Writer’s HQ: Brighton Writing Retreat

joancrawford writing

Please note, the author of this post is not as glamorous as Joan Crawford.

I have been trying to write a novel for two years. I have the idea, but I am not very disciplined. Luckily, my friend Jo is better at this stuff than I am and has had loads of success with her writing- and is one half of Writer’s HQ. She suggested that I try one of the monthly writer’s retreats held around the country.

Through writing sprints and goal-setting (and gold stars), the retreats aim to help you unlock your potential and get something down on paper/screen. I bumbled up with the aim of a thousand words and a short story submission for Mslexia magazine. Within an hour, I’d smashed both of those things and started working on something that could later be a novel. By the end of the day- which is also filled with a great lunch and generous servings of tea and cake- I’d written 6,500 words, earned three gold stars AND had loads of goes on the giant indoor swing.

The atmosphere was supportive and no-one read their work out, which was a relief. We all had different goals: writing short stories, plays, screenplays, pitches; editing. I’m pretty sure all of us left with a sense of accomplishment. And everyone was so nice! In the breaks, we chatted about books, babies and all sorts of other things. If I didn’t have pesky commitments (a child and a husband with a Brighton season ticket), I’d seriously be there every month.

Since going, I’ve found a way of working in twenty minute sessions that’s way more productive than trying to work for a solid hour (I can write 1000 words in two twenty minute sprints, whereas a full forty minute session would probably be mostly me pratting about on Twitter.) And although I have yet to get into a solid, regular writing habit, they have a free online course starting in a couple of weeks which I’m signed up for. I’ve previously completed their Seven Ideas in Seven Days course (review here), so I am DETERMINED to finish this bloody novel, mainly because I’d like my brain back for a bit without the characters taking over.

It’s also worth mentioning that you can try all of the courses free for seven days and then sign up for full membership if you want. I can also highly recommend the Writer’s HQ Facebook groups for support, even if I did accidentally make someone cry with a piece I put on there.

So go forth and write. Join a retreat and have fun. I’ll buy your novel at the end of it.

 

Stuff I learnt in floristry class

Hello!

If you follow me on social media, you’ll know that I’ve been going to a beginner’s floristry class since January. I’m not very good at it, but I don’t even care because I really enjoy it. I’ve even made my peace with the fact that my nemesis is florists’ foam (also known as oasis, which does make me think of the Gallaghers.)

alliums

I do, however, enjoy putting bunches of flowers together (although I think I’m not allowed to call them ‘bunches’ now that I’m *sort of* trained. I think I’m meant to refer to them as bouquets…) I’ve learnt some great tips about choosing flowers and putting them together, which I would have liked to have known before I started putting stuff together.

  1. Bleach your vases and change your water

28235344_10155296869792267_8276381645575148795_oEvery time you have an empty vase, fill it with water and put a few drops of bleach in it and leave it overnight (although I forget and sometimes leave it a few days…) Empty it and rinse it out. This will kill any bacteria and means that you’re starting with a clean, germ-free vase. It’ll mean that your flowers last longer from the get-go. In a similar vein, make sure you change your water every couple of days.

Some people swear blind that a drop of bleach in the water works to keep flowers looking fresh, although I would only do that for roses; for anything else I use a teaspoon of sugar or, if I have it, the packets of flower food you get with supermarket flowers.

2. There’s nothing wrong with supermarket flowers! 

27021216_10155227044562267_3429879072351896780_oI do love going to the florist, but it is expensive. There’s nowt wrong with supermarket flowers- I use them quite a bit for class, and a florist recently recommended I buy focal flowers (i.e. the main flowers in an arrangement) from a florist, the secondary flowers from a supermarket and the greenery from a garden. To be honest, it depends on time/money as to whether I have time to do all of that. But you can definitely gussy up a couple of bunches of Aldi’s finest- arrange them in a symmetrical pattern, twisting the stalks if you can, any foliage on the outside, and tying off with string. Chop the bottoms of the stalks off evenly- et voila! A tied bouquet! The only thing I would say is that supermarket flowers do not tend to last as long as florist bought flowers, but when they’re cheap as chips, who cares?

3. Don’t be afraid to experiment

IMG_20180214_083541_236I think one of the reasons I’m not terribly good at the lessons is that I’m not very keen on the formality of what we’re being shown. This is just my thing and no judgement on the teacher (who I love) or the whole world of floristry. It’s just me being an awkward sod. I tend to prefer smaller arrangements that suit a more vintage taste, which have a country garden look to them. This is what I will continue to make once I finish my course, and what I enjoy making. As one of Brighton’s top florists told me, ‘It’s not rocket science and there are no hard and fast rules.’ (He was quite dismissive of a lot of the formal structure of floristry- and seeing as he did my wedding bouquet, I tend to trust him!) One thing I would say: supermarket flowers tend not to smell much. If you want that, consider buying some broom or something like stocks from a florist- even one stem of these will lift your bunch of flowers into something a bit more special.

