A Very English Pudding 1

Figgy Dowdy(or Figgy Pudding).

Having made a reasonable post-WW2 bacon and onion roly-poly a la my Nan recently I’m going further back in time  to the eighteenth century to attempt to make the wonderfully named Figgy Dowdy.

The Figgy Dowdy, described by James Martin as ‘a rib-sticking dessert for hearty appetites’, was originally made on ships in the eighteenth century and contains a healthy glug of the sailor’s favourite tipple, rum.

In Patrick O’Brian’s novel Post Captain, published in 1972, the crew described how the pudding was made onboard ship:

‘We take ship’s biscuit, put it in a stout canvas bag –’ said Jack.

‘Pound it with a marlin-spike for half an hour –’ said Pullings.

‘Add bits of pork fat, plums, figs, rum, currants,’ said Parker.

‘Send it to the galley, and serve it up with bosun’s grog,’ said Macdonald.

Using a wooden spoon instead of a marlin spike (although that might be interesting) I’m going to use a version of the recipe that doesn’t use either pork fat or ship’s biscuit (aka hardtack) and is cooked in a shirt sleeve rather than the canvas bag employed by O’Brian’s sailors. It’s pretty close to that published by Mrs Beeton in 1861 for Victorian cooks so should taste reasonably authentic. Using the shirt sleeve will make for some rather interesting photos.

So, enough of the chatter, time to get on with it.

Stage 1: Fruit soaking in grog overnight.


2. The mix.


3. The loaf, ready for wrapping.

Pud 2

4. And finally after the foil, the shirt sleeve


5. Into the pot to steam for two hours


6. The finished pudding

FD finished

My tasters said it was like a cross between a Spotted Dick and Bread Pudding and, no thanks, they could only manage one small slice at a time. It’s easy to see why it was popular with hungry seamen; it would certainly have filled them up on those long voyages. My husband said he was glad he didn’t have to climb up to the crow’s nest with all that stodge weighing him down. Hmm … I do hope that was directed at the pudding and not my cooking.

James Martin’s recipe can be found here. A more authentic version using pork fat and hardtack can be found here and the great Mrs Beeton’s recipe can be found here:

Next time: Folkestone Pudding Pies



5 books that influenced my writing

As a book lover what’s more difficult? Walking past a bookshop without going in or trying to pick five books from decades of reading? Clearly steely self-discipline is required for the former, something that in my case is in very short supply, whilst the latter’s difficulty lies in the sheer scale of numbers. In the end, rather than pick favourites, I decided to go for books that had made a particular impact on me in terms of my writing.

So, after much thought, this is my list. The five books that, in my opinion, influenced me the most. (For the purposes of this blog trilogies count as 1!)

Hurrah for the Circus by Enid Blyton: The first book I read by myself in bed. As I got toward the end I remember being upset when told to turn out the light and finish it the next day. Apparently I cried and told mum that if I died in the night I’d never know what happened. It was a good try, (I was five at the time) but, as I recall, I got short shrift. I bought another copy recently, along with The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown. Two old favourites to read to the grandchildren.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K Le Guin: The books that made me want to be a writer. After reading these when I was about twelve I wrote a sort of fanfic loosely based on the first volume, A Wizard of Earthsea. Mostly produced while lying on the living room carpet my first foray into creative writing was about 100 pages long and complete with maps and illustrations. Although the text is long gone, I can still remember the name of the main character and the premise behind the story. I have the originals on my bookshelf to this day, along with all the Earthsea books that have been published since.


The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien: My first serious read of choice, outside of what we were given at school (that famous comedy duo Lawrence and Hardy in my case). My father’s family were always great readers and I can recall my grandmother watching the TV and not only knitting but reading a paperback that was balanced on her knees. It wasn’t unusual to enter a room and find everyone in it reading. I guess it had to rub off.

My father had a special liking for the Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and when he’d read all of these, probably at least twice, became a devotee of Fantasy novels regularly bringing home books by Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan and David Eddings, among others. His bookcase became a garden of delights for me, my sister and my brother. It was from Dad that I first learned of hobbits and other such wonderful creatures.

When I was fourteen and well known for always having my nose in a book (on one occasion getting into trouble with the PE mistress for taking one on to the tennis courts during a games lesson), a friend, whose father worked at George, Allen and Unwin, gave me the LOTR paperback set for my birthday. That was forty years ago and, like the early Earthsea books, I still have these. Much loved and faded but with all their pages intact, if a little loose.

