoy that kind of attention). Fame brings power, and shouldn't be abused.

Despite all the conflict, hopefully some positive things will come out of this time. We're all talking a lot more about very important issues, and thinking about the way we perceive others. Many of us are reading more widely to understand different viewpoints because we want to hear from those that haven't been given a proper voice. In an ideal world, after all the ranting and mud slinging is done, it might lead us to find more empathy, kindness and compassion as fellow human beings.

Meanwhile, hopefully I'm not famous enough to be trolled for writing this...

by Lu Hersey
Twitter: @LuWrites
Web: Lu Hersey

Monday, 18 May 2020

Charms, amulets and face masks - by Lu Hersey

We're now at a point where Covid-19 is unlikely to be going away anytime soon, so (if
you've managed to avoid it so far) you want to feel you have some kind of protection. Looking at the appalling death statistics is very sobering - but sooner or later, we all have to leave home to get food, visit the pharmacy or go to work. There is no vaccine yet - so what do you do?

Tamsin Rosewell (of Kenilworth Books) and I share an interest in folklore, and we were speculating on social media about how long it would be before people turn back to ancient forms of witchcraft, magic and folklore remedies to ward off impending doom. Because it's a subject I research a lot for my writing, I've come up with a few ideas used by our ancient (and not so ancient) ancestors to get you started. I'm only including a very small selection here. Pick whichever you feel most drawn to if you want to make an amulet or charm for yourself (or buy one online if it all looks too complicated).

First off, amulets. People throughout the ages have worn amulets for a variety of purposes, including to attract love, wealth or good fortune, or for protection. Here are a couple of examples of protection amulets, possibly more use than love or wealth if you're worried about catching an illness.

Protective amulet made to the design of Elizabethan magician Dr John Dee's table, filled with complex Enochian magick symbols. He believed the design was communicated to him by angelic forces and would ward off all evil. 

The ankh symbol basically means 'life' - even eternal life, which could be handy. This one in lapis lazuli with reed symbolism possibly represents the life giving Nile. Creating a protective amulet such as an Egyptian Ankh, or a scarab became ritual in itself and could only be made by someone with the power to make it.

Less complicated than amulets are the more folkloric protection charms such as hagstones, which can be found by anyone on the right type of beach. Also witch bottles, which contrary to popular belief, were made to protect a household from ill luck, not curses put on people by witches. Usually placed in the fabric of the building, under the entrance or built into a boundary wall, they were still commonly included in rural constructions until at least the 1960s.

Two witch bottles - the bottle on the left is a modern version (this one was made by Cornish witch, Levannah Morgan) filled with ends of wool from craft makings. (Historically they contained iron nails, urine and hair). It can be placed by the hearth, door or on a window sill. The other bottle is one I found in a crumbling old boundary wall in Cornwall (and cleaned very carefully!) In front of the bottles are hagstones, which are traditionally strung above doorways for protection.

The Nazar eye, a charm to ward off evil, has been made in one form or another for thousands of years. It remains a popular charm today.

Algiz - the Nordic rune most commonly interpreted as meaning 'protection', or 'sanctuary.'  A popular choice as a rune pendant. (This one is part of a rune set  )

Holding faith in ancient talismans and charms might seem quaint, but there are some new, far more dangerous and baffling beliefs already out there. Flat earthers are creationists who think only 'the truth' will save us (whatever 'the truth' is) from the virus. Along with the EDL and the 'there is no virus, it's a conspiracy and the problem is all about 5G' believers (mostly followers of David Icke, who also thinks the queen's a lizard), they've started arranging 'gatherings' of like-minded people across the country. protesting against the lockdown and avoiding any kind of social distancing.

Covering all bases, flat earthers like the owner of this car organise 'gatherings' of like minded people protesting against the lockdown, as they believe the virus is a conspiracy. These 'gatherings' are best avoided by anyone with half a brain.
To cap it all, in Glastonbury (where I live) there's at least one person who thinks playing the bongo drums on Glastonbury tor ALL NIGHT LONG, will do the job of keeping the virus at bay. If he keeps it up and the virus doesn't get him, I might forget social distancing and strangle him myself.

Whatever your opinion on ancient amulets or alternative ways to help ward off illness, it seems most of us can't resist the idea of charms against ill fortune. Even it's as simple as crossing your fingers, or wearing a pair of lucky pants.

