Little Totems?

By Mary Jo

This month’s Ask A Wench Question:

Many of us have little totems around, like stuffed animals or dolls or fairies or dragons. Do we give them personalities and stories as we do characters in our books?

Christina:  I used to always carry around a tiny Piglet (from the Winnie the Pooh stories), as a lucky mascot, but he got so grubby from being in my handbag that I had to leave him at home. He was also on the verge of losing his nose, poor thing! He was only the size of my palm so quite small and fragile. But he is still well-loved and hopefully sending me luck from the cupboard where he now sits next to a cleaner twin that someone gave me, thinking I could just swap him for a new one. Of course it doesn’t work that way but I don’t mind having two.

I don’t usually use stuffed animals or dolls as inspiration for my stories, but I do give a lot of them names. And in the case of my doll collection, being an incurable romantic I can’t help but arrange them in pairs on the shelf. As I mentioned in a blog post last year, I collect Barbie dolls, but my younger daughter also got me into Monster High dolls. They are absolutely gorgeous, based on monsters and mythical creatures but made to look pretty, and their clothes and accessories are superb. The majority are female, but there are some male ones as well and I’ve matched them up with suitable “girlfriends” on my shelf. If I ever write any more YA stories, I might well use them as inspiration!

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Ask A Wench – Who’s Grumpy?

640px-A_Grumpy_Lion_(70010871)“Why, Grumpy… You do care.” Snow White discovers Grumpy’s compassionate side.

Nicola here, introducing this month’s Ask A Wench and a topic that has caused much discussion among the Wenches lately. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons: Alex Patel).

“Adjectives to describe heroes have changed over the years.  "Grumpy" seems to be popular these days.  What does this mean to you? Are there other such adjectives you've liked or hated for heroes?”

Christina here and I don’t actually mind grumpy heroes, if they have a reason for being that way. Recently, I’ve read quite a few contemporary stories and Grumpy cat - Gage Skidmore Wikimedia Commons the grumpy heroes usually tend to be billionaires, which seems a bit odd. I mean, if you have enough money to buy anything you could possibly want, what’s there to be grumpy about? Mostly they’re tired of being pursued for their money, rather than their personality, which is fair enough. But if they’re just grouchy in general, they need a good kick up the backside so hopefully the story has a heroine who can administer that. Or they have been working too hard and the heroine injects some much-needed fun into their lives. If anyone has to be grumpy, I’d prefer it to be Grumpy Cat! (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons: Gage Skidmore).

I’ve seen “loner” and “damaged” a lot to describe either a historical hero who’s scarred from a recent war, for example, or a present-day hero who might be some sort of modern war veteran. This, to me, implies psychological scars, which can be difficult to sort out, but a kind and caring heroine is all they need.

“Brooding” is another adjective used to describe heroes, and this one I don’t like. It just conjures up images of a scowling man who is taciturn and stand-offish. Those are not attractive traits. Reminds me of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, a hero I could never take to or understand.

If an author wants to hook me with their blurb, all they need to do is tell me their hero is a “bad boy” and I’m there. (OK, that's two words, but still …) Now that is something that will draw me in every time!

WarthogMary Jo:

Writing book blurbs is challenging because one wants to capture the essence of the plot, the characters, and the feel of the story.  Words must be chosen very carefully.  Characters can be brave, kind, resourceful, tormented, reserved, warm-hearted, witty, charming, fierce, stubborn, and many other possible describers.

But I have to say that describing a hero as "grumpy" is at the absolute bottom of my list of adjectives.  To me "grumpy" is someone who is bad-tempered for no good reason.  Probably immature, irredeemable, and certainly not good company. 

 To me, this picture of a warthog pretty much defines, "Grumpy."  Not at all romantic except perhaps to another warthog!

(Picture: Wolfgang-Hasselmann, 

Anne: I don't mind the term 'grumpy' for heroes. To me it's shorthand for a hero who's 'hard to crack' and that signals a fun journey to romance. I generally Dog grumpy assume a grumpy hero has been pursued for his money or position or used in some way, and as a result has become cynical and maybe even a little embittered about women. Whatever the reason, he doesn't believe in love. And isn't that a challenge we all enjoy?

