dorothystewartblog

about writing and life and God

A time for everything

It’s a glorious golden autumn day here in the East of England.

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The sun shines on trees still proudly waving their fluttering flags of autumn leaves. The builders clambering around scaffolding on a nearby house have cheerful music playing on their radio. There’s a huge removals van at the house opposite as my neighbour moves across town, and next week there will be a repeat as my neighbour on the other side also moves away.

I’ll miss them.

It’s a time of change – change all around me as autumn winds and rain take the last leaves off the trees, and my friends move away. But I’m still here and the basic things of my life don’t change.

I go to visit my husband in the care facility every few days and he is still there. I met my old neighbour in the supermarket yesterday and her husband, also suffering from dementia and diagnosed at much the same time as my husband, is still there. Yes, both are deteriorating visibly by the day, but both remain. It is indeed, as a famous book on dementia calls it, a long goodbye.

Ecclesiastes chapter 3 says it well: ‘There is a time for everything.’ This is the time for my current neighbours to move house. And for me to remain. There was a tram crash recently when a nineteen-year-old died, so this is the time for some people, inexplicably, incomprehensibly, to keep on holding on to life, and for others to lose it. And to be political, it is a time when some folk get the result they want (Brexit, Donald Trump) and others are shocked into fear and speechlessness.

And I don’t understand.

But I trust  that God does and that He knows what He’s doing.

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Time to move on

Have you ever found yourself in the wrong place?

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I have, often. I seem to have an unerring ability to err. I’m an enthusiastic sort of person and impetuous with it, so I can spot what I think is a good idea and then go haring after it, committing time and energy and resources to it… only to reach that horrid crash-and-burn place of thinking it was not such a good idea after all. And how did I get here: out on a limb. Up the Swannee without a paddle. Etcetera.

So there’s this book I wrote. And maybe shouldn’t have. And I thought it was going to be a trilogy. So I searched out books and maps and research materials, went on a research trip… And I wrote it. And hated it.

Rewrote it. Still hated it.

Tried a few new starts. Same result.

Gave it a rest. Came back to it. Managed 37,000 words I was comparatively happy with… then found myself staring at words I didn’t even want to read.

Crunch. How can I expect anyone else to read something I don’t want to? Not on.

But I’ve spent a year on it. And money. There’s a box of books. Some of it’s pretty good. Some it’s actually quite good. But…

And each time I went back to it, all I was doing was propelling myself further and further out on that branch.

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Out on a limb… where God did not want me to be.

Because that was the problem. Right from the start. I had started writing because I thought I needed to write another book. I didn’t wait on God. I didn’t ask and wait for an answer. I threw myself into NaNoWriMo and made myself work at it.

Yes, I got the first book published. And yes, people pushed for the next one. But God didn’t.

So now I’m climbing down, publicly, from the branch I got myself out on. I’ve packed away the manuscript and all the research materials, all the good stuff, all the resources. Maybe one day I’ll write it. Maybe not.

I wanted to write good, happy books to build up God’s women as well as entertain them. The latest book does not. It is dark. But then maybe where I am at the moment is dark. My husband is in the late stages of dementia. He doesn’t know who I am, who he is, where he is, and some days he is very distressed. It’s not a good place for him or me.

In our lives, we have valleys of the shadow of death to walk through and that’s where I am currently. I can maybe scrape together a grin to paste on when folk ask me how I am, but no way can I write an uplifting novel.

So I’m downing tools for the time being and concentrating on walking that valley with my husband. For those who have walked this far with me, I hope you won’t be disappointed about the book, and I hope there will be a much better in days to come. Meanwhile I would value your prayers.

 

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The power of the deadline

I have a deadline. Two, in fact. And both, insanely tight. This is good – for several reasons.

