Tuesday, 22 December 2009

7 ways to keep your sanity in the festive season

Christmas is getting very close now. Have you finished your Christmas shopping? Have you started? Are you looking forward to the day? Even if you are organised and optimistic, the rush to create the perfect Christmas can get to us all. Here's my list of how to keep your sanity in the festive season.

1. Be a child.

This probably comes to some of us easier than to others but in our attempts to organise everything to the 'enth degree, we can forget to actually enjoy the whole thing. So take some time to remember what you liked about Christmas as a child, be it overdressing the Christmas tree with baubles that don't necessarily co-ordinate, watching the Wizard of Oz (even though you can basically perform it word for word), or diving into a pile of presents and ripping off the wrapping paper with no thoughts of tidying up.

2. Be grateful

Christmas is probably the most materialistic of celebrations and a time of year when we add to our belongings en masse. We can come to concentrate so much on what we'll get and what we'll give, that we forget to look at what we already have in our lives. Take a moment to think of what you already have that you're grateful for.

3. Don't do a Delia

In a culture which forcefeeds us celebrity chefs, eating plans and cookery slots on This Morning, it sometimes seems that to be a success we have to have all the dressings and culinary implements and herby oils available on the market. Mashed potato is boring, roasties are so last year. Turkey just isn't fashionable unless you've shoved your hand under its skin and given it a good grope. Relax. If you like your turkey plain, that's fine. If roasties and peas are your thing, excellent. You don't have to be a domestic goddess a'la Nigella. Cook what you want to eat.

4. Time out

Not just for screaming five year olds, time out can be invaluable for us grown-ups too. Scream into a cushion. Kick a ball around (the kids will enjoy that). Slap a snowman. Whatever it takes (legally) to release some frustration, go for it. Everyone needs time out now and then.

5. Worse case scenario

Perspective is a wonderful thing but often it escapes us in the run up to Christmas. If your fears are getting the better of you, then take a moment to sit down and work out the worse case scenario. What is the very very worst that could happen? So that present that you ordered online doesn't arrive in time for Christmas. It will be just as welcome a few days later. What if your cooking rota, that you've planned with military precision, falls apart on the day? Nobody will starve from waiting an extra half an hour. So Auntie Betty doesn't like her present. Give her an extra sherry and remember next year that blue just isn't her colour.

6. Brainstorm

Is there too much to remember? Have you too much to do? If your mind is spinning with the mass of jobs to carry out, things to buy and people to ring to make it a perfect day, then have a brainstorm. Write down all the jobs, all the purchases, and all the people then tick them off as you complete each one. It might also be handy to write down any emergency numbers you might need like out of hours doctor and chemist, friend and family numbers just in case you mislay your address book, and useful numbers like taxi firms too.

7. Breathe

Not as obvious as it sounds. The power of breath is overlooked for the most part but if all else fails, take a deep breath in, count to ten, breathe out and smile.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Oh the weather outside is frightful

But the fire is so delightful,
And since we've no place to go,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Can you tell that I'm feeling festive yet? In the run up to Christmas, I find my writing time is overrun with so many things that demand my attention. For the most part, it's child related - present buying for my children, Christmas decorations for my children to ooh and aah over, Christmas plays starring my children and chocolate filled advent calendar opening by my children. There's also present buying for friends and family, the normal housework which is bulked out slightly by the pre holiday cleaning and clearing, and festive planning.

Still, my writing commitments continue to call. I'm currently writing a murder mystery play for an am dram group I've known for decades. It's set in a zoo and I have the added bonus of being able to write for known actors. I love to write the characters to suit the voices of the cast. On most evenings, you can find me tapping away on the keys as 'Death on the Wild Side' takes shape. I've warned the group involved that they'll require a gorilla suit and a Lara Croft outfit.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Feeling festive yet?

It seemed that no sooner had the Hallowe'en decorations and fireworks disappeared from the shops, than the Christmas cards and paraphenalia were put in their place. In past years, this has thoroughly depressed me and I've lived in denial until at least the middle of the month, only admitting that the holiday break was about to arrive when I celebrated the winter solstice on 21st December.