But 'cynical' or 'embittered' or 'damaged' are not attractive-sounding adjectives to put in a book blurb, whereas grumpy sounds temporary enough that the hero can change, which is what we want. Perhaps he was even a romantic in his youth, but something happened to change him into the man he is now. So as a reader, I want the heroine to chip away at his hard, protective shell, and make him believe in love again. 

It's a description often used in contemporary romances, but there are plenty of historical romance heroes of the 'grumpy' sort. Quite a few of Amanda Quick's heroes could fit in this category — Seduction, Scandal, to name a couple. And maybe Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels. Possibly Darcy in Pride & Prejudice. Julie Garwood's Saving Grace?  Mary Balogh has a few. Even my hero in Gallant Waif was listed as a "hot grumpy hero" in this list on Goodreads. 

So, I take the 'grumpy' description with a pinch of salt and expect a 'hard to crack' hero and a fun romance. It doesn't always happen, but I'm certainly not turned off by the term.

(Picture: Charlesdeluvio, 

EagleAndrea: We Wenches had an hilarious ”pre-game” discussion on this question as we composed our answers, so I hope you are all having as much fun with this as we did! 

“Grumpy” is not a word that would leap to my mind when thinking of adjectives for a hero. However, I don’t see it as an irredeemable flaw. I'm thinking of Roy Kent in Ted Lasso, who came across as a total grump, snapping and snarling at everyone. But viewers were given backstory hints that his demeanor was a protection for his inner vulnerabilities. And I found it delightful to watch several of the people around him—including his 8-year-old niece—slowly wear down his defenses. That he ultimately learned to laugh at himself and not to be afraid of expressing his feelings made for a very feel-good story of friendship and love.

Yes, there are some people who can’t be redeemed.  Self-absorbed, selfish men who have no empathy or sense of humor will never be heroes in my book. But men who have been hurt before, or are struggling with inner self-doubts make wonderfully complex characters and it’s fun to create a heroine who can stare dwon thie scowls and draw them out of their shell.

(Photo credit: Gerda DaRif)

Pat: I can’t top a grumpy warthog or cranky cat, so I went to the source—Merriam Webster, which says “grumpy” means “moodily cross: surly.” Synonyms Gorilla are a bit harsher: choleric, cross, peevish, grouchy, cranky. . .” 

Right now, I’m reading a book where the heroine is “snarky,” which to me, is far worse than “grumpy.” One can be grumpy when getting up in the morning before coffee. Snarky takes work. But in this book, the heroine has very good reason to be “peevish and grouchy.” It’s a wonder she’s still alive and hasn’t killed anyone yet.

I will totally accept grumpy heroes or heroines—if they have good reason to be so. If they’re just perpetually irritable, I’ll probably quit the book. (actually, if they’re billionaires, I’ll probably quit the book because who cares about their problems? I never liked Prince Charming either) I want likable characters, even if they’re likable despite themselves.

So the hero who has been badly burned by those he loved or trusted has every right to snarl at a heroine who chirps about true love making the world go ‘round. If she keeps on chirping despite his attempts to put her off, he can even bark loudly. I’d sure the heck do so. Okay, maybe I like grumpy because I am grumpy!

(Image by TitusStaunton from Pixabay)

Susan: The word grumpy can be misleading and subjective. Grumpy can have different meanings for everyone (it kind of reminds me of Grumpy in Snow Grumpy hawk photo by otto park White, who turned out to have a heart of gold, aww!). This discussion of grumpy heroes touches on the basic question of what qualities make a story hero a heroic and appealing character. Is a "grumpy" hero a man who is reserved, cautious, protective–yet basically emotionally mature and emotionally attractive – or is he a guy who might be selfish, spoiled, petty, and irredeemable? Is the grumpy sort worth the heroine's time and energy (and worth the reader's time and energy as well)? This "grumpy" descriptor works two ways – he's either a negative or a positive character and influence in the story. This grouch is either heroic at his core, or he is further down the scale toward non-hero. 

A gruff hero has substance and heart, and can lead to transformation and great reward for hero and heroine in the story. But a grumpy guy who is just difficult and not all that fixable — maybe he's better off as a villain.   