  1. Like many writers I am bone idle. No, I mean creative… I can spend hours gently daydreaming, gazing at lovely views (or nothing in particular) and letting my thoughts wander where they will, up hill and down dale. And not putting fingers to keyboard.
  2. I find it only too easy to say yes to everything anyone asks of me. Yes of course I’ll bring a cake to that church tea. Yes, I’ll help out at that event. Yes, I can drive that person to wherever. Yes, I’ll… do anything but sit home alone in front of the computer…
  3. I like to read… and I find I really cannot get into other people’s fiction when I’m trying to write fiction! It’s like being given the gift of a box of chocolates after you’ve binged all Easter Sunday on chocolate eggs and Cadbury creme eggs and chocolate cake and… you really don’t think you can face another chocolate ever again. (Of course I’ve never done that….)
  4. I’m afraid… of not being able to do it again. Yes, I know it happened with every book so far, and several times within the process of each. But it’s horrid. And not writing at all is one way to avoid it. But agreeing to a deadline makes me face it, and work through it.
  5. I’m afraid… of it not being as good as the last one. I’m afraid of running out of words. I’m afraid of diving so deeply into my story that I’ll get lost down there and drown and never come up again. I’m afraid of doing what I love to do more than anything else in the world: am I really allowed to do this? I’m afraid of discovering I don’t really like doing it at all… A deadline simply demands that I sit down and get on with it. Like a job of work. Word after word. One after the other. Just do it.
  6. And a deadline reminds me how afraid I am, and idle, and weak, and needy… and that I don’t need to worry about any of that because I’m a Christian writer who writes because I believe God gave me the gift and asked me to use it … for Him. I write overtly Christian books, deliberately, determinedly. To uplift and encourage God’s Christian women particularly. To entertain yes, but to give them a thoroughly good experience at the same time. Good in His terms. So if He wants me to do, He’ll have to help me. And He says He will:
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‘My Grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:9) and that’s fine with me. I’ve got plenty of weakness!

Oh, did I mention the deadlines? For Mizpah Ring Book 2: end of May; for Mizpah Ring 3: end of August. And the plan is publication of both books this year: Mizpah Ring 2 early September, and Book 3 early December. Oh yes, I’m going to need all the help I can get!

 

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Getting Ready

I have rearranged my study. I have sorted out the books on the shelves that face me when I’m at work at my desk and I’ve packed away the non-writing books, replacing them with relevant writing books and book files.

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Books packed away

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Research and admin folders

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Books to inspire!

And I’m beginning to feel better – ready to get down to work again on the novel.

I popped out to the supermarket to stock up on food and met my next-door neighbour as I was going in. I had come home from a meeting on Tuesday afternoon to discover that she had cut her own front lawn and then cut mine. She is slightly over eight months pregnant. Her last child weighed in on arrival at 10 lbs and she reckons this one will compete – so cutting grass astounded me. Just as well I was out! I’m sure I’d have scolded and protested!

She wouldn’t accept a lift home from the supermarket either. Walking, she said, would do her good. She preferred to be doing things. She was ready for the birth, she said. It’s time this one arrived.

And as I sort my study and lug heavy boxes of books into the storeroom, I recognise myself in my pregnant neighbour. I’m getting ready for the labour of getting Book 2 of the Mizpah Ring birthed and into the world. And like my neighbour, I’m impatient. Because it’s time!

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Day Ten: Going home

Home! After a 365 mile solo drive (if you don’t count Jesus) from the borders of Scotland down through England to Cambridge, then a sharp left turn till you almost hit the far eastern coast. Home. Whew.

And glad.

Sometimes, to paraphrase T.S.Eliot, it is necessary to take a wander back through the past and check it out and discover what it means now. And then look at where you are now and discover just how good it is – and recognise it for what it is: in my case, that where I am now is home.

Home means lots of different things to different people. I have a nomadic streak and I love new places and overnight billets – lovely hotels in locations like at Annandale Water. Waking up to beauty fills me with delight.

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View from my balcony at Annandale Water this morning

But home: that is something deeper, richer. Long ago, I put my roots down in the rich soil of Somerset, letting them go down deep – which made the pulling up when my husband died in 1994 and I had to move the more painful. I haven’t had the courage to ‘settle’ properly anywhere since then.

But driving into Westmoreland this morning, past the sign that said ‘Welcome to England’, I realised I have lived in England for 38 years. More than half my life. More than anywhere else. England is home, and Suffolk, and the town where I live, and the street, and the little house on that street with my cat waiting for me and the friend who was feeding her for me, and my church this evening, and … This all constitutes home.

And I’m glad. And grateful. And it’s time to let my little roots unfurl and go down into the welcoming soil of Suffolk. And, to mix the metaphor, it’s time for some nesting – nice things for the house to make it more ‘home’. Nice things for the garden… maybe some herbs… salads, tomatoes… food!

Home. Welcome home. At last.

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Day Nine: Serious snow, and evening sunshine

On the road again – and by 5.30p.m. I had clocked up 330 miles – and I’m not out of Scotland yet!