However, despite my personal fascination with magical objects, this post isn't intended to stop you using your common sense. I'll be the first to admit that social distancing, plastic gloves, hand gel and a face mask are probably much more effective.
Me, ready to enter Tesco. Stylish face mask, hand gel in bag, sadly no amulet.

by Lu Hersey
facebook author page
twitter @LuWrites

Saturday, 18 April 2020

What's the point of anything? by Lu Hersey

It's day 26 of lockdown today. Like everyone else, I'm trapped - but lucky because I'm trapped with a nice view, a bit of garden, and pleasant walks available from the front door. Further from hospitals and healthcare, maybe - but there are advantages and disadvantages wherever you are.

Also, I'm not alone. My two youngest (both adults) decided to come here and be trapped in the country with me. It's lovely having family move back in with you when they mostly live their own lives back in the city, yet strange at the same time. But then strange is the new normal.
The new normal

Apart from anything else, we're all starting to look different - who knew barbers, hairdressers and dentists were so important? Owing to a slight accident with some home hair dye,  I now have white hair, getting longer and stragglier by the day, and a tooth  missing at the front where a crown fell out. Basically I look like an ancient crone. I rather like it, although still vain enough to stick my tooth back in with Fixodent for all the zooming and video chats - which is the new way we all interact with the world.

But how long can we keep up appearances? What happens to all the Kardashian followers of the world when they can't get botox, lip fillers or new nails? Perhaps an unexpected side effect of all this is that we end up looking how we actually are, and maybe that's not so bad.
Better before, right?

There are some definite pluses to all this, as well as the obvious sadnesses. The environment is benefitting from the lack of planes and cars. Wildlife is booming and blooming without our interference. Unless you're working from home or you're an essential service worker, you probably have a lot of time to do all those things you always meant to do, like learning new skills, yoga, meditation, catching up on box sets, reading through your tbr pile - whatever.

But you also have a lot of time to ponder life questions, like what's the point of it all? And why bother to write? Is it really that important? Healthcare workers, refuse collectors and shelf stackers are a lot more use to society. And who's going to publish anything right now, or possibly ever again?

At the start of this, I was still busy editing my latest book. I took a lot of time and care over it and at last it was ready to go out...somewhere.  I decided I'd share it with a few people to see what they thought.

I started by sending it to my agent. I eagerly awaited his call to tell me what a work of genius it is.

Silence. (Admittedly only a few days, but time goes slowly at the moment)

I checked out his social media. To endure the pain of his excruciating toothache (no dentists will see people face to face - which is usually the point of dentists) it seems his main activity is sharing the portends of the day found in stones he picks up on the beach. This form of beach augury tells him he needs a dog with a patch over over one eye. It doesn't tell him he needs a manuscript.
What my agent's new dog will look like. Apparently.

That's annoying, I thought. (Although agree about the dog) All those publishers, just twiddling their thumbs, desperate for a work of genius like mine to fall into their hands, and he's on the beach looking at pebbles. The only way I'd get his attention would be if all the stones on the beach suddenly had my name on them...and maybe if the dentist fixed his tooth.

Actually, he called the next day to say he'd read it as soon as his toothache subsided and that he was really looking forward to it, which was nice - especially as he was still in crippling pain. But then I read an article from the Bookseller about how all the major publishers seem to be either working from home (most have children and are probably going insane trying to keep them occupied without schools open) - or they've furloughed their staff for the foreseeable future.


Gloom set in. What's the point of writing anything at a crisis time like this? Some bright spark on twitter said the world needed stories more than ever before because everyone is now dependent on Netflix to get through the tough times. It was retweeted a zillion times by bored (and probably also gloomy) writers.

On a scale of how are Netflix going to even see my book to obviously it's not going to happen, that isn't much comfort. Some writers are busy reading their stories online, or holding workshops to encourage other writers to write even more books. And I know these are great things to do, and as constructive as anything can be right now. It just spiralled me into wondering. What's the point of anything?

But writing is a compulsion. A bit like breathing. If your nose is blocked, you breathe through your mouth. If you can't write one thing, you try something else. And yesterday a writer friend sent me a wonderful lifeline - an idea for a joint book venture.