Years back, Mary Jo Putney and author Eileen Charbonneau and I did a few workshops on a hero type we called the Warrior Poet — the WP. We also called him the M&M hero, the tough guy with the outer shell that's hard to crack, yet he's yummy and loving inside (we handed out M&Ms to our workshop attendees!). Today we might call this guy a little bit grumpy or gruff. Beneath that hardened outer emotional shell, the restrained emotion and invulnerable facade, the WP/M&M guy can be soft-hearted with a deep capacity to love. That has tremendous potential in a romance hero. And it’s up to the heroine (and the writer) to bring out the best in him and help him get past what makes him so cautious and protective to help him discover his innate capacity to love. The story variations on this theme are endless.

This is my favorite hero to write, and I've played with variations on the Warrior Poet/M&M/Oscar the Grouch type many times. Open up almost any of my books and you'll find a guy who's a bit grouchy, standoffish, wry — but he deeply loves his family, his principles, he has tremendous integrity that he doesn't put on display. He's got a lot of secrets, with reason. But he's there in a flash for the heroine, and through her, he learns to crack that shell, open that door, and grow as a warrior, a poet, and a guy who loves M&Ms.  (Photo by @wings_in_light found here)  

Nicola: So there you have it – our thought on "grumpy" and other sorts of heroes and heroines. For me, like Susan, the first thing I think of when I hear the What_are_you_staring_at__(19878331218) word "grumpy" is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I didn't like the original Grumpy, heart of gold or not! Gruff seems a much more acceptable term to me for that tough, taciturn exterior that hides a heroic heart. But it's all in the interpretation and that is always subjective.

What are your thoughts on "grumpy" and the other words that are used to describe heroes? 

AAW: Favorite Furnishings!

by Mary Jo

Image003This Ask A Wench blog was inspired when we started talking about furniture in our private Word Wenches email loop, and we found out that we all had stories about favorite things!

Here is the question I asked: "Do you have a particular piece of furniture that you cherish? Tell us its story!"

And here are the replies:

From Pat Rice:

I HAD wonderful pieces that I cherished—the Victorian sofa my stepfather reupholstered in lovely wine and cream to match my Tudor-style dark oak living room; the dark oak dining table that was our very first piece of “bought” furniture, the one with scars in it from little hands pressing too hard with writing instruments while doing homework; the beautiful Bentwood rocker from my mother that I rocked my babies in… and the magnificent handmade mahogany Queen Anne bedroom suite I bought with my first big royalty check. ( the pic shows the table and the antique sideboard I picked up at a yard sale!)

They’re all gone now, left behind when we moved across the country to a modern cottage on the Pacific coast. These days, we live with NICOLA.Seaborn's chair thrift store bargains—because new, they probably cost more than all the above furniture did when we bought them. I no longer feel guilt at dumping a designer leather couch when we move to a house where it doesn’t fit. I can buy an even better one in a design that matches. Throw away furniture—it’s a Thing.

Nicola contributes a "Slightly macabre piece!"

 When I was a child my grandparents, who lived with us, bought an 18th century grandfather clock that stood in the hall, its loud tick filling the air and somehow giving a sense of reassurance and permanence. I loved that clock! I loved its painted face and the fact that it was much taller than I was, and that it had been made in the North of England and was so old.

Fast forward fifty years, and when we were clearing my parents’ house I really wanted to take that clock home to live with me. But there was a problem. It was too tall. Or our ceilings were too low. Whichever way you looked at it, it didn’t fit. We thought about taking several inches off the bottom of it, which wasn’t really feasible. We even thought about lowering a small part of the floor but that was even less practical. In the end I had to accept that it just wasn’t going to happen. My step-brother has it now and as he loves it too, that’s good enough for me.


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Ask a Wench for February: The Perfect Romance Convention

Screen Shot 2021-02-12 at 12.06.40 AMJoanna here, thinking how nice it would be to get away from all this rain.

Which leads to how the Wenches from time to time go to Writers’ Conferences where they attend sessions that help make them better writers and give talks that help other writers do the same, but mostly they hang out in coffee shops and gossip with friends because that’s what folks do at conferences.