This year, however, I have to admit that I'm feeling fully festive. I keep catching myself humming 'Let it snow' and 'Santa baby'. I actually started my Christmas shopping in November this year (a miracle in itself).

I've come to the conclusion that what has depressed me in past years has been the amount of money that I felt had to spend on Christmas - presents, food, outings. This year, we're concentrating on spending less but enjoying more.

Having lost a little weight, I will be recycling my Christmas wardrobe. I can now fit comfortably into a 1950s vintage dress that belonged to my mum, which goes excellently with a jewellery set I made last year, and another vintage find, a marcasite daisy ring that fits perfectly with the current trend for cocktail rings.

Christmas will be spent at our home with a menu that suits our palate and our pocket rather than bowing to the pressure to cook the full on turkey dinner.

There'll be less presents this year but they'll be chosen with more care, ensuring that when we open them there are no awkward moments when we try to pretend that they're just what we wanted.

We're even making our own Christmas cards. A couple of days ago, in a storm of glue and glitter (which I'm still removing from various areas of the lounge), my children had a wonderful time creating cards for Grandma.

All in all, Christmas this year will be about family and spending time with those who matter to us, not the people we feel we need to impress or are obliged to entertain.

Enjoy your break, whatever you do. Remember to breathe, and smile.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Writing the old fashioned way

When I was preparing for my November Nanowrimo writing session this year, I decided to write my novel with pen and paper, rather than type it up on my computer.

There has always seemed something luxurious and magical about writing by hand. I find myself becoming so involved in the story that I don't stop to think 'what next' which fits in perfectly with the Nanowrimo ethic of 'just write'.

The temptation to read back is less, partly because of my ornate handwriting which becomes a mesh of loops when I'm writing quickly, but mostly because by writing the words down by hand, I've lived the experience of what I've created and it stays with me. There's no reason, therefore, to read back at this stage. Editing will come later.

The other delight in doing this, especially if like me you use a hardback pad to write in, is seeing your book literally unfold. It's not just a computer file to click on, it's a physical, graspable object that you can flick through to see page (hopefully) after page of your writing.

I have to admit that it isn't so easy to keep the word count but writing like this takes me back to the creative child I was who didn't worry about the length of a sentence or whether that should be a colon or a semi colon. I just wrote, without fear or judgement.

Have a go. Writing by hand is a skill many of us have lost in this age of affordable computers and mobile phone note applications. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The 'No but' Monster

As you know, November is my month for Nanowrimo - that is, writing a novel in a month. The premise is that you don't hold yourself back editing (re-editing), worrying over chapter plans, character names or anything else that might distract you from the actual process of writing. You just go for it, ploughing ahead, accepting the nonsense and cliched with the possibly brilliant writing too.

Last night, armed with a pen and an A4 pad against the beastly 'No but' Monster and with several cups of coffee, I produced just short of 1,000 words. This was actually the first chapter which my voice of writing reason tells me is too short for a chapter. Ignoring both the monster and the voice, I drew a line under what I had written and tonight will start on the second chapter. I'm behind the daily word count target set by Nanowrimo at the moment but there's still plenty of time to catch up so keep your fingers crossed for me.

Begone ye beasts of procrastination and doubt. My pen is mightier than thou. Well, it will be once I've had another coffee.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

And we're off!

Nanowrimo starts today. I know what I'm writing this year and have the first five chapters planned out of a fantasy novel called 'Open Haven'.

Good luck to all my fellow Nanowrimers. Bring it on!

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Autumn Inspiration

Last weekend we went to Manchester to visit the University Museum but just as we arrived the fire alarm went off. We spent half an hour standing in the rain, listening to the drone of the siren. However, it did give me time to take some photos.

Monday, 26 October 2009

All My Menus

If you're anything like me, you probably have trouble laying your hands on your local takeaway menus when you fancy a kebab or Chinese at home. Perhaps you have a drawer filled to overflowing with menus that could really be used to better effect. Or you could be ultra organised, filing away all your menus, but just can't recall which Indian takeaway did the perfect curry you had a couple of months ago.