She writes real life, important issues, in YA fiction. I mostly write MG and teen fiction about the wonder of magic, portends, and creating order from chaos (or something like that) - so we're coming from totally different ends of the writing spectrum. And now we're trying something completely outside our usual comfort zones to see if it works.

It's fun. Something to occupy us and it doesn't matter about the outcome. I'm useless at virtual pub quizzes, and zoom yoga class with my 75 year old yoga teacher had me cheating like crazy because she couldn't see what I was doing (balancing is so much easier when there's a desk in front of you to lean on). Suddenly I have a purpose, even if it's just making my co-writer laugh.

So if you're feeling stuck and struggling with any aspect of your writing life, maybe try something completely different. Don't worry about the point of what you're doing. It doesn't even have to be writing if you don't have any ideas right now. Maybe try to see the future in the patterns of birds flying overhead instead.

After all, that's how Rome was founded.

by Lu Hersey


Wednesday, 18 March 2020

How to pass the time when self-isolating - by Lu Hersey

Many of us are now stuck at home, either by ourselves or with our families. Self-isolating. Days spent away from our usual work, friends and entertainments. Maybe weeks. Hopefully not months. Self-imposed prison sentences from an unseen enemy, where toilet rolls could be the least of your problems. My son already thinks he might die from sheer boredom.

In the (global pandemic) circumstances, I thought the most helpful thing I could do would be to list some ideas on how to entertain yourselves while you sit it out.

1. Write something different. A change is as good as a rest. Have you tried writing short stories? There are a surprising number of short story writing competitions around, and if you win one, some great prizes. Two of the best still open for entry this year are The Bristol Short Story Prize, with cash prizes for the top 20 stories, which also all get published in an anthology - and The Bridport Prize, where the winner of the short story prize gets £5K (which might help cover loss of usual income).
You could also try writing in a different genre - adult fiction, non fiction, flash fiction, interactive fiction that works with smart phones... a friend even suggested writing dinosaur porn (she was joking, but apparently it's actually a thing. Please don't go there)

2. Yoga. Even if you can't get out much, you still need to stretch and exercise, and yoga could be the answer. There are plenty of yoga sites on YouTube, but probably the most popular, with free instruction and various online classes is Yoga with Adrienne

3. Crochet. If you can't crochet already, again there are plenty of YouTube videos out there to help you learn. No wool? Unravel a jumper or two you don't like much. Which is what they did in the war, apparently. If you don't have a crochet hook, make one out of a coat hanger or something. You can learn almost any skill you don't currently have from YouTube, from putting up shelves to navigating by the stars. Admittedly so far I've only learnt how to clean my wood burner using wood ash, but it's come in very handy.

3.Make your own jewellery. This is something else they did in the war, carefully winding strips of foil or magazine paper to make beads. If you stocked up well, you should have toilet paper if nothing else.

4. Make percussion instruments from tin cans and spoons. Try not to kill each other while practising.

5. Learn a language. Duolingo covers most of them. Keeps the brain active and if the isolation goes on long enough, you could learn to get by in several countries, even if you can't actually visit them.

6. Research for the future. One of my daughters spent time watching Vacuum Wars on YouTube. For real. She watched 3 hours of it before deciding on her new vacuum cleaner. (I had no idea she was that nerdy or cared about vacuuming that much.)

7. Masking tape painting. Youngest daughter is becoming a master. You need a canvass (though cardboard will do) masking tape, paintbrush and acrylic paint, so stock up fast if you don't have these things available already.

8. Read. How many books are in your tbr pile? Mine would probably kill me if it toppled. And if you can't stop buying books, many independent bookshops will post to you. So as long as the postal/delivery services are working, you don't need to suffer from a shortage of reading material and you can help independent booksellers at the same time.

9. Final suggestion (except maybe practising mindfulness or meditation - again a multitude of classes are available for free online) is to stay in contact with friends and family via phone or social media. It's horrible to feel isolated, and fortunately there are many ways to keep in contact while avoiding face-to-face contact.

Good luck people. May you survive the apocalypse in good health, and with increased knowledge of many useful things. Even if it's just choosing the right hoover.

Lu Hersey

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

I see dead people - by Lu Hersey

This is a post about exploring eerie settings, evoking an atmosphere and trying to describe the inexplicable in your writing. I did see a ghost once, but it's not entirely relevant, so I'll save it to the end.