So … what would be the most interesting spot for a conference if you could pick any time and place whatsoever?

Some thoughts on this.


Pat:  Oh my, this poses entirely too many choices. I’ll simply go with the first one that pops to mind—


Ranelagh. Maybe Mozart is playing
(Click on the image for a close up_

Ranelagh Gardens in its heyday, about 1765 when the likes of Mozart played in a rotunda painted by Canaletto.  Vauxhall would be another choice, but I like warmth, and the rotunda was heated.

Neither of them are available today in all their glory, so it would be a great joy to see how they looked as our characters wandered about, rubbing elbows with dukes and princes in the case of Ranelagh, and with maids and merchants if we choose Vauxhall.

We could have sessions with genuine lords and ladies and ask them all those eternal questions on how they wish to be addressed (do you really wish to be addressed as Your Grace, Duke? Or would your closest friend address you by the name you had growing up, Kingsley, as in Marquess of?). I would not presume to give a talk on the address question, but I would be happy to speak to The Future and Women’s Rights in Our Novels, if asked.

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Ask A Wench – Memorable Trips

51qaeVAqN5L._SX324_BO1 204 203 200_Nicola here, introducing our monthly Ask A Wench feature. A few weeks ago, the Wenches got chatting about past holiday/vacation experiences and all sorts of stories came out of trips that were variously good, bad, fascinating, hilarious, life-changing and emotional.  With the world the way it is at the moment, most of us are travelling vicariously, so we thought that for the AAW we would share some of those travellers’ tales and ask you for your own stories of memorable trips.

Susan writes: 

The first time I went to Britain and Europe was the first I had ever left the country, been on a plane, or 1200px-Interior_of_Sainte-Chapelle_traveled with friends rather than family. I was in grad school when I went to England, France, and Belgium for nearly a month, in mostly glorious June weather, with an art history professor and another student and her husband, and the professor's wife for part of the trip as well. It was an incredible adventure, one crazy, fun day after another as we traveled by train, Hovercraft, and little tin-can rental cars, hauling this way and that to visit cathedrals, castles, and museums, especially those off the beaten track. I was immersed in medieval studies and the prof and student were 19th century specialists, so we had quite the wish list between us for art and architecture, and hit every high point belonging in the art history texts – and a few low ones that maybe didn't – that we could find. 

 Our adventures included lost luggage, getting lost in the English and French countrysides – and while happily toodling along through the Loire Valley in a little Renault, suddenly finding ourselves in the crazy midst of the Tour de France (who knew that was going on, it was before the internet, and the papers were all in French so we understandably missed that little detail). From Paris through the Loire and back again, I tried out my French, and even with six years of study and a French grandmama, it was a constant but exciting challenge, with some memorable faux pas (no, I did not know that le poisson I ordered would come served with its eyeballs staring at me, and I still don't like to order fish in a restaurant). In England, we covered a lot of territory by train and car and on foot. At one point I developed a raging case of strep throat and had to find a doctor in London – whose receptionist had no idea how to take a payment from a foreigner. "How about five pounds," the doctor finally said with a shrug, and I paid and went off to the chemists for an antibiotic before we took off for Canterbury and southern England, then France. In Paris, I fell in love with Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle and a million other wonderful things, and then Chartres, Versailles…and off to Amiens, where our hotel reservations had somehow not been confirmed on the French side, and my friend's husband, who spoke very bad French, came back to report that "Le sitchoowaysheeon ay tray grave," which made us all howl with laughter and became our trip's motto. 

Retable_de_l'Agneau_mystique_(3)And on through the castles and towns of the Loire, past golden and lavender fields, stone castles, a thousand bicycles, and back up again to Rouen to feed my lifelong obsession for Jeanne d'Arc… and then up to Belgium and Bruges – a medievalist's paradise – and Ghent to study more of Van Eyck, all related to my thesis work. And along the way, I learned a great deal about 19th c. art and how to order food for a finicky stomach, and more, courtesy of my friends. Just an unforgettable trip that still sticks with me today. I'm so grateful to have seen it all with good friends, including a professor who was not only a brilliant historian and a great teacher, but just a hoot, which made all the difference when we were all jammed in that petit Renault. And finally, back home to the new husband who didn't mind me leaving to go do my art history thing – and back to the studies, with much-improved French and a greater appreciation for history, art, the world, les bicyclettes on le road, and friendship as well. 


