The killingly awful search for a literary agent

From 2018 to 2019 I approached twenty-one agents for my novel “Honeysuckle Rage and the Everlasting Tree.”  I got eleven rejections.  The rest didn’t respond at all.  Disheartened, I left it for a year.  Then I gave in to internal pressure and relabelled the genre as YA. 

I’d never thought of it as YA.  The heroine and narrator is fifteen but that doesn’t necessarily make it YA.  And anyway, the next in the series was going to be narrated by her mother.  I didn’t think that would necessarily work in a YA series.  But ultimately, I didn’t think the book (or the series) was hard-ass enough to qualify as YA.  This is no Hunger Games.  There are no apocalypses, no modern day issues, not much about being a teenager.  It isn’t geared towards teenage-ness. 

Genre for me has always been a problem.  So has topic, theme and Writing What People Want.  The Honeysuckle Rage series is about relationships between oddball characters, mostly women.  It’s lightweight but is grounded in the serious business of a war developing in a portal world that will affect Earth.  It’s set in a fictional village in England that is gorgeous.  The portal world is more gorgeous than anything you can imagine – every time you go there, it’s like entering your best ever dream.

How do I sell this? 

I know agents really want Dark Themes.  They want Teenage Crises (for YA).  They want GOT (for fantasy).  They want violence.  They want suffering.  They want people being horrible to each other.  As a result, they’re never going to want my book.  And yes, I could self-publish it, as I’ve self-published everything else.  But everything else has sunk without a trace.  I have not-bad books out there that no one has ever read.  I have created worlds no one has ever entered.  I don’t have the money or common sense to promote these books.  There is a lack in me, an inability, a terror of the world.  It’s this that makes me a not-bad writer, I think, my hidden strangeness.  But it also renders me utterly unknown.

So.  A literary agent it is, then.  But how to get their attention?  I’ve once again started looking for an agent for this particular book.  Six agents in six weeks.  Three rejections, three no-responses.  This is not the first time I’ve looked for an agent.  This is not the first book I’ve tried to get published the traditional way.  There was a time that there was no other option but trad-publishing.  Those were the days when I could barely afford to feed myself, let alone spend money on stamps to send a hard copy to someone AND pay for return postage.  Those were the days when I’d have to TYPE the package (cover letter, synopsis, first three chapters) manually.  One agent invited me around to his house and told me he’d just spent £50 on flowers (about £186 today).  This was the mid-eighties.  £50, to me, was two weeks dole.  Another agent only agreed to see me because her mother attended an art class where I was the artist’s model.  This same agent then lost my one and only manuscript.  The novel was lost forever.  I’d spent years on it and it was gone.  100k words thrown in the trash.

It’s a lot easier sending your proposal to agents by email these days.  It’s also a lot easier for them to hit that rejection button.  The last rejection email I got arrived less than 24 hours after I’d submitted my package.  They’re not even reading them.  They have secretaries or assistants or slaves or whatever who spend their lives just sending out rejection notes.  Or perhaps it’s on auto-reply.  They tell people to put the word “submission” in the subject line and then the algorithm knows to hurl back an instant rejection.

I don’t really know where to go with this.  People are forever telling me, rather patronisingly, that I must persist.  I mustn’t give up.  But the humiliation of being an unknown, unread, unloved author just goes on and on and on.  At what point does one break?  At what point does one give up?  I’ve been trying for decades and I STILL don’t know whether my work gets rejected because it’s crap or because I’m just unlucky.  It can’t be both because crap is published every day.  Clearly I’m writing the wrong kind of crap.  And if it’s actually brilliant, then no one has noticed!

Is it any wonder I’ve turned into a some kind of nutcase that can barely leave the house?  I’m ashamed of my failure, yet I go on.  This weekend I’ll send out three more submission to be ignored or hurled back in my face and spend the rest of the week trying not to slide into the pit of despair.

I wish I could end this on a more positive note but I really want to make it quite clear that for every fabulous success story, there is someone like me.  I don’t believe I’m the only one.  Or perhaps I am.  Perhaps all the other “only ones” have already made it.  Success comes to writers younger and younger and younger.  I’m too old to be interesting anymore.  It’s nigh on impossible to remain cheerily positive about finding success when you’ve hunted for it for nearly 40 years. 