Whether you're writing a ghost story, a book with an element of otherworldliness, folklore, magic, or anything spooky, your aim is to write something that will stay with children for years to come. I still remember the feeling I got from the reveal in Tom's Midnight Garden (an all time favourite) decades after I read it, and that's the kind of 'feel' I strive to achieve in my own writing.

For many years I worked for a publisher in Bristol that specialised in producing local non fiction books. One book I wrote (or wrote most of) for them was on the subject of local ghosts (ironically I was writing as a ghost writer - the credited authors were celebrity ghost hunters). Research involved visiting a number of haunted venues and interviewing people about their personal encounters with ghosts, and so I learnt quite a lot about the subject on the way.

If you want to spook your reader, it can really help to find an environment with the right kind of ambience. Direct experience of your setting is often key to unlocking a story, so put yourself in a suitably haunting place. When writing the ghost book, I discovered the most popular ghost hangouts include the following:

  • Castles. Castles ALWAYS seem to have ghosts. A visit to a castle can give you a real sense of eeriness. The musty smell, dark cellars, ancient tapestries and walls covered in portraits of dead relatives. Some, like Berkeley Castle, even have a history of regicide, and you can inspect the glory hole where they cast Edward II before killing him brutally (won't go into details, but you can easily find out), and a blood stain that can't be removed from the floor in one of the rooms. Many castles lie in ruins, and have a different feel, especially at dusk or on a gloomy day, when jackdaws squabble high on crumbling battlements. For the ghost book, I talked at length to one of the staff at Farleigh Hungerford Castle, who related all kinds of really hair-raising experiences she'd had (which sadly I wasn't allowed to include because the owners didn't want the castle getting a reputation - but the castle is open to the public, if you want to investigate yourself....)

  • Graveyards. Graveyards are wonderful. Gravestones can tell you so much about a location, and though cemeteries are generally peaceful places filled with the quiet (rather than unquiet) dead, they have very distinctive atmospheres, and you can pick up some excellent story ideas by simply visiting them. Many of the characters in my books have names I found on gravestones. I recommend Highgate Cemetery if you've never been, or Arnos Vale if you live near Bristol - but any graveyard surrounding any church in the country will have an atmosphere of its own.

  • Hotels. The number of haunted hotels around may surprise you - practically every town can boast at least one. Click here for a list of the seven of the reputedly most haunted hotels in Britain. There's nothing like a big hotel with too many rooms and winding corridors to give you nightmares, so maybe go and stay in one...

  • Asylums. Not so easy to visit, but there are places like Glenside in Bristol, now converted into a museum, that provide a chilling history of the appalling way we've treated people with mental health issues in the past. It's no wonder these places are so often reputed to be haunted. If you can't face a real life visit, you can find plenty of pictures of abandoned asylums online - just take a look at Pinterest. 

  • Old orphanages and former workhouses. Also places that tend to have terrible histories and are not easy to visit, though weirdly quite a few have now been converted into luxury apartments. Again, take a look online for images to give you the creepiest ideas.

  • Haunted houses. Believe it or not, some people actually WANT to live in a haunted house, so there are specific online property searches for the creepiest currently available on the market. If you're really keen, you could make the effort to view one, or just click here for a quick look.

  • Misty moorland. Folk tales abound with misty moorland settings - and there's nothing like a good mist to set your imagination free. It doesn't even have to be moorland. Sea mist, London fog - all kinds of things can be hidden out there. Next time there's a mist close to home, venture out in it for a while to find out how mist muffles sounds, and experience how very different everyday things can look. (But watch out for ghost dogs, obviously. You don't want to end up in Grimpen Mire.)

Even if you don't write ghost stories, it's worth experiencing the atmosphere of some of these spooky places. They can conjure strong emotions, and add spark to your writing. Who knows what new ideas will come to you?

So to finish - about the time I saw a dead man walking.

For 20 years, when my children were growing up, we lived in the same house. Across the street lived a very unpleasant old couple and their two nasty sons, who were both middle aged, unmarried, and had never left home. I referred to their house (the biggest by far in the road) as the Bates Motel. Fortunately my kids didn't get the reference until they were much older.

