Earth closets

I spent a pleasant few hours in the archive room today – I was making my way through a huge tome that was the minutes of the meetings of the Board of Guardians of Blean Union Workhouse from 1883 to 1886. It really is a magnificent book, about 18 inches tall and six inches thick, all handwritten in exquisite handwriting (which actually inspired me to order a new calligraphy pen; we’ve really lost the art of beautiful handwriting these days!).

Each entry begins with details about the date, the purpose of the meeting (usually the ordinary Board meeting), and who was present. The accounts are detailed, and then any correspondence dealt with. These meetings were held every two weeks, and each entry consists of around four or five pages.

I found myself focusing on the Guardians themselves on this read, wondering who these people were who had such power in their hands, what they thought of the Inmates and their duties, and what type of person they were. Some names were familiar to me. Names such as Iggulden and Wacher are still known in the local town as businessmen. Prescott-Westcar, the then owner of Strode Park (the local large estate), showed up as a Guardian partway through, although he doesn’t seem to have attended the Board meetings.

They were obviously shrewd businessmen, who believed in getting value for money. I came across an ongoing argument with a firm who had repaired the cooking equipment, and put in a bill for £53. Messages went back and forth, asking them to account for the cost, and as their claims did not tally with what the Master believed had been done, instructions were given to pay £43 rather than the total price.

There were several complaints to local tradespeople (especially the baker) for inferior quality goods, ranging from bread and flour (unsuitable for use) to problems with a coffin (although later the tradesman was allowed a small sum for a nameplate for each coffin).

The plumbing was a big issue. There were three water closets, one being by the Board room, one on the Elderly Women’s landing and one on the Elderly Men’s landing, and several earth closets. During the period I looked at, arrangements were made for modifications to the building, adding a drying room for the laundry, a drying room for earth for the earth closets, and new earth closets (Moules’ earth closets) to be built on the boundary of the property.

There were problems with the building works, when the builder who won the tender with the lowest price asked for an extra £15, and was not only told no, but had the tender taken away from him, and then later when the builder in charge was slow to complete the works.

There were problems with the Medical Officer not attending to a Pauper, and various other complaints, so that he was asked to resign and a new officer found. One of the Receiving Officers died unexpectedly, and a new one was appointed – he also took on the duties of registration of births and deaths in the district, and administering vaccinations.

There were a few pieces of good news – on a few occasions a note of thanks was made to local residents for gifts of books or periodicals for use by the Inmates, and when one lady was thanked for playing the Harmonium at services, she replied that the instrument was becoming worn out. She was despatched to a music shop in Canterbury to choose a new Harmonium, at a cost of £14.

Having looked at the names of the men attending the meetings, and noting that John Collard consistently attended the meetings as their Chairman, and was elected unanimously every year, I was surprised to notice that in August 1885 he was missing. At the following meeting, two weeks later, the Board were expressing their shock at his death, and sending condolences to his family.

So it seems these men (yes, all men, as far as I could see) worked hard to ensure the Inmates received what was due to them. They claimed support from locals who had family in the Workhouse (although one man was excused when it was revealed his wife had committed adultery) and arranged for movement between Workhouses where appropriate, people being sent to their own area for support where possible.

The only direct mention of any of the Inmates I’ve been researching was when the eldest of the five orphans was apprenticed to a local builder, but it was interesting to read the reports of the papers being signed.

It’s been a long time since I last went to the library to do some research, but I do enjoy it, and I do feel these people’s stories, so meticulously recorded, deserve to be told. I really must make the journey more often.


Back to the workhouse

It’s been a long time, but next week I’m hoping to get back to the library for some more research on Blean Union Workhouse. I started the project by researching specific people who were in the workhouse on a specific date. Having managed to get quite a long way in tracing their stories, I turned my attention the workhouse itself.