Possession by A S Byatt: One of the books I can read over and over and never fail to get caught up in the magic. Maybe it’s because it’s about historians, or research, or the caricatures of academia, I have no idea. I first saw it on a friend’s bookcase and she told me to borrow it because she was a slow reader and I’d probably be done with it in a week. She was right.

There’s a real atmosphere about Byatt’s story that sucked me in and wouldn’t let me go. A frisson of excitement at having made the sort of discovery, both in terms of the book itself and in what writing can achieve, that gives you goosebumps. It encouraged me to work harder on my characters and to get deeper inside their heads.

If I could create atmosphere and people even half as good as those in Possession, I’d be very happy indeed.

The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village by Eamon Duffy: The book that made want to study history seriously and led to my non-fiction writing. I followed this up with Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, another inspiring read, if not quite so personal.

Morebath is a village on the southern edge of Exmoor in Devon, and the survival of the records of Sir Christopher Trychay (pronounced Tricky) the parish priest from 1520 to 1574, allow a rare glimpse into rural life during the Reformation. For a social historian it’s a gem and it gave me the desire to tell the stories of ordinary men and women using contemporary documents. I’m going to start looking at the records of the village where I live very soon; well, as soon as I have completed all the other projects I am currently involved in!

So these are the five books, out of hundreds, that I feel have led to me to where I am now. Maybe next I should do a list of the five places that have most influenced my writing.

Out of the blue

An interesting, and quite unexpected, thing happened in my writing life recently. I had always thought that when I got around to my  first (really very serious) writing project it would either be historical fiction based in fifteenth century England and/or France or, a high fantasy epic. However, as I was putting together some ideas for the online How to Write a Novel course run by the Unthank School of Writing in Norwich, this plan got completely turned on its head.

Suddenly I was thinking about theft and prostitution in late Victorian England and of a protagonist struggling with abandonment issues and a villain called Septimus Brand. I was looking for street maps from the 1890s and getting to grips with the criminal slang known as the Flash. My night time reading jumped forward four centuries to include contemporary fiction by Charles Dickens and George Gissing and, for period detail and accuracy, the London biographies of Peter Ackroyd and Liza Picard.

The more I read and thought about the characters the more compelled I felt to write their story. Now, after six weeks the plot is outlined and I’m working through the character biographies, both things I have learned the value of on the course. I cannot believe I was so disorganised before. There are still questions to be answered and problems to be worked through but there’s also a definite feeling of progress. Every day I get up and wonder where my writing journey will take me next.

It’s a good feeling.

Camp begins tomorrow.

The April round of Camp NaNoWriMo begins tomorrow so I thought I ought to post something before it all kicks off, and I get sucked into the 1,000 words a day that I have set myself.

If that sounds like I’m not looking forward to it then that’s really not the case.  I am.  This is my third Nano and I always feel incredibly motivated while it’s going on.  Tired and frustrated sometimes too, but always motivated.  This time around I’ve managed to get invited to join a cabin full of active fantasy writers instead of being randomly allocated.  It’s already making a difference and I’m spending a lot of time on Skype throwing ideas around.  How great to be able to talk about dragons and elves and all things fantastic with people who write the same kind of thing.  I’ve a head full of suggestions and a hundred new ideas to follow up.

So, if I’m not around for the next thirty days you know where I am,  on another world battling for the survival of my people!

The Gothic Project (or, How to let your Imagination get the Better of You!)

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about Gothic literature.  I’ve always been a fan of the genre but lately its become a bit of an obsession.  From Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto via Dracula to The Vampire Diaries, I can’t seem to get enough of it.  So, going away to stay in a Victorian country house, deep in the heart of the New Forest, was always going to kick start something.

We’d been out walking all day and, over time, the group had separated and was strung out along the last mile or so of the path.  In need of a break I decided to stop and wait for the real stragglers to catch up and I found myself looking at a swampy body of water. Immediate imagination overload and no notebook, so all I could do was take a photo on my phone and hope to capture something of the atmosphere when I could get my hands on pen and paper. As I stood there, with both the sun and the temperature rapidly going down, it seemed as if I had been caught in a bubble of silence that cut me off from the rest of the world. P1040820It was easy to see how both the swamp and the hotel had huge, gothic, potential.  They were a ready-made backdrop for a tale of terror; for some sinister goings on at midnight among the hunched and twisted trees, wrapped in their shrouds of silver and green lichen.

My eyes were constantly drawn, however, by the stillness of the water, which made me feel twitchy and uncomfortable. As I stared into it I realised it reminded me of an antique mirror with edges that were spotted and brown with age. The type in which the heroine sees the monster standing right behind her.

I had just begun to consider my MC when the stragglers caught up and the spell was broken.  The seed had, however, taken root.