Pardon me while I go and drink another bitter cup of self-pity.

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Never, ever ask a woman why she wears so much makeup.

Last year I made a conscious decision to embrace my inner shallow side and start wearing makeup again.  And by makeup, I mean eye makeup, because up to that point, I wouldn’t leave the house if I wasn’t wearing foundation and lipstick/gloss.  Okay, wait, that’s not strictly true:  when I go out for my early morning walk, I’m only wearing lip salve which doesn’t really count as makeup.  But then, there aren’t many people out on the London streets at 7.30 in the morning (not in winter anyway) so I don’t care.  And that’s the funny thing about wearing full makeup – I don’t care if people see me without makeup.  It’s like I got less self-conscious about my naked face by learning how to cover it up.

It all started when I got Covid last January.  It was horrible.  It’s a horrible illness.  It was the full-on unvaccinated Delta variant.  People seem to dismiss my suffering when they hear I wasn’t hospitalised.  It seems you only deserve sympathy if you end up on a ventilator.  I didn’t get it that badly but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t horrible.  I keep using the word horrible because it was HORRIBLE!  The morning of Day 5 found me lying motionless on the kitchen floor.  I didn’t fall down and I didn’t faint.  I just realised, as I was about to turn the kettle on for a cup of tea, that I couldn’t stand up.  So I lay down and then couldn’t move for an hour.  I was severely dehydrated and made a note to drink more water than I’d ever drunk before, even in the middle of the night.  I survived Covid but the recovery was long and miserable.  When all this is over, I decided, I’m gonna wear makeup again.  I’m gonna treat myself.  I’m gonna spend money on eyeshadow palettes and expensive mascara and find the right shade of foundation.  I’m gonna spend an hour in the morning painting all these colours on me and it’s gonna be FUN.

But it’s not just because of Covid that I wear makeup.  In my teens, I had the usual teenage skin, the kind that makes you want to spend your life inside a paper bag.  I envied the women in magazines with their porcelain faces.  I thought they were real.  In those days, none of us knew they were touched up.  I became excruciatingly self-conscious.  This physical shyness actually began when I was four years old in nursery school and I was teased because I had a banana on my face.  I had NO idea what the kids were on about.  It was only later that I realised I had a crescent-shaped scar on my left cheek, starting on the cheekbone and ending just above my jaw.  This was a result of my poor mother being butchered when she gave birth to me and I was hauled out unceremoniously by forceps, my face torn open.  Most people don’t notice this scar but that’s only because it’s now lost between the acne scars.  Even under foundation, I can still see it.  I don’t mind it.  There are other scars which run much, much deeper.

My teenage years were gruesome.  I ended them with zero self-esteem, trapped in a coercive-control relationship, convinced my mother loathed me, borderline suicidal.  My skin reflected all of this.  In my mid-twenties, instead of my skin clearing up, it was badly weather-damaged by working outside for eight years on a market stall.  It was already badly sun-damaged by growing up in South Africa.  In my teens, if you didn’t have a tan, you were a revolting slug, so I spent hours trying to tan my very, very fair skin, every second of which I regret now more than anything as the damage is actually quite worrying.  In my thirties, adult acne had settled in without any sign that it would ever clear up.  I had a string of failed relationships behind me and was convinced I was hideously ugly.  It’s not like anyone ever told me any better.  By this time, I’d learnt to use foundation (invariably the wrong shade) and never went out without eyeshadow, mascara, eyeliner (that heavy eighties look) and lipstick.  By the time my forties arrived, I was a single parent and extremely poor and could barely afford decent skincare, let alone decent makeup.  At no time, even during pregnancy, did the acne abate.  Not even during menopause.  Honestly, I think I must surely have broken all world records for the most persistent acne.  It has never been BAD.  One utterly horrible doctor said to me once, oh, you can just hide it with foundation.  Wow, no stars for you, goddamn middle-class bitch with your perfect skin (was what I didn’t say). 