The problem that I’m having, apart from the fact that the library is nearly an hour’s drive away, is that there is so much material it’s hard to know where to start and what to pull out. There are many huge books that are handwritten minutes of the Guardians’ meetings, containing regular reports on the financial status and also correspondence and other notes. There are files of letters. I’ve already spent time ploughing through the admissions registers.

There is so much data there, but the challenge is pulling useful, interesting information from it. Bearing in mind that it’s all hand-written, sometimes difficult to read, and individual resources are not indexed, I’m reduced to reading, making notes of interesting anecdotes within the records and looking for some sort of narrative thread.

I’m trying to concentrate my search around the 1880s to 1890s, as that’s when the families I researched were there, but I’m wondering whether I should try to make it a general history of the workhouse as well. There is a thesis available on the workhouse, but that seems to concentrate on earlier times, and sets the workhouse in the context of the society surrounding it, rather than focusing on the workhouse itself.

On the other hand, what in that history is likely to be interesting and relevant to readers? I can’t imagine that a detailed record of the finances would be interesting to read, and I don’t have the ability to pull out the deeper significance of them anyway. I’m interested in stories about the people, but such stories are likely to be short anecdotes rather than a long cohesive thread.

Any suggestions would be very welcome. In the meantime, I need to find the information I need to book a desk and order a resource for next week’s planned visit.


Making real progress

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, but I’ve been busy elsewhere. On Saturday I declared Part 1 of Gods V Heroes to be finished (at least for this draft) and printed it out. Yesterday, I did the same to Part 2. Now there’s only Part 3 to finish off.

I’m not saying it’s complete, or brilliant, but I am saying that I’ve got it to the point where I want feedback from a beta reader or two before continuing. I’ve also been working on it consistently since November, and so would appreciate a break from it for a while, preparing for this year’s nanowrimo.

It feels like I’ve been working on this forever, but in reality it’s only nine months. I’d like to be able to produce my writing a lot faster than that, but it’s a good start – and better than the several years in which I’ve been working on the babies idea.

It’s been great fun working on this novel, with its large cast, and I’ve learned a lot. I’m hoping that a lot of that learning will be carried forward, so that the next is produced more efficiently, with better writing in less time.

Will I publish this one? That depends partly on feedback from beta readers, but at this point I think I’ll probably try to get it polished as much as I can and then test the waters. I fully intend publishing under a pseudonym, so there’s not much to lose, and at least it would give me practical experience of that side of the publishing world as well.

Will I have it edited first? I’ll definitely enjoy testing the waters and seeing what an editor can offer. The rest will depend on funds and prices and services, but I certainly intend to look into professional support.


The learning curve is a treadmill

I spent the day wrestling with software, achieving in the day about half of what I could have achieved in a couple of hours using software I’m already familiar with. It brought home to me something I’d been thinking about this morning, in relation to my running. The learning curve is a treadmill.

You know how we talk about something having a steep learning curve? It’s not just climbing up the slope that’s the problem, it’s also not slipping back down. It’s very easy, when learning a new skill, to put minimum effort into it, so that you don’t actually improve. Instead, you remain at the frustrated stage, until eventually you give up completely.

It’s important to put enough effort in to make progress up the slope. If you’re regularly using your new skills, and building on them, then eventually you will reach the top of the slope and it will all be a lot easier.

It’s exactly the same with my novel. I’ve reached a stage now where there’s lots still to be done, but I know what it is. I could amble along, picking it up now and then, doing a few bits and then forgetting about it again for a while. But I know that if I do that, I’ll keep losing the thread, losing enthusiasm, the words will stop flowing and eventually I’ll grind to a complete halt.

It’s so easy to struggle on the old way, because learning is an effort, and ignore the benefits that learning will bring. But I’m determined that I will soon be able to use this new software to produce well laid-out books for print, and that means that I need to be prepared to take longer at this stage.

And in the same way, I’m going to put in the effort needed for running and for my novel, so that rather than staying at the same level or drifting below, I can really make progress.


