New Life ACW Lent Book – Update

I am thrilled to announce that I am in print, and the books are out now!

The Association of Christian Writers have compiled a book of creative devotionals in the form of a Lent Book, and I am one of the contributors. This is a very exciting experience for a fledgling author.

As I was keen, naive and wanted to put all my profits toward a church link in Albania we have set up with our home church, I managed to get a large number of pre-orders, so am one of the very first to take delivery of my order. Responses have been fantastic and as my own stocks are now very low, if you are interested in a copy, do please order from Amazon, or support your local Christian bookshop and get it direct from them. 

 

Lent Book cover

 

 

Year of the Dog – January

Apparently the Chinese Year of the Dog is going to start in February. I am not one for astrology (Chinese or any other flavour), but the idea of owning a dog – a real live, smelly, silly and always-happy-to-meet-you canine – has been growing in my mind for some years.

And this year is the year we are hoping to make it happen.

It began some time ago. We agreed to start small, and have owned guinea pigs for five and a half years. We lost Stripe, the last one, in December. He had had a lump on his liver and had given up. I was sadder than I thought I would be at losing him, and at the change in the daily routine. Now, we do still have a hamster who lives upstairs, but Lily is responsible for Humphrey and I just take a passing interest in his welfare.

So the time was right to ask ourselves if we were ready for a dog, and if it was the right course of action.

Not everyone loves dogs. Some people are allergic to dogs. Some people have had a traumatic experience of dogs, and some dogs are violent and dangerous. Some religions consider dogs dirty. These things are important to us. Dogs are also hard work, expensive, trouble, need lots of daily attention and will – almost certainly – die before we do, which we know will break our hearts. There are always lots of reasons not to have a dog.

But having children has been no walk in the park. Even off-leash. They are hard work, expensive, trouble, need lots of daily attention and will – almost certainly – leave home, just as they start getting really capable and mature. We know this will break our hearts too. I don’t know of people allergic to children, but I know of people who choose not to have them, or be around them. That’s fine. We bring our children with us to lots of places, but on occasion have been known to leave them with loving grandparents for a bit of well-earned respite and rest.

When we moved to Cambridgeshire, one of the items on the list for our new home had to be a dog-friendly location. Somewhere with space for walks. We found the dog-friendly home.

We knew that the garden had a large number of plants which are poisonous to dogs, so we removed them, and planted new species. We remodelled the back garden to make it safe for a dog.

We spent months investigating breeds and matching ideas to our personalities as a family. We are all fairly introverted a lot of the time, and wanted a low-energy dog which could lift our moods and be a companion while I write in the daytime. Eventually we realised the perfect breed for us was probably a rehomed greyhound. So we spent more months researching greyhounds, learning about the Retired Greyhound Trust, getting a feel for what we would be letting ourselves in for.

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Until Stripe the guinea pig died, we did not want to go and meet any dogs. But it wasn’t long after my trip to the vets that we were able to book a visit to the RGT King’s Lynn branch and meet a few dogs there, early this month. We went with a specific dog in mind, but spent two and a half hours questioning Debbie and asked four pages of A4 questions. We would have loved to have adopted the dog we met, but she wasn’t right for us in her temperament. We trusted Debbie and arranged our home visit.

When you adopt a retired greyhound, you need to have a home check to learn what may prevent you taking one in, and any adaptations you have to make. We had travelled a fair distance to King’s Lynn, so one of Debbie’s greyhound connections, Sara, paid us a visit, and declared that we passed with flying colours. We are now in the process of finishing the garden and creating an under-stairs den for our future dog. We have moved a few smaller items to new homes and found a well-sized desk top (from an actual desk, not a PC), which we had kept when the legs were damaged. We have started some rewiring and painting.

Today a greyhound and his lovely owner visited from a nearby village to explore our house and teach us more about what life would be like. Turbo was big. I knew greys can be big, and our downstairs seems big enough, but he certainly had a real Presence while he was here. He loved sniffing everything and exploring where he could lie down and rest, and spent a few mad seconds doing zoomies in the garden. It was wonderful.