This family were challenging neighbours. Always starting disputes and goading others - including me. They flattened my car tyres on two separate occasions when I dared to disagree with them, and called the police on me when I confronted them about the 'anonymous' poison pen letters they posted through my door (the foul language, written all in capitals, shocked even me). The police told me I wasn't the first, but since I couldn't prove anything, it would be best to simply avoid them.

So I did. But of course I knew them well by sight and saw them in passing most days. They never spoke or acknowledged me (or anyone else) in the street unless they were sparking a new conflict. The old man had a strong, unwashed smell about him.

Anyway one day the old man had a heart attack and died, and it was the talk of the road. My neighbour Marlene had the decency to put a condolence card through their door, even though they'd constantly made racist remarks to her face and even to her two young children. The psycho sons tore up the card and posted it back through Marlene's letterbox.

Then about a week after he died, I was really surprised when the old man passed me on the pavement outside my house. No wonder they tore up Marlene's card I thought. He looked directly at me and said hello. He'd never said hello in all the years I'd lived there, and I was so surprised I said hello back.  I only realised afterwards, when neighbours assured me I couldn't have seen him as he was definitely dead (they'd seen the funeral hearse) - that there wasn't the usual smell about him. But he looked exactly the same as he always had, and it was broad daylight. Which is probably the least scary ghost story you've ever heard, but it's true. Direct sunlight, no mist, no castles, not even a spooky atmosphere.

In the end, all I can say is we may enjoy the eeriness of haunted places, and they may help us with our writing - but in reality, sometimes death improves people.

Lu Hersey
twitter @LuWrites

Saturday, 18 January 2020

A good time for a new start - by Lu Hersey

Imbolc, or Candlemas (1st February) is fast approaching. In the Celtic seasonal calendar it marks the first stirrings of new life, when lambing starts and snowdrops bloom - winter is by no means over, but there are signals that spring is coming.

swan feathers, snowdrops and candlelight for Imbolc

According to Wikipedia (okay, I got lazy), the word Imbolc is probably derived from the Old Irish i mbolc meaning 'in the belly', as with pregnant ewes, or possibly Old Irish Imb-fholc, meaning 'to wash or cleanse oneself', referring to a ritual cleansing.

The festival marks the quickening of the year, when the earth is awakening, the light is returning and everything is about to burst into life - and you can apply this to your creativity too. If you have an idea for a new book, or any new project, it's a good time to let it grow, ready to come into being.

Imbolc honours Brigid (or Brigit, Brighid, Bride), a pagan goddess so popular, the Christians took her on board as St Bridget. She is a goddess of healing, poetry, and smithies. A goddess of fire, the sun and of the hearth, she brings fertility to the land and its people - and might help you find fresh inspiration.

To pave the way, it's a good idea to start cleaning out the old and making space for the new. Spring cleaning doesn't just have to apply to your house (though cleaning and junk clearance is a good way to begin - and makes a brilliant displacement activity) - it's also a time to try clearing your mind to allow inspiration to enter a new cycle.

Symbolic actions can be very helpful. Dedicate a space in your home to symbolise your new beginnings. Traditionally this space is decorated with snowdrops, swan feathers and green candles - but you might want to go a step further and make a Brigid cross, symbolic of Brigid's firewheel. (It's a kind of simple corn dolly made with reeds or willow - you can even make one with pipe cleaners or strips of paper.)

Supposedly made simple with pipe cleaners...

Follow the diagram above if it makes sense (or find a YouTube video) to make your cross. When it's the size you want it to be, you'll need to tie the four ends (or four quarters) with string or ribbon. If you like, you can decorate your cross in a way that's meaningful to you.

Reckon that's too much of a faff and you'd much rather make a cake? Fine. Here's a recipe for a traditional Imbolc seed cake that I nicked from the internet:

Imbolc Seed Cake

10oz/300gms flour
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
4oz/125gms butter
1 oz/25gms caraway seeds
6 oz/175gms sugar
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons of water

Set the oven to 200C or 400F, grease and line a 6" cake tin
Sieve flour, salt and baking powder into your mixing bowl, then rub in the butter. As you do this, think of family and friends and your wishes for everyone as spring approaches.Visualise light flowing into the mix, the fire of creativity.
Stir in the seeds and sugar and then the eggs, mixing with just enough water to create a mix that softly drops off your spoon. Stir in patience for the coming spring, as this is still a time of waiting.
Pour the mix into the tin and cook for an hour before reducing the temperature to 175C/375F for a further half hour, or until the cake is golden brown and well risen. Leave it to cool in the tin before taking it out and tying it round with green and white ribbons.