It’s been an interesting and challenging drive. I left Wick in sunshine but by the time I reached Berriedale, it was clear that there had been significant snow, and it was still falling.

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Looking back towards Berriedale

And the snow continued all the way, varying from white-out to pretty fluffy showers.

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Temperature dipped to 1 degree Centigrade

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At least the sheep have warm fleeces!

Even the hills of Perthshire were topped with snow, but down in the sunshine the temperature managed a balmy 9 degrees – very briefly!

I was glad to arrive at Annandale Water in sunshine and had a relaxing walk around the lake before tea.

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The prettiest service station in the UK?

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The terrace will be brilliant in the summer

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Day Eight: Snow, hail and daffodils

Spring is definitely here in Wick. The day began with a wander down to the library

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Wick Public Library

past the greatest mass of daffodils I’ve seen anywhere.

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Daffodils on the Academy Braes

I spent hours in the Caithness Archive Centre reading back copies of the newspaper I worked on during my gap year: The John O’Groat Journal – but I was researching the pre-war and war years. Wick was a busy place during the war. Because the aerodrome had been built before the war, it appeared on maps – so the Germans knew it existed and it received plenty of Luftwaffe attention – as did the houses nearby.

It began to snow as I walked back to my sister’s for lunch – the blurry bits are the snow!

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Snow!

And then I went back to the library for more research and came back in fierce hail!

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Deep hail outside the house

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Day Seven: To the end of the earth

That’s what it feels like – standing on the northernmost edge of the mainland of Britain, gazing out over island upon island studding the cold blue sea all the way to the horizon.

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View from the beach

John O’Groats. A tiny hamlet with hotel, harbour and a few shops – one of which has the best stock of Scottish-related books I’ve ever seen.

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Books and more lovely books!

And I’m delighted to say, they requested stocks of both When the Boats Come Home and Mizpah Ring so my sister and I went out there today to gaze at the view, deliver the books, buy some others and some gifts for the kind folk who have been feeding my cat Lucy while I’ve been away.

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This is the shop where you’ll find those fabulous books

And have lunch – with glorious views over the Pentland Firth across to Orkney.

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The Storehouse, John O’Groats

We also went exploring, round an old mill built in 1901 and fitted out by our great-grandfather, millwright Donald Miller.

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At Huna, near John O’Groats 

All useful background for the next book!

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Day Six: Sharing the history

Caithness Horizons is a fabulous museum in Thurso on the north coast of Scotland and tonight, I was there as the guest of the Caithness Family History Society.

Chair, Janet Mowat, had said to my sister that where family historians take family stories which may or may not be fact and try to find out which they are, I take family stories which are fact and deliberately turn them into fiction.

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Janet and me

So the focus tonight was on the facts – the family stories that underpin both When the Boats Come Home and The Mizpah Ring. And in return, I got some great stories of World War Two providing local colour and humour for the next book.

Book sales and tea and shortbread rounded off the evening, and as we left, I stopped off to look at the amazing Pictish symbol stones – from the 5th to 9th centuries.

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The Ulbster Stone

 

 

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Day Five: I love research!

I’ve had a wonderful day – and that’s just the weather! Yes, seriously, my sister and I have come back sunburnt after a great day exploring the very special places we knew as children, down the coast at Berriedale and on the Duke of Portland’s estate at Langwell.

Our grandfather was the last blacksmith there

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Smithy and blacksmith’s cottage, Berriedale

and our aunt married the son of the head gardener – yes, there is an amazing formal walled garden this far north, and the current gardeners have come from a famous National Trust property in the south of England to look after it.

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Winter beds, a blaze of colour in summer

As young children – aged up to about 5 and 6 – we ran free on the estate and in the gardens, and today we retraced our memories – and did some very useful research for Book 2 of The Mizpah Ring. Late in World War Two, Number 9 Company of the Canadian Forestry Corps were based at Langwell, tasked with cutting down the forest and supplying the war effort with essential wood. Some traces of their stay can still be discerned:

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Recreation hall

We had a lot of fun scouting out the various buildings and checking things out with people we encountered.then we went over the swing bridge

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You need to choose your company carefully on these things – not people who delight in bouncing!

to the beach:

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And then came home via Dunbeath’s Bay Owl Restaurant where we had a cup of tea with one of the finest views in Britain!

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