All My Menus is here to help. Enter your postcode and the kind of takeaway you're interested in (e.g. Indian) and you'll be taken to not only a list of corresponding fast food outlets but also their latest menu. You can even register on the site, leaving comments (such as that top curry), recommendations and adding your favourite menu. This service is offered completely free.

Why am I promoting a site that has nothing to do with writing? It's run by a lovely man, my husband.

Have a look.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The name of evil

Mwahahahahaha... Sorry. An evil laugh seemed apt. I have a problem. Having got past the issue of procrastination in planning my novel for NaNoWriMo in November, I now have another obstacle to tackle. What do I call my villains? I have four. At the moment, they're all rather non descript but giving them a name will help me to begin to paint their portraits as such.

So how do you go about naming a villain? Are you ironic, as in the popular American TV vampire Angel? Do you go for the obvious like Stan Lee's Doctor Victor Von Doom from the Fantastic Four storyline? Where do you start?

If I look down the list of the Telegraph's 50 greatest villains in literature, I find alliterative names such as Velma Valento (Farewell My Lovely), the White Witch (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and Milo Minderbender (Catch 22). There are names that point out physical characteristics, Captain Hook for instance. There are sinister sounding names like Sauron (Lord of the Rings), Voldemort (Harry Potter) and Hannibal Lector (whom we all know of course as Hannibal the cannibal).

Years ago when I had misplaced yearnings to be an actress, I attended a two day workshop on Shakespearean acting. I very quickly realised that this was not where my talents lay. However my writer's mind retained one of the exercises we were given to act out. Each enthusiastic workshop attendant was given a slip of paper bearing a name. I can't remember exactly what mine was but it definitely began with an F. We were then asked to decide whether our character was one of the good guys or a villain based solely on their name. I decided I was a villain. I was wrong. Our instructor told us that the soft sounding letters generally started the names of the heroes whereas the names of villains tended to begin with the harder sounding letters such as T and D. I can see where he was coming from but as I look down the Telegraph's list I see villains called Shere Khan (Jungle Book) and Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes).

Perhaps a villain should have an unusual name like Steerpike (Gormenghast) or a grand name like Count Fosco (Woman in White). Suppose you throw all that grandiose, obvious malarkey out of the window and just choose a normal name like Fred. That's what Margaret Atwood did in The Handmaid's Tale.

So I shall continue my search for fitting names for my villains. The name Prosper is beginning to appeal to me for the head villain, a tall, golden haired man with a booming voice. You see, give me a name and the portrait follows. I just have to 'christen' the other three now. Decisions, decisions.


Hallowe'en, or Samhain, has many faces for me, especially as a daughter and a mother.

It's said that on this day spirits of those who have passed return to us, but even if you don't believe this, Hallowe'en is an excellent time to think of loved ones who are no longer with us and celebrate their lives. That may be by visiting their grave, lighting a candle and placing it by their photo or just taking the time to think about them. I'll be remembering my parents and other family members.

As the beginning of the Celtic year and the onset of winter, Hallowe'en is also a time to look forward to what we want to achieve, what we want to change, and what has worked so well over the past year that we want to continue it on.

For my children of course, Hallowe'en is a time of magic and fun. My two have their costumes sorted, ready to greet the trick or treaters at our front door with excited giggles and a bag of sweets. We'll be cooking together, talking about their late grandparents and playing some games too. We have our pumpkin ready to carve and I'll use the innards to make some pumpkin soup.

Pumpkins and berries bring their glorious colours to this time of year. They lend themselves well to table centres and wreaths. Orange chrysanthemums can look great in a scrooped out pumpkin. Tiny pumpkins or gourds can be tied to name cards and used as place settings for your guests. Spray apples golden, leaving a leaf attached, to add to your decorations and ensure gold in your purse.

However you celebrate this weekend, have a wonderful time.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


In the run up to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November, I'm attempting to put together a chapter plan.

I have the basic idea. I have the characters mostly worked out although the details of the villains still evade me. Then I started on the chapter plan. Five chapters in, I lost my momentum. It's not a case of which path to take next but rather 'is there a path because I can't see one?'.