Still too much effort? Try something much simpler. Plant some seeds. Any ritual is about intent, so think about what you want to bring into your life as you sew them. (If you're doing this outside, calendula is a good thing to plant at this time of the year, as it's very hardy.)

Lastly, Imbolc is about bringing back the light. So if nothing else, light some candles in your home and make wishes for the coming year, for you and your family and friends - the simplest form of candle magic.

Good luck. Remember to set your intentions, and hopefully the rest will follow.

Lu Hersey
twitter: @LuWrites

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

The many levels of rejection - by Lu Hersey

Most of us have to deal with rejection at some point in our writing lives. Hopefully this post will help you a little feel better about it.

Stage 1: You're starting out on your writing journey and you've just subbed your first manuscript to a few favourite agents. You've spent months, maybe years getting your draft ready and you feel very excited as you press 'send' and the sub flies out.

It's tough out there and getting an agent is hard - sadly, your favourite agents might reject you. If this is the case, you won't be the first writer it happens to, and you certainly won't be the last. The best thing to do is to start collecting your rejections like war medals, and possibly print them out ready to start wallpapering the bathroom. This process may take time. I'd also suggest not sending out your sub to too many agents at once as you may want to take any feedback on board before sending it out to your list of second favourite agents...

Stage 2: Perhaps you've struck lucky - an agent has asked to see the full manuscript! This is a very good sign, even if the same agent later rejects the full manuscript further down the line. It means you can write and somebody has acknowledged that. Read your rejection very carefully to see if you've been given any useful information, then add it to your bathroom wallpaper reject pile.

Hopefully you've now reached stage 3 - you have an agent, they like your corrections, and your manuscript is going out to publishers! Enjoy this time and don't get over excited or wish time would speed up. Sorry, but there might be further disappointment ahead. Publishers, like agents, have particular tastes. Added to that there are market trends, and a group of people called 'sales and marketing' who are paid by publishers to know about these trends and reject manuscripts, even if commissioning editors love them.

Stage 4: You've just hit the jackpot and a publisher is going to publish your book! This is definitely a time to celebrate and put the wallpapering on hold. It might be a year or more before the book comes out, so enjoy this time and come up with several more ideas for the next novel - because sadly, your days of having manuscripts rejected might not be over. If you have a two book deal, be happy in the knowledge that you will get another book published, sooner or later. Hopefully. I've known a few writers whose publishers have broken the contract - but it's rare, so don't worry about that for the time being...

Stage 5: However, if your deal is for one book only, here's a piece of sound advice -  KEEP  IN TOUCH WITH THE PUBLISHER! Make sure they like your next book idea before you write the whole thing. (I learnt this the hard way.) You may need to be very resilient. I've written 3 books since Deep Water, and so far have only a tenuous agreement (no contract signed yet) for the second one. As yet, I have no publishing offer on the third - but it's early days. And on the plus side, the rejections are getting much nicer. They love my writing, but... kind of thing.

I'm currently tweaking the fourth book, having no idea if it's any good or not, or if it is any good, whether it will ever tick the right boxes for any publisher or their sales and marketing team. At this point I have to say a massive thank you to my agent for believing in me and my writing, and still sending my books out there...

Anyway, after the latest publisher rejection, I was feeling really sorry for myself. In fact I was finding it hard not to cry. It was election day, which didn't help and I was in town to do some Christmas shopping, which didn't help either. I stomped along thinking writing is the only thing I'm good at, but if no one likes what I write, what is the point of me? That kind of thing. It was also pouring with rain and bitterly cold.

I passed a homeless man, sitting in a shop doorway, clutching a wet sleeping bag to try to keep himself warm. He was crying. I hate to see people cry, so I turned back. 'Nobody cares. Nobody f**king cares,' he said. 'I wish I was dead.' I couldn't think of anything to say to make him feel better, so just stayed to listen to him for a while. He talked about the election, and how he couldn't even vote because he hadn't got an address. We both agreed that Boris would win and his situation as a single homeless man was only going to get worse. 'It's like what Greta Thunberg said, all the promises are just window dressing - no one actually does ANYTHING!' he said.