I’ve never found the cause of the acne I’ve suffered.  No treatment has ever worked for it either:  antibiotics, the Pill, salicylic acid.  These were the only solutions open to me as I couldn’t afford to go to a private dermatologist or get fancy skin peels and such.  I had to make do with over-the-counter garbage.  On top of this, my skin became unbelievably sensitive.  The stuff that dried out your spots also killed my skin off stone dead.  Which bloody condition was I supposed to target?  Acne or aging skin??  When I was young, there were no gorgeous skincare products.  The range available today is mind blowing, and not just for acne.  There are products available now that would probably sort out my skin in a jiffy, except that I still can’t afford them.  So here I am at 58 with sun damage, scars, acne that persists despite an extremely healthy diet and 3 litres of water a day, and a whole new problem:  moles.  Loads of them.  Big ones, small ones, dark ones, light ones, ones that grow in clusters, ones that hang from my eyebrows.  And under makeup, guess what:  they look like I’ve still got full-on acne.

Now why, I ask myself, should I even care about this.  As the years have gone by, I’ve managed to convince myself that I’m not hideously ugly, that I’m not vain but lack confidence, and that it doesn’t matter what I look like.  My daughter has grown up in a different world with a maturity regarding her looks that I envy.  She has extremely fine skin, as fair as mine, and suffers from worse acne than I did.  I worry that she’ll be emotionally scarred by this, as I was, but at the same time admire her toughness.  Young women today are not mocked for having bad skin.  There is so much support for them that it just blows my mind.  Beauty and determination and self-containment shines through my daughter in a way I can never emulate.  I was raised with the mantra “you’ll never find a man looking like that.”  It has taken me YEARS to shake that off.  It has taken me YEARS to realise WHO I’m dressing for, WHO I’m wearing makeup for, WHO I’m living for:  ME.

By the time I hit my late forties, I’d lost my eyebrows, my eyelashes and an inch of hair around my hairline.  I stopped wearing eye makeup and poverty forced my wardrobe into dullness.  I wore the same old foundation day after day even though it was the wrong colour and made me look dull.  It took feeling sick with Covid for two months for me to wake up.  There was first the desire not to slide into old age looking, well, old.  Secondly, I’d finally realised that I wanted to look good for ME and no one else.  And thirdly, I found a YouTuber I really liked, whose hairstyle I’d discovered in the hunt for the Perfect Pixie.  It turned out she did makeup tutorials as well.  While I was recovering from illness, I watched her for ten minutes every day during what felt like a very, very long lockdown (the third one), drinking my coffee (a new addiction) and eating Oaties.  I felt myself in a calm, quiet place watching this lovely woman turn her hooded eyes (I have those too) into beautiful, achievable sparklers.  I began to investigate the makeup she used and was gobsmacked:  I couldn’t BELIEVE how much makeup had changed since the last time I’d looked! 

This is what makeup did for me: 

I discovered that I still had eyebrows and eyelashes – it was just that they’d gone grey and needed a bit of help. 

My eyes didn’t have to look like a sad droopy basset hound.

Glitter and shimmer is divine.  Colour is divine.  It’s so CHEERING.

I don’t have to wear eye makeup every day.  My life isn’t about glamour and I don’t need it to go out the door.  But it’s fun.  It’s relaxing.  I love playing with colour.  I don’t always get it right but that’s part of the experience.  No one gives a shit whether I wear makeup or not because the world is, thankfully, in a different place now.  You don’t need makeup to look gorgeous and I’m not trying to look gorgeous and I don’t think I’m vain.  (Although if I ever win the lottery, I’m having all those damn moles removed).

Everyone wears makeup for different reasons.  Everyone has their scars whether visible or not.  Me, personally, I just want colour.  If you compliment me on my glittery eyes with an odd expression on your face (the one that says, geez, you’re too old for that), I’m gonna say thanks.  I’ve spent my whole life thinking I was ugly.  It’s a waste of time.  Putting makeup on means I stop thinking about myself and can concentrate on what’s really important.

Never, ever ask an (older) woman why she wears so much makeup.  Chances are she’ll go off and write a boring blog about it.

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Finding inspiration in a walk at dawn

A cold, crisp winter’s morning with a blush of orange on the horizon (mostly hidden by buildings).  A dash down to the river, bundled up in a huge scarf, via Gray’s Inn and Temple Inn, through the columns where they filmed a fight sequence in one of the Mission Impossible movies, past the church that featured heavily in The Da Vinci Code.  Slightly less traffic at 7.30, London not quite awake yet, the fiery colour draining from the sky as the sun approaches naked dawn.