So, having thoroughly spooked myself, I suppose it’s about time I got organised and attempted to write that gothic novel, or, at least, a gothic-themed short story.  Now I just have to come up with the unique twist.

The Benefits of Daily Writing

Writing in a journal every day. It’s something that comes up frequently in articles and posts on writing.  Whether it’s included in a ‘”how to” piece for those just starting out, or further along the line as a means to keep up the momentum, writing in a journal, it seems, can be useful in a number of ways .  When I began to think seriously about my writing (creative, not academic, although the two overlap in so many ways), I didn’t keep a journal or have an ideas notebook.  I just wrote in a very disorganised way, as the mood took me.

The first book I read on the craft itself was Stephen King’s much praised, On Writing and I learned a great deal and resolved to approach the blank page in an entirely different way.  I would be more thoughtful, more focussed, I would use my ‘tool box’ and have some idea of where I was going.  It didn’t work, I wasn’t ready, and I continued to stare at the blank page or screen with increasing trepidation. Where do I start?  How do I start?  Is it even worth starting?

At around the same time a friend, who is not a writer, began reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and told me that I might find it useful too.  I wasn’t sure but I picked up a copy anyway and, honestly, I’m glad I did as one of the first things I learned about was what Cameron calls the “daily pages”.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to write three pages every morning as soon as I woke up but I didn’t have anything to lose so resolved to give it a try. The main point was to write those pages without thinking and without stopping, stream of consciousness style, and to record whatever came into your head.  The weather, what you were going to have for breakfast, anything.

From day one I struggled.  I’m a perfectionist.  I check. .I edit.  I check and edit again.  That wasn’t allowed.  Write, don’t stop, don’t check.  All that matters is to fill the pages.  Spelling, grammar, repetition.  Ignore it.  The words had to go down on the page and stay down.

Having initially thought I would give up pretty quickly I surprised myself by keeping going and, like most things, once the writing became a habit, it became easier.  Eventually I found my pages metamorphosing into a journal and, after three months of frantic scribbling, I decided what I needed was two notebooks.  One for my journal and one for my writing ideas.

Since beginning to write in this way I’ve become a lot more confident in getting  my ideas down on paper.  I’ve read lots, taken a couple of courses, and got involved in two rounds of Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month).  It hasn’t all been a success of course,  how could it be?  Although the “get it down and leave it down” mentality has been a godsend I still have my off days/weeks.  I also have to admit I’ve lapsed a bit on the “daily pages” but I am still writing in my journal and notebook (almost) every day and that’s a big step in the right direction.

More importantly I feel like I’m making progress and that’s the best part.

My Writing Journey

I’ve been looking back over previous blogging ideas and came across this which, I thought, might be worth posting as it explains a little about my writing life.


“Writing is a journey, not a destination”.

I have been on my novel writing journey for almost as long as I can remember.  My first effort, at aged 14, followed my discovery of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy and bore the (uninspiring) title The Squire’s Son and the Sword.  It rambled on for a hundred pages or so before I lost interest in the hero and his feeble attempts to atone for a bad decision.  It may still be lurking in the attic and, if it is, that’s where it’s staying.

The second and third attempts, Longer than the Day (set in fifteenth century England) and The De Vezaly Conspiracy (set in sixteenth century France), rambled on for a whole lot longer and I do still have these hidden away in boxes in the spare room.  Like their predecessor they are unlikely to ever see the light of day again.

Next there was an untitled attempt at Chick Lit. I can’t remember why I gave up on it; possibly because I only had a beginning and no middle or end. Not a good position for a writer to be in. I still quite like the premise and the characters so, unlike my previous attempts, I may revisit it one day. When I have nothing else to do…!

In July 2014 I decided to give Historical novels a miss for attempt number four and returned to my first love; the Fantasy novel.  This was sparked by a free online course, Start Writing Fiction, offered by Future Learn in association with the Open University, and after that finished deciding to keep the momentum going by taking part in Camp NaNo.

Writing an average of 1,667 words a day for a whole month resulted in Fortune’s Quest, or at least the first part (of the first part), Rise of the Dragonkin.  I won’t lie, it was hard going, but I had a goal and I stuck with it.  Nearly 55,000 words later I’m still trying to make time to write every day.  It feels different this time which is entirely due to my discovery of K. M. Weiland’s excellent Outlining your Novel.  Via this, and a whole raft of other websites and books, I now know a whole lot more about the process of writing a novel. I need to think before I write and not just jump in with both feet and hope for the best.

With this firmly in mind I am preparing a road map for my own quest.  With any luck I won’t get lost this time.