Holidays with my family were often memorable for the wrong reasons and one of them more so Tutankhamun
than others. When I was 17, my parents took me and my brother on what was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. We started off with a few days in the Seychelles – so far so good – and then continued on to Kenya to go on safari. There were no decent roads so we had to fly to the safari park in a tiny propeller plane that made me feel very ill. Once there, we found that we were supposed to sleep in tents – luxurious ones with showers and proper beds, but still … with wild animals nearby? And I had to share my shower with the biggest spider I’d ever seen in my life! He wouldn’t budge and I wasn’t going to touch him. During the first night, a herd of elephants rampaged through the tent compound. Luckily no one was hurt and I’d managed to sleep through it (thus proving that nothing wakes me!), but even hearing about it afterwards was more than a little scary. Being a typical teenager, I didn’t enjoy the following days spent roaming the countryside looking for wild animals – not my thing. And just before leaving for the next safari park, my brother decided to feed the local monkeys. One of them bit him – cue a whole afternoon spent at a hospital in Nairobi while he had to have rabies shots and I thought he was going to die!

By Jebulon - Own work  CC0  httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid 46576308Leaving Kenya was a relief, and the next stop was Egypt, something I’d been looking forward to enormously. I knew I wouldn’t be bored there, being a history buff! The only problem was that Tutankhamun and his famous mask weren’t there – they’d gone on tour – so I didn’t get to see them (although I did go in his tomb). We hired a private guide to take us to the Pyramids, and on the way back to the hotel he stopped at a perfume shop (presumably owned by his family) where we were herded inside by a couple of rather intimidating men who wouldn’t let us leave until we’d bought some yucky perfume bottles – scary! I also developed the mother of all colds with a raging sore throat, and felt so ill I fainted in the temple of Karnak. (In my defence, it was 40 degrees Celsius I the shade). It didn’t stop me from visiting Luxor though, and at least there were no monkeys …

I had recovered somewhat by the time we continued on to Greece, where I was looking forward to seeing the Acropolis. When we arrived, however, the airline had lost my suitcase which was upsetting. We visited the airport several times to see if they’d found it and they must have got sick of seeing us so they said we could go and look for ourselves. Turned out in the basement they had literally thousands of lost suitcases, but would you believe it – I found mine! Anyway, I did enjoy the sights but it was quite a relief to go home after all that.


I’ve had a number of memorable trips (including those where Everything Went Wrong) . . . backpacking with my brothers in the Wind Andrea
 River mountains of Wyoming . . . discovering Tuscany . . . a river barge trip through Scotland . . . But I think the most special experience was traveling through Switzerland with my mother—just the two of us—and seeing all the places that were part of her childhood. I was leaving my first job after college and we decided to take a month to travel before I went on to my new job.

 We started in Zurich, where she grew up right on the lake, a few miles out of the city. We then traveled by scenic train and boat through the Alps, where she had spent a year away at school learning French in French Switzerland, and then down to the Engadine, where she had skied every winter with her family. We did lots of hiking every day, and over dinner and wine had a chance to bond in a new way than just as Mother and Child. We had always been close—I don’t have sisters—but this was exploring not only a gorgeous country, and her family memories, but also the changing relationship  of child becoming an independent adult. It was a very meaningful experience that both of us treasured.

 One of her favorite places was the Silsersee, a breathtakingly beautiful lake near St. Moritz. We hiked around it, and she told of how much she loved cross country skiing on the frozen lake in winter, and beauty of walking there in Fall. I went back two years ago, and brought with me a small vial of her ashes, which I put into the lake. It was a crystal-clear day and I like to think she was smiling at joining a part of the cosmos that was dear to her heart.