Routine is key

I’ve known for a while now that routine is key to getting things done. It’s no good hoping it will get done at some point; if it needs to get done, build it into a routine and stick to the routine, until it gets to the point where it’s easier to do it than to break routine.

I’ve struggled recently to find time for my own projects. During nanowrimo week, I’d quite happily sit and write in the evenings, but that stopped working on 1st December, with the distractions of preparing for Christmas and then everything else that turns up.

I’m busy working during the day, much as I sometimes feel like ignoring everything else and getting on with writing. Early in the morning is exercise time – by 8:30 today I’d already done half an hour in the gym, half an hour in the swimming pool and taken the dog for a walk.

But over breakfast, and before I start work, I’ve started opening up Scrivener and reading through my novel, seeing where I’ve got up to, what sections are missing and what sections need tidying. That seems to work much better for me, and I usually end up doing more than just reading through. And then often I’m thinking about it during the day and ready to continue working on it in the evenings.

Friday lunchtimes is another part of the routine. I finish working at lunchtime, then take my notebook down to a local cafe and sit there with a mug of tea and a plate of chips, and work.

If I find my concentration waning towards lunchtime, that’s my cue to get up and start doing some housework before preparing food. Same in the early evenings, and any other time I’m not fully focused and productive. This means I have less to feel guilty over when I do sit and write.

And so the routines gradually improve and I gradually get things done. Still aiming to have a complete, readable draft of my novel ready as soon as I can. It’s starting to drag on far too much, and that’s how these things sabotage themselves. I need to get back to the babies story, and I need to know I have this one ready to rest.

Within the next six weeks is my target timeframe. Then a couple of months to get back to babies and a couple more to start thinking about the next nano project.

All very well, but that does mean I have to keep focused, head down and working. So teabreak over!


Am I crazy?

I’m having one of those days… or couple of days… you know the kind where you’re doubting yourself? Where you wonder if you’re actually crazy and there’s no point in trying something because you won’t succeed anyway?

I have two big projects I’m working on at the moment. I’m halfway through my first novel (I’ve been halfway through for ages now; it’s not that I’m not working at it, but the more I do the more I realise there is to do, so the goalpost keeps moving) and I’m intending to do an ultramarathon in a couple of years’ time.

So as I procrastinate my time away until there’s little time to do what has to be done, let alone what I would like to do, and as I struggle to hit the speed target I’m aiming for, I’m wondering if I’ve aimed too high, if I’m ever going to be able to write a big project/run a long race.

But you know what? I need to have faith in myself, to keep pushing on regardless of how I might feel occasionally. I’ve broken my running target down into manageable chunks – 10ks and a couple of half marathons this year, add in a full marathon or two next year and then the ultra – and I need to keep ploughing on with the novel, concentrating on getting the story told first, before I worry about how well I’m telling it. As I go through, I figure out things that need to be done earlier in the story, which is why the project keeps growing, but it’s all experience that I can make use of with future writing projects – they won’t all need this level of focus, or at least – just like running – I’ll get better results for the same amount of focus.

So maybe I am crazy, but I can live with that. And I’m going to keep running and keep writing, regardless of how my brain throws up negativity. Because stopping is more painful than carrying on.


Plans and ultras

With the a-z challenge out of the way, it’s back to normal. And this means getting back to finishing my novel, considering the other one, and planning and training for an ultramarathon. A what? where did that come from?

I’m in a couple of running groups on facebook, and someone on one of those posted that she was halfway through the Pony Express Ultra.

Now for some reason the name caught my attention, and so I looked it up. It’s based in my favourite part of the country, the New Forest, and it’s a 60 mile/2 day run, through the forest, on trails, cycle paths and very occasionally roads. It involves navigating through the countryside, at a walk or run, and a night out camping in a sports hall.

Sounds fun, no?

I’ve only run as far as a half marathon so far, so I’m being sensible. I’m too late for this year, obviously, and I’m not even going to think about doing it next year. But the year after? I don’t see why not.