Before I’d reached the river, an idea for a short story had occurred to me.  It was truly a bolt from the blue.  Inspiration had struck as if from nowhere.  It wasn’t even the sort of short story I usually write and was way outside any of the various series I’m currently working on.  Where did this idea come from?  Was it just floating along, waiting to attach itself to the first person who crossed its path?  Was my mind so relaxed and exhilarated by the delicious cold and clear skies that some fun scenario was bound to pop up?

I have no idea how one finds inspiration.  There doesn’t seem to be a set pattern.  The best is when it happens while you’re actually writing – some brilliant thing will occur to you that wraps up the whole story in a single stroke of genius.  The worst is when you work out a problem with the story while doing something somewhere where it is impossible to take notes (in the bath, a meeting, or without your phone).  Some days writing is just better than others.  Some days you’ll pick up ideas from whatever is going on around you.  During the worst of the lockdowns, inspiration seemed to have escaped me altogether.  I managed not to have a single good idea.  It was so bad that I began to doubt my ability as a writer.  However, when I looked back on the rubbish I’d written, I was able to pull out some ideas which then grew and grew, blossoming like the proverbial spring flower.  The stories I ended up with were a thousand times better than their origin, but I couldn’t have written them without that initial spark on the page, even if was a bit of a dead spark.  Even uninspired writing could be of some use:  the huge, messy broken piece of work I managed in the first lockdown spawned three short stories, all of which appear inspired by The Great God Muse herself. 

The river was at high tide when I reached it, the water like golden syrup, the sun still lurking behind that building that looks like a nose.  By that time, I had my opening paragraph, the joke in the second paragraph, the weird sci-fi image that was at the core of the story, the twist, and the moral dilemma.  I also had the title, the protagonist’s silly name, and the name of the ridiculous cocktail he drinks.  The notes, when I got to write them, took up less than a page.

The challenge now is to write this in under 2000 words.  Being utterly unable to write anything under 10k without setting up an automatic whiplash to slash at my knuckles every time I start wandering off into the wilds of my imagination, this is going to be mighty hard.  The word limit seems to be standard for competitions – and I thought I’d do just that.  I’d enter it in a competition.  You never know.

Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

(Not quite the Thames but possibly a lot prettier)

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When the new year starts to feel like the old one

You know the Christmas holidays are over when all the problems you shoved under the bed suddenly start crawling out.  2021 was, for me, beset with problems I couldn’t deal with, several of which I put off until January.  I managed to forget about them almost entirely, particularly over the Christmas weekend when the world receded into a very far off distance. 

I was quick to take off this week from work-work (i.e. my Real World Job, not my writing job, which isn’t a job, it’s a delight) so I wouldn’t have that dreadful “Sunday afternoon” feeling on January 3rd.  It hit me anyway.  With so many people going back to work on the 4th, it seemed a good day to begin tackling those problems I really couldn’t face, the ones I wish I could have left behind in 2021.

The biggest one is My Stuff.  About five years ago, I had to sell my family home in South Africa as both parents had gone and died.  I gave away a lot of stuff, auctioned off the more valuable stuff, and kept some of it, hastily shoved into boxes.  These boxes ended up in a back room of a friend’s house with a promise that she would look after them no matter what.  Two years later, she told me I had to move them.  The “no matter what” clause had run out. 

So My Stuff ended up in my uncle’s garage.  When he died towards the end of last year, I received an extremely unfriendly email from his remaining three children to say I needed to put My Stuff in storage as they were selling my uncle’s extremely high-end house.  I received this email on the day that I learned my job was at risk of redundancy so quite frankly, it felt like the end of the world.

The root of the problem is money.  I’d go out on a limb to say that very many problems are rooted in money.  Shoving My Stuff into storage would be a monumental drain on my already very limited resources.  The only solution was to get My Stuff sent to the UK.  And this is the process I had to start yesterday.  First to find a company to do it.  I selected one at random and contacted them. They need to see My Stuff in order to give me a quote.  In order to do this, they need to contact my one cousin who is just barely on speaking terms with me (the others I haven’t spoken to for years;  in fact, of the two, the one I don’t think I have ever spoken to in my entire life).