Pat: We travel a great deal for research as well as pleasure, so it’s hard to sort out all the lovely memories. Our first trip down the Pat Danube last year was certainly memorable in many ways, as was our research trip to the Orkneys with Mary Jo and spouse. But if we’re talking about emotional memories, I think it would have to be our last vacation with our kids when they were both teens and young enough to be forced into the car with us. <G>

The kids were still in school. I was writing and working, and my husband had a job that took up a lot of time, so scheduling all four
of us required effort. But we spent two weeks on the road, traveling from the Mississippi River through the Southwest to the California coast and back through the Rockies. One kid wanted Disneyland, the other wanted Haight-Asbury. All the wondrous parks and mountains and deserts in between meant nothing to them—but Chaco Canyon and the Rocky Mountains are the photos we took. We all have those memories now, and nothing can take them away from us—now that’s special.

Mary Jo

WestminsterI've taken many wonderful journeys: Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, the Amazon.  Lots of cruises on riverboats and in the Baltic and the Caribbean and more.  So hard to single out just one!

 But perhaps the most memorable was my first trip to Europe.  My mother spent much of her childhood abroad, and we were raised with stories of her living in China, Thailand, Switzerland.  I was passionate to travel myself, and I managed my first grand journey after my sophomore year of college.  I worked part time in the university library to earn money to pay for the trip–in retrospect, I'm not sure how I managed it!

 I traveled with Merril, one of my college roommates.  I guess our parents figured we were both steady enough to be allowed loose on another continent.  We took a charter flight full of students from New York to London, and then–we were there! Jetlagged and eyes full of wonder.  The plan had been to buy bicycles in London and head north, staying at youth hostels. A lot of the other hostelers were hitchhiking, and we soon realized that bicycles were very limiting in terms of the ground we could cover, so we stashed them in a hostel in Lichfield and stuck out our thumbs.

Yes, we covered lots of ground and never had a problem with the people who picked us up. (Safety in numbers?)  North to Scotland, then back to London.  (We retrieved the bikes in Lichfield and sold them back to the London shop where we bought them.)  Then the ferry to Belgium, north to Amsterdam and Copenhagen, south to Switzerland and Italy, then to Paris and back to London. 

 In retrospect, I'm amazed at our intrepidity.  (Possibly stupidity. <G>)  We saw many great places, had café au lait with fresh croissants in Paris, and met many, many wonderful young people in the hostels. This is where I first met the amazing young women of Australia and New Zealand who were doing their version of the Grand Tour by taking a year off to travel around the world.  (Anne Gracie, our Aussie wench, has some great stories about her journeys!)

As I write this, I'm remembering all kinds of specific incidents, too many to relate here, but most of all, I'm recognizing what an amazing, life changing experience Merril and I had. Three months after we left, we returned to New York intact and still friends.  And I'd taken the first big step to a lifetime of travel.

 Anne here. Like Mary Jo, I've done a fair bit of travel in my time, and each trip has been memorable in some way. One was a Annebackpacking trip I took when I was about nineteen, hitch-hiking around NZ during the long university holidays with a friend. We stayed in youth hostels a lot, but my brother had given me a little two-person tent for Christmas, and it certainly got plenty of use. We pitched it in all sorts of weird and wonderful places, as well as the occasional actual camping ground, and got quite used to sleeping on the ground. One time we got a lift into the middle of a forest with some forest workers, and then didn't see another vehicle for the rest of the day. But we found a gorgeous stream and camped next to it under a wide bridge where it was dry.

Another time we hiked for a day into the wilderness on beautiful Stuart Island (at the bottom of NZ) and camped there beside a little stream for nearly a week, until our food ran out, and then hiked back, intending to catch the ferry in the morning. We were salivating at the thought of the counter dinner we'd have at the only hotel in the small town of Oban, but when we got there, everything in the whole town was closed. The only camping ground was a mile the other side of town and we were tired and hungry, and it was getting dark, so we decided to find a bit of bush (wilderness) on the edge of town and camp there. We found a spot on a bit of a hill, set up the tent, dined on a couple of slices of stale salami and a little bit of semi-melted chocolate, and went to sleep. At dawn I was woken by the sound of a rooster crowing. I unzipped the tent and looked out. We had camped in someone's back yard!!! I guess they don't need fences on Stuart Island. So we furtively packed up the tent and hurried down to the town to wait for the hotel to open so we could get some breakfast. Here's a photo of me being brave and explorer-y (ie posing shamelessly) on a glacier, a few weeks later.