If all goes to plan we should be able to adopt a greyhound which matches us well in the coming weeks or months. As we are going into the Year of the Dog, I thought I might as well start a blogging series and make monthly updates on the journey here.

 

Deconstructing Alric

A few days ago I posted a historical short story here: Alric and the Sack. I mentioned that I would revisit the story to indicate what was based on historical evidence, and what was not. The story is a fictional reimagining of the terror of the monks on the Island of Lindisfarne on June 8th 793 when Vikings arrived and attacked them, destroying the church and killing many of the monks. It is based on real events.

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As the story seemed to flow best written in the voice of a third person limited omniscient narrator, it wasn’t necessary to expand on all the references to actual historical details. I’ve been researching a lot of historical detail for another project, and have decided that too much explanation in the text is not conducive to reading. Equally, forcing the text to fit details I do have can come over as wooden or contrived.

Stories have to flow their own way; if a story does not demand a close description of an earthenware pot, then the fact that I have extensive primary evidence I could use does not mean I should fit the story around it. Sometimes you just cannot place an earthenware pot in the tale. Equally, there are some details it is possible to intuit or make an educated guess about, and always ways to research what is known, through libraries, the internet, travel and museums. I did a little of each of these in my preparation, and chose the event as it resonated with things I care about (Scandinavia, faith communities, the North East of England, strange languages and Celtic artwork).


 

I chose the name Alric, a genuine eighth century male name, avoiding the spelling Ealric so that it would be more approachable for modern readers. (I remember some years ago reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone right through without knowing how to pronounce Hermione. I don’t have any excuse either, having studied Greek).

Alric was a product of my own creation, a youngster in the abbey, but his uncle Higbald (or Hygbald) the bishop was a real person. We know of Higbald because of a letter written to him by Alcuin, a local learned clergyman and scholar who was working for Charlemagne in France at the time. In the letter, following the Viking attack, Alcuin suggests:

It has not happened by chance, but is the sign of some great guilt.

Alcuin does not state explicitly what ‘great guilt’ he is referring to, but only six weeks before the raid in late April 793, a scoundrel called Sicga had been buried at Lindisfarne. Sigca, born a nobleman, had been part of a conspiracy to kill King Ælfwald of Northumbria in September 788. In February 793 he killed himself. It was not necessary to bury a murderer (who had indeed also committed suicide) on Lindisfarne, and some were surprised that the bishop had allowed it. The prevailing theology in the eighth century would interpret Viking raids as a divine punishment for sin.

In fact, portents from the heavens would have been noted and taken seriously too. In the run up to the attack, there had been a drought in the region, and reports of natural phenomena such as whirlwinds, lightning and ‘fiery dragons’ or fyrenne dracan which had frightened the monks, as noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

dracan

The fiery dragons may well have been northern lights, which can occasionally be seen as far South as parts of the United Kingdom.

Vikings had traded widely and had discovered that isolated and unprotected island monasteries in the British Isles had a wealth of treasures which could prove to be easy pickings. They had no real understanding of Christianity, or that local people sent valuables to monasteries for safe keeping at the time. As cruel and unfair as it might have seemed to the Anglo-Saxons, this discovery of easy wealth must have been a euphoric time for the invaders.

There were religious items of some value stored at Lindisfarne too. The Lindisfarne gospels and the relics of St Cuthbert (who had been bishop there until his death in 687) survived unscathed.

The beautiful and highly valuable gospel volume was written and illustrated over a period of about ten years in Latin on vellum (calf-skin) by Eadfrith, also a bishop at Lindisfarne, who died in 721. We know it was later pressed, bound and covered with a metal case with jewels. If the Vikings had seen it, they would certainly have looted it. But they didn’t. The gospel had other adventures after this, including reportedly being lost at sea and miraculously found, and now belongs to the British Library. I was intrigued that no legend explaining the safe evacuation of the book survives.

When Higbald is reading ‘Pax vobis’, Peace to you, he is quoting from Jesus’ words to his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24:36; John 20:21, 26). The peace of a risen Saviour deliberately contrasts the sudden and unexpected babble of the raid.