And suddenly other things seemed to call to me, drawing away my attention. There's always the inevitable pile of ironing, that book I keep starting and putting down again, the painting I promised to do for my daughter. On and on, the list is endless of reasons to 'not' work on my writing.

This morning I gave myself a strict talking to. I do that at home, when the children aren't around. If I did it in public, the men in white coats might take me away or at the very least I'd probably scare some small children. "Fiona," I said to myself. "No more excuses. Twenty minutes every day. You can manage that. Twenty minutes to commit to your writing and planning this novel. Are you with me?" I was, er, am. I will, I will, I will take twenty minutes each day to write - no excuses. The ironing can wait (even if the pile is beginning to lean) and the children can have school dinners instead of packed lunches.

Twenty minutes isn't much out of my day. I can do it! Now I'll just feed the guinea pigs first, and start on that book and...

Monday, 12 October 2009

The countdown is on!

There are 20 days until Haven Crystal Gifts closes down. On the blog, there is an article each day until the end of the month on one of their lovely items.

Everything in their store is reduced. Grab a bargain while you can.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

7 ways to keep your sanity as a work at home mum

1. Set yourself a flexible routine

I've lost count of the times that I've sat down to work then been distracted by the pile of ironing looming over my shoulder (it's actually in the corner at the other side of the room but I can feel it watching me). If it's not the ironing, it's an interesting website I've come across or planning the children's tea or... The list of potential distractions is immense and endless so creating a slot of time when you will commit your attention solely to your business (and adhering to that commitment) is a useful and valuable habit to get into. Of course there will always be days when your child is off school/nursery ill or some other disruption forces itself into your slot and that is where the flexibility comes in, enabling you to move part of your slot to the evening when your children are asleep or earlier in the morning before the rest of the family gets up.

2. Write a blog!

Blogging doesn't have to be expensive. Sites like Blogger and Wordpress provide this service for free. I'm what you could call a blogging obsessive. I have one for each of my home businesses which I update regularly. I use them for publicity and to keep returning customers in the loop. They're an excellent way to add personality to your websites too.

3. Network with other WAHMs

As a WAHM (work at home mum) myself, I sometimes feel isolated and neglected by the outside world, especially as I'm the sole employee of my two home businesses. Joining an online network of your peers can be the answer. There are websites and forums for fellow business women such as Giant Potential which for me has opened up a whole new support network, provided useful business advice, shared experience and raised visibility of my businesses. I no longer bend my husband's ear. I log on instead.

4. Relocate

It's a beautiful, sunny day and you're stuck at the computer rattling away on the keys. The four walls of your office space seem grey, grey, grey. Relocate. Go sit in the garden. Go to your local library. I can often by found in one of our local cafes, making notes on my mobile phone. Just because you operate a home business doesn't mean that you have to actually work at home all the time.

5. Take a break

Not quite the same as relocating. What I mean is 'take a lunch break'. It's easy to carry on working through and munch on a sandwich as you type but there are real, justifiable reasons for taking a lunch break, even just for half an hour. Firstly, crumbs and keyboards don't mix. I know this from personal experience. Secondly, taking a break enables you to return to your work refreshed and often with a solution to the dilemma that has been bugging you all morning. Finally, home workers deserve a break too.

6. Park the guilt

Harping back to that pile of ironing I mentioned, you will always find things you could be doing for your family instead of working. You could be treating your toddler to a trip to the seaside instead of leaving them with the childminder. Your school age children would love for you to bake them a cake instead of strain your eyes over the yearly tax return. You could paint their bedrooms, tidy up your partner's side of the bed, and spend hours planning sumptuous evening meals and delightful packed lunches. I've come to the conclusion that guilt is just one element of the juggling act of parenthood. Don't beat yourself up.

7. Connect with your community

Another answer to those feelings of isolation (and often envy of your friends who go out to work, with their capsule wardrobes and coffee bar lunches) is to find a way to combine your home business with reaching out to your local community. Whether it's getting involved in a school fair, offering your services to mums you meet at school or publicising through the local press, making that connection can not only provide you with extra support and raise more business, but it can also create a feeling of being part of something bigger.