4. A few tweaks can make a bouquet look way more expensive

IMG_20180311_131728_492Around Valentines and Mother’s Day, flowers will be at their most expensive. If you wanted to make something flowery in the run up to those, I would heartily recommend you buy supermarket flowers for the bulk of it (especially if you want roses or tulips) and then go to a florist for a few finishing touches. The bouquet about was commissioned by Benn for his mum and I did go to a florist where I know I will get a good deal (and a discount for being a student, hurrah!) This is more my style- I love stuff that looks like I could just pluck it from my garden on a sunny June day and it’s nicely balanced, I think. Anyway, there are a few things I’ve noticed when you put together a bouquet:

  1. If you want roses, but not the expense, you could try lisianthus (the deep purple flowers above) or ranunculas, which are pretty in a similar way but often without such a steep price tag (although they will never be as cheap as daffodils or carnations!)
  2. Eucalyptus is having a moment. You can get the traditional varieties, with large silver leaves, or the smaller leafed variety, which is in the arrangement above. The good thing about eucalyptus, especially the bigger type, is that it will literally make any bunch of flowers look more expensive. Probably because it is quite expensive, but it would be a price I would consider paying for something special. To be honest, though, I’d just have vases full of it round the house I love it so much. If you want nice foliage, consider pistachio leaf, which is nice and half the price. Foliage is super important and I almost never have enough.
  3. If you want to make something look vintage, go with wax flowers. These tiny pink or white flowers are a bit of a discovery for me and also seem to be having a bit of a ‘moment’. Oh my god, I love them. They look like something from a Victorian wedding and they last an AGE. They aren’t hugely cheap, but they are cheerful and really add something to the flower arrangements I make. These would go in my vases with the eucalyptus.

5. Use Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration

I have a Pinterest board where I keep all things floristry- I love looking at flower combos, as well as different colours and presentation options. I’m also obsessed with the language of flowers and what different flowers meant in Victorian times. I then use this as a starting point for ideas. There are also some really great Instagram accounts run by florists, with different styles and specialities. Have a hunt around and find your style. Then, go and have a go. It’s really, honestly, not that hard. Seriously- look at some of the mistakes I’ve made!

If there’s anything you’d like to know, but I may have missed, let me know either in the comments or on Twitter. Enjoy your flowers!

Tips for walking to work

Hola! So, as I wrote last time, I’m now in a new job! Most days, I walk to work and very often walk back too (childcare pick up allowing…) This is fine, except it’s just short of 3 miles each way. I like to walk- I like to see the seasons changing and stomp out any tension. Plus, I had to decide whether I was willing to pay gym fees or after school club fees and, as it’s generally frowned upon to to send your kid to the pub for a few hours after school, my money goes on having him looked after.

Screenshot-2018-1-23 Instagram post by Steph • Dec 12, 2017 at 8 14am UTC(5)

I am very much dressed for the weather here, although I look miserable.

I’ve been walking to work since I was temping in September and I do really love it- but there are a few things that have made my life easier and more comfortable, which is super important when you’re walking so much everyday.

Screenshot-2018-1-23 Instagram post by Steph • Dec 12, 2017 at 8 14am UTC(2)

  • Breakfast- I will usually have a cup of tea and a smoothie made of Adagio’s Chocolate Matcha, banana and oat milk. This is good, because a) it means I have a banana before I’ve even woken up properly and b) I like to think that the matcha does me *some* good. It doesn’t have an overly chocolatey taste, but gives it a nice sweetness- just enough for the morning. I might also try and have something like toast or I’ll take something like oatcakes to eat at work, especially as the walk can make me really hungry. I also like using oat milk because it gives the smoothie a bit of a porridgey flavour and a bit of a fibre hit, which is obviously good (I think.)

Screenshot-2018-1-23 Instagram post by Steph • Dec 12, 2017 at 8 14am UTC(1)

  • What I wear on my feet is very important, especially on a long walk. I will wear Doc Martens if the weather is bad, but they’re heavy. My go-to boots and shoes are Sketchers- they have memory foam and are lightweight, meaning I feel lighter on my feet and my legs don’t ache at the end of the day. (Benn bought me some Sketchers slippers for Christmas too. My feet feel permanently heavenly- and my posture is good as a result, too.)
  • I’d also recommend a good backpack- I hate my arms being restricted! I currently use one I picked up ages ago from the Ollie and Nic sale, but I’m on the hunt for something bigger- along the the lines of the Jansport bag I coveted at school but never got.