When the monks sing “Eripe me Domine ab homine malo,” they are reciting Psalm 140, which begins Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men. This is also deliberately chosen, and becomes Alric’s refrain as he escapes.

Lindisfarne is a part-time island. Twice a day the tide cuts the community off from the mainland. I tried to investigate the tide times, but was not able to find out the details for such a distant date in history. As a result, I skirted around the exact timing of the raid. The modern paved causeway is about a mile long, and any route he might have taken would have been an exhausting run for Alric if he did think the tide was approaching.

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I learned other things about what Lindisfarne would have been like in the eighth century however. There would certainly have been a collection of buildings on the island, but not many of stone except the church and an outer wall. There was a cemetery, possibly some stained glass and through trade networks, some high quality metalwork and pottery. (Cuthbert had even had an elephant ivory comb). Pilgrims came to visit the sacred site. I used universal examples of fear, anatomy, bird life and the weather to link the characters’ experiences to those of the modern reader.

I did not know everything I needed to though. I assumed my character was familiar with the same seabirds found at Lindisfarne today, and that he slept in a straw bunk. I chose to hide the gospel in a sack, although I don’t know how big sacks were at the time; they are not the kind of item which survives twelve centuries in a wet climate. I did not find any contemporary art depicting sacks, but decided that it is likely a gospel would fit in a typical size sack for holding a reasonable weight of grain or wool.

Sometimes you can make reasonable assumptions, but I do like to understand what is based on fact and what is pure fiction. I didn’t want him to sound too modern in his language, but needed to find a place of overlap between the ancient experience and today.

Lindisfarne was deemed a significant and sacred site; it was one of the possible locations for the arrival of Christianity in the British isles. It was also the location for the first serious Viking raid. History tells us of the huge impact the Scandinavian peoples had on the British Isles in later years. And for some reason, though people died and buildings were burned, the Lindisfarne Gospels escaped. I’m very glad that they did.

Alric and the Sack

This is the text of a short story I wrote at the end of December, which I have just heard has won second place in the Association of Christian Writers’ Historical Fiction Competition. I spent some time researching historical facts and will write another post this week explaining what is, and is not, based on historical evidence (now published here). I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.


 

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Broken and unbroken voices rang together through the June morning air.

“Eripe me Domine ab homine malo,” they sang. Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men. Their harmonies echoed beautifully off the stone walls of their island chapel. Among the boys stood Alric, nephew of bishop Higbald, fiddling quietly with his scratchy woollen hood.

The older monks sang the Psalm with closed eyes. They stood huddled with leathered skin and weathered hearts. The work of many seasons had inscribed their bodies like human manuscripts; illuminated regularly with blues, golds and reds of bruises, blisters and burns. Some were master brewers and builders; some managed bees, herbs and livestock; others prepared the vellum calf skin for manuscripts. Every day prayer and worship from the chapel wove musical blessings into the fresh island air. As each day of the year came and left like the tides and the stars, every able body was required to work on the land too, to tame and bless it.

Blessings came hard, as Alric knew well. A drought had hit the monastery and sacks from the previous harvest were already empty. Beggar pilgrims came more frequently and fertile trees had grown no new fruit. Portents had alarmed the monks during Lent. Alric had heard of fyrenne dracan, colourful and frightening fiery dragons in the sky on clear evenings and had seen fierce lightning storms and high winds for himself. Would the signs in the skies foretell more problems on the land, or even from the sea?

 

 

Perhaps the monastery had reason to fear God’s wrath. The rebel king-murderer Sigca had recently been buried in the cemetery; rumours suggested he had even taken his own life. Higbald should have known better than to allow such a burial on this holy island.

 

After the service Alric returned to mending sacks in the sunshine and as he finished he looked out to sea. The water was calmer in the summer and on the northern horizon was a line of trading ships. Gulls arced overhead and Alric yawned. Another early morning; another long day. He craved a nap and the cool of his straw bunk. Perhaps his uncle would excuse him for a short time.

Higbald was still at chapel, reading their precious bound gospel aloud to a small group. “Pax vobis,” he read, and then looked up.