It’s a big challenge, that’s for sure. But it’s a challenge that has me excited at the thought, and I consider it manageable. After all, a couple of years ago 10k was a big challenge. So this year I’m doing several 10ks, I’ve done a half marathon, and I’m looking into doing a second HM. The particular one I’m looking at is described as “challenging”, which originally put me off a little, but hey, if I’m heading for a two day ultra, what’s scary about an undulating half?

Next year I’m planning to do a marathon or two – looking at the Kent Roadrunner as a possible first – and then the year after it will be the ultra.

It means building up my long runs, adding in at least one more run a week, running more trail routes and getting much more serious about getting into shape. That doesn’t scare me. I keep feeling it should, but I really enjoyed the long runs building up to the half, and felt sorry when it was all over. Now I have a good excuse to build back up again.

I also have a new pair of shoes for road work, to go with my new trail shoes I bought recently. So I’m all set to go!

I did a 10k race on Monday, so allowing myself to take it easy for a couple of days, but then back to the three runs/three swims a week from tomorrow, building in a fourth run from next week, and increasing the distance. My running is getting faster at the moment thanks to some podcasts I’ve been using, which are working on my cadence, but the beauty of an ultra is that distance trumps speed.

I woke up a couple of mornings ago, the day after completing a 10k, and thought to myself: I just ran fast(ish) for an hour yesterday without stopping. And recently I ran for over two and a half hours without stopping. That’s absolutely incredible. And now I’m thinking of doing it for several hours and over two days. There’s still a long way to go until I’m ready for it, but bring it on! Nearly two years of hard work to go before I get there, but I’m looking forward to it.


Z is for zest

Posted as the final post in the a-z challenge – apologies for the lateness!

Z is for Zest. Or Zeal. Both words meaning enthusiasm, excitement, passion. It’s hard to get anything done without these. And if you do have a zest for something it’s hard not to do it.

Finding that zest for life is important. What really makes you sit up and take notice? What makes your heart beat faster, makes you feel awake and eager?

Years ago, I generally felt listless, without much enthusiasm. Then I went out – to an antiques valuation session for the local radio, to be precise – and suddenly felt wide awake and full of excitement. Not necessarily for the antiques, you understand, but because I love radio, having been part of hospital radio for a few years, and being back among the technology and the crowds reminded me of something I’d lost.

Now I feel to some extent I’m walking around in a fog again, or at least mist, but at least it occasionally lifts and I get a glimpse of that zest for life. The secret is to recognise it, recognise the source of it, and steer yourself towards it, so that it can shine through the fog and warm up every aspect of your life.


Y is for yearn

Posted as part of the A-Z challenge.

Do you have a yearning for anything? I have a yearning to have my novel finished, and to run a marathon. Both are very possible; both involve a lot of hard work. Work that won’t get done without the drive to do it. What causes that drive? The yearning.

It’s yearning that drives our lives; yearning for a better, more comfortable life, maybe. Without that longing for something, we would be content to stay exactly as we are.

Yet sometimes we yearn for other things when we should be content with what we have. If yearning is driving us to do better, it’s good. If it’s driving us to forget the good things we already have, then it’s bad.


X is for (e)Xpert

Posted as part of the A-Z challenge. With a slight cheat because I couldn’t come up with any meaningful comments about a xylophone.

Are you expert in anything? I’ve always wanted to be an expert, but somehow I seem to know a bit about a lot of things but not everything about any one thing.

But you know what? That’s not such a bad thing. Yes, it’s good to know a single subject in depth, but sometimes, it’s important to see the links between subjects; to be able to combine two or more subjects and find something new.

As a writer, I can call on all sorts of topics and meld them. As an editor, I have a good general awareness, whatever the subject matter. I’m not just stuck with one tool to use; I can select from a range of tools, and consider their relative merits.

So while I’d still really like to be a complete expert in one area, until one jumps out at me as the one I really, really need to become expert in, I’ll remain jack of all trades and master of none. Or maybe I’ll just call myself a general expert. Do you think that would work?