Screenshot-2018-1-23 Instagram post by Steph • Dec 12, 2017 at 8 14am UTC(3) The biggest things that have made the most difference to my walking commute though, are the following:

  • A good antiperspirant- no-one wants to be stinky! I experimented with different brands and found that this one is the best. Also, there’s no point wearing fancy perfume when you’re walking. I’ve resorted to bodysprays and lament the fact that Impuse no longer make Zen and/or O2 scents. Considering a Twitter campaign.
  • Keep Cup– I bought mine in November and I use it mostly on cold days, when I need warming up. With Pret and Costa offering money off hot drinks, and concern about the environment, this is just a bit of a no-brainer for me. Fun fact: as a result of taking this into work, I have caused six other people to buy one. Am awaiting my commission.
  • Bluetooth headphones and Spotify- I used to have rubbish headphones and a rubbish phone. It took ages to listen to anything and I spent a long time trying to get anything to work. My in-laws bought me a great pair of headphones and I treated myself to Spotify Premium and it has honestly improved my commute no end. I have podcasts and playlists and I can honestly say that I look forward to my walk to work every day. I don’t think I’ve ever said that before.

Screenshot-2018-1-23 Instagram post by Steph • Dec 12, 2017 at 8 14am UTC(4)

*All of these products are here because I love them- there are no affiliate links on this post. I was sent the matcha to review, but will be purchasing this once my sample runs out!

 

 

 

How I left my job and changed career

DollyParton-9to5

A year ago today, I resigned from my ten-year teaching career. I remember it well, mainly because it was the day of Trump’s inauguration and I’d had no sleep the night before. I’d been planning on resigning later in the term (Benn and I had talked about me resigning the year before and agreed that the best time would be when D started school- no more nursery fees), but for some reason I found myself pouring out my thoughts to my line manager, who was amazingly supportive. I wrote my letter there and then, although I decided I would stay til the end of the year: this would give me time to sort myself out, but also I wanted to see my students through the year.

I then began to plan. I saved as much money (read: not much) as I could every month and joined agencies specialising in helping parents find work (spoiler: they were crap.) I spoke to people who could help me- one friend gave me really good advice about CVs. I researched, planned and saved. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was pretty terrified- I was leaving a job I’d done since I was 23, with relatively good money for the days I was in work (but not those I was working outside of school hours) and school holidays guaranteed. I had never looked for a job as a parent. Hell, I hadn’t seriously looked for a new job in eight years.

The time went REALLY fast. I took the summer off and started looking for work the week after D started school. I wrote a skills-based CV, which showed what I could do (and is easier to adapt for the skills required by each job description.) I also narrowed down the sort of places I wanted to work- charities, public sector- and signed up for job alerts. I scoured job boards for the NHS, the council, universities and the civil service. I applied for three jobs and was offered interviews for them all (I accepted the second job and got excellent feedback from the first. I didn’t attend the third interview.) I bought a basic black dress in the summer sales, which I wore with a plain cardigan (I felt like a younger Miss Marple, tbh), but it looked smart and presentable.

I was lucky in that I got a temp job for a few weeks, which brought in a bit of money, but I budgeted HARD. I cut all non-essential costs and used the library. During times when I wasn’t working, I kept myself busy: looking after the sheep, learning French, going to a free weekly knitting group.

I started my job in the public sector in December and it’s very different. I’m also working five days a week until the end of next month, which has brought a temporary boost in money but headaches with childcare. I’ll be a lot less well-off once I go down to three days, but better in terms of health. I sleep better, I’m happier and Benn and D have noticed a huge difference.

I have had to deal with an odd side-effect though: losing a sense of identity that was tied up with my job. It’s liberating and less scary now, but it’s definitely taken a while.

For anyone looking to change lanes, I will tell you it’s potentially hard- I was lucky that Benn was happy to pick up the slack, even if it means a change in lifestyle for us for a while- but the rewards can be utterly worth it.

Where I’m at in December

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I have a new theory- the more horrible the world seems, the earlier people put their Christmas tree up. It’s either that or Instagram and I’m pretty sure I’m not entirely wrong. The boys persuaded me to put our tree up on the first weekend of December, which felt early- but then I realised that, for the last few years at least, I’ve been so fed up and exhausted by work as we sail into Christmas season, I’ve been the one insisting that the decs go up: part coping method, part over excitement. I gave in, the tree went up.

Speaking of work, I’ve just finished my second week in my new job. It’s very interesting (although some of the theory is drrrrry) and I’m feeling confident about working around D- he’s loving after school club, which is a HUGE relief! My new bosses are also keenly aware of the importance of work/life balance; it’s very different to what I’ve been used to. I still haven’t quite shaken off the Sunday afternoon weirdness that comes with not having a huge pile of marking to do.