All this takes time.  Emails.  Phone numbers.  Details.  Time. 

Time is the thing that makes me panic.  What makes me panic more is the cost.  So while time fritters by while I wait and wait and wait for the meeting to be set up so that I can get the quote, I sit about imagining how enormous the cost is going to be.  And it is going to be enormous.  It’s going to be bigger than anything I can afford.  I can barely scrape by from one month to the next.  Shipping My Stuff from one country to another is a NIGHTMARE.  Is it any wonder I want it to be Christmas every day so that I don’t have to think about anything important??

The darker side of this problem contains not only time and money, but also space.  Once My Stuff actually gets here, I have no idea where I’m going to put it in my VERY small and already super-cluttered council flat. 

There is, however, a lighter side.  The first sounds very cruel but here it is anyway:  once I have My Stuff, I no longer have any ties to South Africa.  The idea of being set free from my home town, which I left almost 40 years ago, fills me with intense relief.  I never want to see my family again.  They have no interest in me and never have done.  I didn’t know my cousins growing up and while I felt a certain sentimental attachment to one of them when my second (step) parent died, that attachment was brutally scoured away with that horrible email, demanding that I get rid of My Stuff because it took up a whole three metres of space.  You must understand my cousins come from money.  I grew up in severe poverty and have spent most of my years in London living in even worse poverty.  There is no question of any of them helping me.  They don’t want My Stuff.  They don’t want me.  This was a huge upset for me.  Best if I just let it all go. It doesn’t sound like it, but this is actually a good thing. I have a tendancy to get hung up on the past. Being able to cut ties sounds like a great idea in the long run.

The second good thing to come out of this is that I’ll HAVE MY STUFF!  I’ve been worried about it for years and at last I’ll actually have it, here, where I can touch it and love it and wonder were to put it.  It’s like getting a huge gift you don’t know what to do with!

This morning the sun shone in London for the first time in two months.  After all the endless fog and grey and grimness and ghastly tepid weather, like a cup of tea that’s stood about for too long, the day dawned bright and crisp and clear.  Freezing cold too but this is how I love it.  It makes me feel alive and energetic.  So while it is officially the twelfth and last day of Christmas, and while London has definitely gone back to work judging by the traffic, the schoolkids and the jackhammers, it also feels like a fresh beginning. 

My mantra is this:  one day at a time.  Planning is one thing, fretting needlessly is another.  I’d much rather be sorting out the intricacies of a story I’m writing than dealing with this Real World stuff but life didn’t work out that way.  So I’m just going to enjoy this lovely cold sunshine, have some coffee and tackle the next problem while I wait for various emails to cross continents and dream about the day My Stuff arrives at my door.

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Happy New Year!

A new year means resolutions. The kind of writing resolutions I SHOULD be making would go something like this:

Write more!

Promote more!

Learn about marketing!

Engage with, you know, erm, people!

Sell your soul!

Okay, so by the time you get to the fifth one, you probably get the idea how much I HATE the idea of marketing: trying to sell my books, trying to promote them, trying, in effect, to sell my soul. And it feels like I’m selling my soul because every time I attempt any kind of marketing campaign or attempt to study the most effective ways of marketing a book, I wind up so depressed I can barely crawl to the kitchen to drown in a cup of coffee. If writing is white, marketing is black. If writing is heaven, marketing is hell. If writing is the glitterlands, marketing is a swamp. You know that dream where you are naked and you’re on stage and have to give a speech on a subject you know nothing about and it’s an exam and everyone who ever bullied you is there and they’re laughing and your voice doesn’t work but you’re screaming and ….. yes, I think you get the idea.

So I’m going to make a different resolution.

I’m going to practice insouciance.

It goes without saying that I haven’t got any. Not a drop. I was instead blessed with hypersensitivity, excessive intensity, and mega anxiety about absolutely everything. So “practicing” is going to play a big part in this resolution because I have no idea how to go about it. It’s not that I’m looking to be careless. It’s that I’m looking to be carefree.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Happy New Year! Would love to hear about your writing resolutions for 2022!