“Peace to you,” Alric grinned, confident that he understood the meaning.

“Yes, and peace to you too, my son,” Higbald replied. “What is the matter?”

“My uncle, I have mended these sacks; please grant me a few moments of rest before we eat.”

Higbald frowned.

“Is that all?”

“I saw trading ships too,” Alric said; “a long line of them, coming south from up the coast.”

“We must make ready,” Higbald considered, pinching his chin. “Boys, come with me. Not you Alric: stay here and study the gospel. Be ready to report back to me later.”

Alric flinched. His thoughts wheeled about like a greedy gull and a plan formed. He watched the others leave and took the heavy gospel off the altar. Its bright cover was jewelled and ornate. The binding was unlike any other he had seen. And the colourful pictures – so bright and beautifully drawn. Knotted patterns delicately woven and representations of people, animals and dragons. Alric could not believe he had been left alone with such a beautiful and precious book, as the others busily prepared for the traders. If he could hide the book in a sack, he could read in his bunk. He might get punished but if Higbald was willing to bend the rules to bury a murderer, Alric saw no moral problem taking the gospel out of the chapel.

Nobody saw Alric trot like a twitchy blackbird to the wooden hut. He tucked the sack with the book inside under the straw so that he could rest first. He would only be a few moments, he thought. His eyes closed.

 

 

Alric woke to screams and shouts. His first thought was anger with himself for falling asleep, but the noises from outside sounded strange and frightening; he could smell blood and smoke and hear people yelling in pain and cursing. What was happening?

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The sight which met him at the doorway was brutal and horrifying. Raiders from the northern countries had arrived in their boats. They held swords and axes and carried anger in their eyes. They had set one wooden hut alight already and were slaying monks with no mercy. Several warriors ran to the chapel as Alric watched, shouting strange words to each other. They were after the valuable things.

Alric’s heart fell. He could see bodies of his friends on the ground and hear the screams of the wounded. None of the raiders had seen him yet, though his head felt white with fear and a realisation that the precious gospel of Lindisfarne was in his care now. Trying to stay out of sight, he looked about. Higbald was there, bleeding from his arm, praying for one who had fallen. He looked up and made eye contact with Alric.

Suddenly there was hope.

“Run, Alric,” Higbald urged. “And take it with you. Get to your mother. Fast!”

So Higbald had known Alric would disobey him. And now he had a small chance to escape and preserve his life and the precious book. Could he thank God for his own sin? Hardly. He was aware that others were dying; perhaps it was his fault. The unholy sound of metal blows sobered and scared him. Alric crawled out of the window at the back of the hut, so frightened that it felt his legs might break like cracked eggs. Hugging the sack close to his chest he ran to the water’s edge. Could he make it? The tide was starting to come in. He knew well the path to take to reach the mainland; it was only about a mile, but he would have no time to tarry or look to save others. His feet plunged into the soft wet sand.

The tears in Alric’s eyes blinded him as he ran. Turning quickly, he wiped his face on his hood. On the island more buildings were burning and monks who had not been killed were running to hide or get to the mainland. Where was Higbald now? What if the raiders came this way? The waters were up to his ankles; he would have to keep moving.

“O Lord deliver me!” Alric sobbed as he ran.

“Please, I pray, deliver me from the evil men. Rescue me Lord!”

He reached the shore, stumbled in the sand and collapsed, and then realised that he had not prayed for his brothers. His voice cracked as he prayed again; a solo broken voice.

“And the others, deliver them too, O Lord! Protect them all from the evil men. And let me see my uncle again.”

Alric looked up. The skies had clouded in anger and a storm was starting.

storm lindisfarne

 

The Writing Place – Rudyard Kipling

I write, you know. Mostly at my desk, often in my head and occasionally out and about. I scribble ideas in notebooks and on my phone and at night I rehearse ideas to commit them to memory. I use lined paper, plain paper, scrap paper and the screen to record plans and research notes, to make drafts and sweat through rewrites and edits. My writing discipline is improving; time then for a new blog series.