Like the rest of the Wenches I’ve had more than my share of exciting trips both abroad and in the UK, and I love to travel when I can. I’ve driven across Africa, Iceland, Jordan and Costa Rica in a Land Rover (on separate occasions!) as well as sailed to the Arctic and the Sea of Cortes, but one of my favourite trips was to see the Northern Lights. It was about 20 years ago and we flew to Tromso in Northern Norway in February. We’d been prepared for the cold and packed loads of woolly jumpers, but hadn’t been prepared for driving in snow and ice. The Norwegians were taking it all in their stride, but as we hopped in our tiny hire car and drove off through a six foot high tunnel of snow, we were more than a little nervous.

We found our way safely to the island of Sommeroy where we had booked a cosy chalet on the beach for a week. We’d been assured that this was one of the best places to see the Northern Lights and confidently settled down to wait. On the first night there was thick cloud and the darkness was impenetrable. On the second night it snowed, which was very pretty but not what we were looking for.

With some disappointment we headed into the town the next day to drown our sorrows with a mug of hot chocolate at Unna Tun’s Northern lightscafé. We had quickly discovered that this, the only café on the island, was both a very warm place to thaw out after a walk and also did the best cooked breakfasts. We got chatting to some of the locals who solemnly assured us that the Northern Lights would be out that night and not just that, they would appear at 8pm precisely. We thought they were making fun of us but nevertheless we went out and lay in the snow at five to eight, and at eight o’clock on the dot, out came the Northern Lights, rippling in billows of green, red and purple across the sky like the finest gauze curtain. It was the most magical experience.

The following night we were out again at eight but we had to wait until ten past before the Lights came out and put on a magnificent show for us again. Even now I can remember how cold it felt lying on my back in the snow, staring up at the sky where the Northern Lights seemed to drift so low you could almost reach out and touch them.

The following day was the last of our holiday and to celebrate we climbed the only mountain on the island, more of a hill really. There was a superb view out across the sea and not a soul for miles around. Then just as we were reaching the summit, there was a strange rumbling noise, some of the hillside slid away to reveal a concealed metal door and a soldier in uniform popped out. It was like a scene from a James Bond film. He apologised that we weren’t allowed to walk there as it was a NATO installation and escorted us politely back down the hillside. Just another extraordinary experience to add to our trip!


Ww shorelineWhen I was a kid we’d all pile into the woody-sided station wagon, (five kids) and drive off to a cabin on the Chesapeake Bay. I'd get car sick. We’d go out on the Bay in a little Boston Whaler, all of us stuffed into life jackets. I'd get seasick. We’d watch the sea birds and catch a surprising number of fish. On our way back to the cabin we’d buy fresh corn at a farmers’ market and bring my mother our flounder to bread in corn meal and serve for dinner.

 Some days we’d sit and fish off one of the piers that stuck out over the water of a slow tidal river running into the estuary. Boats would come and go and we’d all go over to admire everybody’s big sports fish catch, which aren’t really much good to eat but we respected their bragging rights. We’d buy cokes at the bait and tackle shop, and  run out to ease in our lines with chicken necks tied to them and scoop up the crabs that had come to nibble.

Best of all, we’d go out to Scientists’ Cliffs on the Chesapeake and collect fossils. This was before the communities living on the cliffs above got stroppy about folks splashing along the shoreline.

 Scientists’ Cliffs and Calvert Cliffs and the other communities down there are built at the top of huge cliffs. Doomed cliffs, slowly Ww tooth eroding into the sea, full of fossils. My sisters and I would go splashing along the waterline in tennis shoes. I'd get sunburned. We'd bring home bucketfuls of broken seashells and Miocene shark’s teeth and, once, a shark's vertebra.

These can be BIG shark’s teeth, some of them the size of the palm of your hand.

 Good times.

What are your tales of memorable trips? We'd love to hear them – the good, the bad, the funny, the emotional – they are all special! And if you are travelling mainly through reading at the moment, which trips have you enjoyed reading about?