When it comes to extra time, I’ve been spending it well: I’ve made a load of Christmas presents (all knitted, bar one), read loads, done sheep duty and just actually rested. I’m sleeping well, breaking a well-worn battle with insomnia. My next plan involves more blogging (I have a few blog post ideas: more tea, career-related stuff, writing stuff), although our laptop is so horrendously slow, which is one of the main reasons that blogging has been on the back burner. I’m currently working on our tablet, which is not ideal to be honest. But hey-ho! Onwards and upwards.

Adagio Teas: Christmas Collection*

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I love a Christmas tea! They’ve become a huge deal in recent years (I remember when I wrote a blog exclusively about tea a few years ago, they were few and far between- and often samey. Not so now!) and there’s a tea for every taste.

Adagio Teas sent me a selection of their winter teas and gifts (as well as a cute red teapot to brew them all up in!) to try. Of course, ever the professional, I made it a mission to try them all. It’s a hard life.

First up, I tried the simply named Christmas on my commute to work. On the surface, this is a traditional Christmas tea, flavoured with spices and orange- but! There’s a surprise! Underneath the usual festive flavours, there’s a smoky hint. I’m not usually a fan of smoky teas, but here it works to balance out the other flavours. It’s a real winter warmer and perfect for chilly mornings.

I was sent the Stocking Stuffer (cute mini tins of loose tea) and Holiday Cheer (30 teabags) sets, which each include six of Adagio’s holiday teas. There’s also a Christmas tea sample box, which I’ve found handy for work tea breaks.

  • Chestnut tea is my favourite of the holiday teas- it combines the nutty flavour of chestnut with a comforting dose of caramel; it’s definitely a sweet treat!
  • Pumpkin Spice is more subtle and slightly sweeter than other pumpkin teas I’ve tried. It’s my current morning ‘go-to’ first thing.
  • Candy Apple is cute! It’s sweet and I love it for my afternoon treat! The Ceylon base is the perfect base for a show-stopping apple and caramel blend (my house also smells of this after I’ve made a cup. Perfect!)
  • Gingerbread tea is exactly as you expect, although a bit lighter than other gingerbread teas I’ve tried- but that’s not a criticism! It’s a warming blend that is a perfect early evening blend.
  • Candy Cane tea is an interesting blend! Black tea with sweet peppermint is refreshing and great after lunch, but don’t add milk. That’d be a bit weird.
  • Cranberry tea- this is great, although I’ll admit I was a bit wary at first! The cranberry works really well with the black tea (although best without milk) and makes a great change to the usual Christmas flavours.

If you’re a caffeine-free fan, I can recommend Yuletide Toddy, a fruit infusion with cranberry, orange and cinnamon- it works very nicely with a quick splash of brandy or spiced rum! I also really enjoyed Rooibos Nutcracker as a bedtime drink; it’s a blend of fruits, nuts, spices and caramel and I’m thinking about how I can mix it up as a latte…

Want to win some festive goodies from Adagio? Check out my Instagram for a great Christmas giveaway!

 

*sent for review

Recipe: Pan Moteado (Mexican-inspired tea bread)

moteado

I always think of tea loaves as a very traditional sort of cake- the kind of thing your great-great grandma would’ve made on a Sunday and rationed out during the week. There’s something quite Victorian about them, and I recently found out that they’re usually associated with Yorkshire. I love them because they’re super easy to make and I’m quite lazy…

This tea bread is inspired by a traditional bara brith, a Welsh tea bread,, but made with a bit of Mexico in mind. Thanks to Bluebird Tea Co.’s Dark Choc Chilli Chai, this has a bit of spice and a richness that I’ve not experienced in any other tea bread. I’ve also added chocolate chips in place of some of the traditional dried fruit; you can play with ratios as you see fit.

As bara brith translates as ‘mottled bread’, I decided to call this ‘pan mateado’- which translates as the same thing in Spanish. It’s a cake that I think represents a lot about me- my Welsh birth, my Yorkshire background and my love of anything Mexican. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

1 mug cold tea

300g self-raising flour

150g caster sugar

100g chocolate chips

50g raisins or other dried fruit

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180c and grease and line a loaf tin.
  2. Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl.
  3. Pour the tea into the bowl and mix with the other ingredients until it forms a batter.
  4. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes.
  5. After the 45 minutes, turn the oven off and leave the cake inside for another ten minutes.
  6. Remove cake from oven and cool on a wire rack.

Tea loaves are delicious on their own, or toasted with a bit of butter. Enjoy!