I visited a number of places in the past year which were directly associated with famous authors. It really got me thinking. I like my writing space to make sense in my head, though I doubt it comes over as organised to others. I am not comfortable in a noisy space. What about other people though? How much room do you really need to write? What conditions are conducive to penning a good book?

Where do other writers write? 

Towards the end of last year as the light faded into half-days, I found myself at the desk of Rudyard Kipling. If you are interested in seeing it for yourself, Bateman’s now belongs to the National Trust and can be found in East Sussex. Kipling lived there from 1902 until his death in 1936. The grand Jacobean house, set in beautiful gardens was the result of a very healthy income from his writing; a situation most writers today would find unimaginable.

This is his desk, in his rather lovely office:

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The walls are lined with shelves and shelves of books, and the table holds pens, ink, newspapers, books, letters, an hour-glass, sealing equipment and his tiny spectacles. In the waste-paper basket are half a dozen discarded novellas by the looks of it. A globe, rugs, fine furniture and windows on two sides make the room look studious and practical and elegant. I like this room. It has the perfect writing atmosphere of diligence and expectancy. The creative space would be a dream for many writers; I’d love it too, as long as my dodgy copperplate could be brought up to scratch. I wouldn’t need the ash-tray and I’m not that impressed with the ivory elements, but the ambience is wonderful.

Kipling owned terriers, and I imagine him leaning back in his chair at the end of a good paragraph, inhaling a puff of something stale and woody and giving the little black pup sleeping by his desk a playful scratch. He loved his dogs, and wrote a book during his time at Bateman’s called Thy Servant a Dog which was published in 1930 from the point of view of ‘Boots’. I bought an early edition on my visit and was struck at how the dog’s language was just as witty and dog-like as many memes circulating the internet today.

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Outside it was wet and wintry, but we still found time to see a little of the gardens. My son Joe was not impressed with the brassica beds. Perhaps I ought to revisit at a sunnier time of the year. He’s not really a sprout fan.

Visiting Rudyard Kipling’s home and seeing one of his writing spaces was fascinating for me, and I found out lots more about the man and his work. For example:

  • The author’s full name was Joseph Rudyard Kipling; he was known as Ruddy or Rud most of his life. (Rudyard is the name of a lake near Leek in Staffordshire, which was a special place for his parents.)
  • Rudyard was born in India at the end of 1865. As a young child he had Indian servants and was spoilt and difficult to control, but he did learn Hindustani.
  • At five and a half, Rudyard and his younger sister were packed off to England to live with foster carers.
  • He took a job in journalism in Lahore (then in India) when he left school.
  • He was short and full of energy and often worked very long hours.
  • Kipling became a freemason in Lahore.
  • His works were first published in India and by 1891 he was a household name in England and America.
  • Rudyard married American Caroline Balestier in 1892. They lived in Vermont for a while and had three children: Josephine, who died in 1899, Elsie and a son John who was killed in WW1.
  • Kipling was extremely well-travelled in his life, visiting Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, Bermuda, Rhodesia, France, Sweden, Egypt, Brazil and the West Indies.
  • Among various other accolades, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.
  • He worked hard to help the British in the Boer War and visited South Africa a number of times;
  • Kipling owned a 1928 Rolls Royce Phantom I, which can be seen at Bateman’s.
  • His long friendship with Lord Baden-Powell led to his Jungle Book characters’ names being used in the Cub Scouts;
  • Jungle Book was made into a cartoon by Disney in 1967 and a live action adaptation in 2016, but not many people know that Kipling wrote a sequel, The Second Jungle Book.
  • Kipling was overlooked for the role of Poet Laureate in 1913, perhaps because of his independent views and reluctance to write to order.

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Rudyard Kipling was certainly a fascinating man, and a very popular writer. His writing space had many of its own stories to tell. I’m not likely ever to get my own Nobel Prize certificate adorning the walls of my home, but seeing around Kipling’s was exceedingly satisfying.

Umpteen

Tdragons cursehe children asked what ‘umpteenth’ meant. They asked because the word appeared in How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, page 118.