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Christmas Eve

It’s weird not writing. I’ve been very busy so haven’t noticed that much but each day has a slightly empty feel to it. Writing must give my days a kind of structure. Or perhaps it’s just knowing that I’ve done some creating and that part of me can idle in a purr until the next time I get to it. What I miss is that purr. The first few days of my “time off” period, I had the rewrite of a short story running around in my head. But even those words have disappeared! Will have to get it back somehow in the new year.

In the meantime, we’ve been putting up the tree, wrapping presents and trying to get the washing dry so that there aren’t any clothes drying racks all over the lounge on Christmas day, cluttering up the place (it’s hard enough to move around this mini flat as it is!).

I also discovered earlier this week that ALL THE AMAZON LINKS ON MY WEBSITE WERE BROKEN! String of scream emojis! I had no idea this had happened and who was ever going to tell me! Do you remember those really short links Amazon used to provide that you could use on Twitter or wherever? They don’t have them anymore and when I discovered this, I wrote to Amazon in a huff. Can’t say they really care. I mean, you know, this is Amazon we’re talking about (what I could say about them would fill up several blogs). Those short links no longer work and I presume they haven’t worked since Amazon stopped using them, which is quite a while ago.

I don’t know what Amazon links other people use these days but I’ve discovered the cleanest and shortest link is the one you get when you share to Twitter (the other shares are the same but this one is the most convenient). What I did was share my book with Twitter, copy the link provided in the tweet, and copy that into my website. I also then tweeted the tweet because, what the hell, might as well get a tweet out there. You never know who might see it. There were about a hundred links to replace on my website but I think I can safely say they are all fixed now. Phew.

Time to go off and enjoy Christmas! Have a lovely Christmas and stay safe.

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A Sequel for Spooked

The story of Angelica Zippoli (or Zipp) has been the most popular of my Exodus Sequence stories so far. I think that might have a lot to do with the fantastic cover! I found it on Pexels and though I’ve searched for it since to credit the photographer, I’ve been unable to find it again.

The first time I wrote about Zipp was in a story called Sacrificed which went on for a very long time indeed, far too long for a short story entry in The Exodus Sequence. I had no idea where I was going with it and completely lost the plot after the halfway point. However, there was one minor flashback scene where she meets an agent on a bench which I thought was interesting enough to turn into a story all by itself. By the time I got to write Spooked, I knew Zipp’s character really well having spent so long with her, so the story was fast and easy to write. When it came to writing the sequel, I thought I was going to have reread a very long and meandering disaster novella in order to pull some sort of story out of it. To my immense relief, it turned out that I’d spent far long working on the story than I’d remembered and the first half of it was ripe to turn into a short story. Finding an ending was tricky but I was pleased with the final result.

It’s always interesting to go back and look at old stories you have written. I could see a lot of what had been happening in my life in it and it made me feel a little sad that not a lot has changed in the intervening years.

Read about Spooked here.

You can buy the first volume of The Exodus Sequence here.

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Coming up for air

I’ve had my head down for a few months writing non-stop in an attempt to out-create the hard ride life seemed to be giving me. The drafts still need a lot of editing (and one of them needs complete rewriting) BUT I now have five new Exodus Sequence stories for Volume II. I seem to have my writing mojo back, which is a relief. It now feels like the right time for a bit of holiday which basically means puttering about the flat a lot and doing chores, filling up bags for charity, cooking a lot, maybe even baking (bread, not cake). I have a jigsaw to do and books to read (note to self: get more from the library!) So not actually going anywhere for an actual holiday though I can dream. Given the endlessly grey, tepid weather in central London, where it never goes below 12C, even at night, never rains, never blows, never does anything at all…………I think I might go somewhere like this:

Photo by Stefan Stefancik on Pexels.com
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High Hollyhocks

Secret London Series 3

Before I start writing, I take a walk every morning. One of my favourite routes takes me through Grays Inn. This year the hollyhocks along the fence are higher than ever.

You can read about Grays Inn here.

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Swans

Secret London Series 2:

Taking a break from writing, I took myself to Kew Gardens. It really isn’t the most secretive place in London but you can find little things there you can’t elsewhere, like this single signet. The swans usually have more so those lone chick must be very precious.

You can read about Kew Gardens here.

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