Turned out he was an avid fan of Greta and worried about the future for the two children he had somewhere, which in his state, with no money, no place to live and a string of previous convictions, he would probably never see again. He started crying again and I felt like crying too.  'Man - look at the state of me!' he said. 'I've hardly any teeth left and nowhere even lets you in to go to the toilet. It's worse than being an animal. People like animals.'

I asked him about hostels and he told me he'd only have to do another two years (he's in his early thirties and has been homeless for two years already) before they found him a flat - 'so long as Boris doesn't make changes to the system when he gets in'. It was the best he could hope for, and he was clinging to that hope. In the end we just hugged and I said I hoped he'd get a place sooner than that. 'Thanks for listening,' he said. 'Have a good Christmas!'

I was choked. He'd taught me something very important. There are many levels of rejection and I'm incredibly lucky. I'm nowhere near the bottom of the reject pile.

If you're upset about this year's rejections, just write something else next year. It's what we writers do. And maybe send fewer Christmas cards and donate the money to a homeless charity, if you can.

Lu Hersey

Monday, 18 November 2019

Back to the stone age - by Lu Hersey

I love research. It saves me having to write anything and yet still feels like I'm working. And research can spark all kinds of ideas - even if you don't really need the information right now, you never know when you might use it in the future.

Which explains how I ended up on a flintknapping course for a day at Berrycroft Hub, in Oxfordshire. The family were mystified, but I told them being able to make a flint knife might be useful, come the revolution. My daughter remarked that come the revolution, we'd all still have kitchen knives. Obviously I ignored her.

My last bit of practical research was going on a Bronze Age dagger making course earlier this year at the same place. What I learned that day might not be much use in a post apocalyptic world without a handy supply of copper and tin, but it was very useful background for the book I was writing, set in the bronze age. Not that anyone in the book makes a bronze dagger, but if they'd suddenly needed to, I was prepared.

My current book (okay, current book idea) is set in the Mesolithic. So of course I wanted to find out how to knap flint in case my characters need to know. Anyway, just like the day spent bronze casting, it turned out to be a very interesting experience. Those stone age people were clever. Knapping flint is much harder that it looks.

Some archaeological artefacts we got to examine before attempting to make our own

The course is run by James Dilley, an experimental archaeologist and expert in ancient technology. James specialises in recreating objects from the past, and probably knows more about making polished stone hand axes and other stone age tools than anyone else in England. He even makes them for English Heritage documentary films, using stone age methods - with no 21st century short cuts.

Our main aim for the day was to make a flint hand axe. There are lots of examples of these in museums, as we've been making them for over a million years. James brought in several original artefacts for us to study and hold (you've no idea how exciting it is to hold a stone axe made 1.2 million years ago).  The fact people were making stone tools perfectly adequately during in all that time meant it had to be easy, right?

A hand axe made by an early hominid 1.2 million years ago

Wrong. Flint is hard and brittle. It often contains fossils and faults that mean the next whack of the stone at your flint rock might chip off a flake of flint, a shower of flint dust, or (in my case) half the axe by mistake. James demonstrated the art, chipping off flakes with amazing accuracy, and made a very passable stone hand axe in twenty minutes.

I ended up with half a badly formed hand axe and a bleeding thumb (accuracy using a stone to whack flint with is very important - a valuable lesson) over an entire afternoon - and that's after a morning of learning to handle flint well enough to make myself a flint hide scraper and a simple cutter. Looking at my broken hand axe and comparing it with a tool made by an early hominid over a million years ago, I have to admit the original was a whole lot better.

James and Harry the jackdaw examine my hand axe to see if it's salvageable

However, the stone age characters in my book will know all about the tools they make and use, and I'll try my best not to include nerdy passages of pure info dump about the process they used to make them. Practical research like this is invaluable - and really fun.

And possibly addictive. I've already booked on a course making containers from tree bark, just like Otzi the ice age hunter had with him when his body thawed out of the ice. And there's making prehistoric jewellery making one coming up that looks excellent...

All of which goes to explain why it takes me much longer to write a book than someone like Enid Blyton ever did. Okay, she might have written over 100 books, but I bet she couldn't make a flint hand axe.

Though sadly it seems, neither can I...

Lu Hersey