I told them about how it doesn’t mean a particular number, just rather a large one. Rather like a gazillion. I told them that Umpteen is made up (and therefore a lot more useful than many real numbers). I played to my strengths and looked up the history of umpteenth and we learned that the original word was umpty, which probably came from the word used for dash in Morse Code (the dot was iddy; these may have been derived from the sounds the clicks make).

IddyUmptyBox

I couldn’t help thinking about how convenient it is to be able to refer to large numbers abstractly. Today is my umpteenth birthday, for example. Or, if I wanted to refer to it in ancient Israelite terms for ‘large unspecified number’ I could have told you I am 40 today. You may even want to believe that. Both can be true. (If you want to know more about indefinite and fictitious numbers Wikipedia is a good place to start).

I study the Old Testament and found umpteen references to the number forty. A lot of people take these to mean literally forty, but I don’t. Forty is just a convenient large number. For really large numbers, a thousand could be used, and for small indefinite periods of time three was just as convenient.

40So we’ve got the usual suspects: Moses on Sinai for 40 days and nights, the 40 years in the wilderness, peace in the land for 40 year intervals, various 40 year reigns (David, Solomon, Joash) and there are quite a few others. It is all just too convenient for me. I’m much happier with the New Testament accounts of Jesus spending 40 days and nights in the desert and the 40 days from the resurrection until the ascension because they are written in a different context (although I’m happy to be shown to be wrong on these too).

Where the biblical writers didn’t know the numbers, they put in forty to mean ‘an unspecified long period of time’. They could have put ‘umpteen’, but there is no word for that in ancient Hebrew.

So next time you have a birthday and you aren’t inclined to reveal your age, you could just say you are ‘umpty’. Especially if you have good balance.

humpty
The view from up here isn’t too bad, actually

 

Blooming Rhubarb

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I love rhubarb. The plants are deliciously odd in their shape and size in the garden, glorious in colour and just sour enough to make the perfect crumble. You can force rhubarb and grow it in the dark and the leaves have enough sass oxalic acid to be poisonous. The stalks are fine for human consumption, of course.

When we moved to our home in Cambridgeshire nearly three years ago we inherited one in the garden which has quietly got on with its job rhubarbing very efficiently. I love it when we harvest some of the stalks and my husband makes a rhubarb clafoutis (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe here). I am always impressed at how quickly rhubarb leaves grow, stretching out over their territory like umbrellas, greedy to catch the light and protect the family.

rhubarb benefits
Rhubarb has many health benefits too. As this diagram indicates, the fibre eases digestion, Vitamin K helps strengthens bones, it can help stave off brain disorders, fight free radical damage, relieve constipation and diarrhoea and it even acts to inhibit inflammation (click on image for larger view). Regardless of the details, sometimes I just crave rhubarb and my body seems to understand why. Marvellous.

Now, I am not a natural gardener. I do enjoy taking plants out (if I know which ones, and for the right reasons) and putting plants in (because often that involves shopping and creativity). I have also learned a certain amount about pruning, mowing and trimming, but Latin names escape me and remembering whether something is perennial, annual, about to do something interesting or already dead can throw me. I don’t mind too much; gardening is an ongoing process and half the fun is in the surprises.

Our rhubarb surprised us this year. It flowered.

So we cut the flower off.

It flowered again.

This time we googled it, cut the flowers off and put them in a bottle, to enjoy:

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Why did the rhubarb flower? According to the experts, rhubarbs can flower when they are stressed. Allowing the plant to go to seed means that much of its energy is then taken up with reproduction instead of growing stalks. So the accepted wisdom is to cut off the flower and allow the plant to produce a better harvest.

Sometimes I feel a lot like a rhubarb. Somewhat leggy, crazy and colourful, with a side helping of sass acid. I do my best to seek the light, protect and be a good influence for others and serve them well. I also have my limits. When I am under the most stress, I also flower. The bitterness is replaced by an urge to create.

Maybe you know this feeling too?

I am setting myself a hefty writing target this term, and have decided that I will blog here when I can, but not to do it when I need to flower in my writing elsewhere. I will still put up the occasional 500 words, sometimes even on Fridays.

Now is the time to flower.