Stoicism for writers and healers

I’ve been reading some basic books about Stoic philosophy, which originated in Ancient Greece and Rome, and describes a path to a good and happy life lived in harmony with others and with nature. It has much in common with other systems and many of the ideas were already familiar to me from Buddhism, Christianity and modern psychological therapies, but it is refreshing to have them presented in clear practical terms. Here are a few thoughts from a novice student of Stoicism.

One of the principles stated by Epictetus (50-135 AD) resonates strongly with me. He wrote that “some things are up to us and some things are not up to us”, so it follows that we are well advised to focus only on what is within our control – which includes very little except our own judgements and behaviours. This may sound simple and obvious (and the “serenity prayer” of St Francis, which I have heard so many times, says something similar) and yet I am certainly not alone in having wasted much futile effort and distress over things which I have no power to change. Applying this principle would avoid many of the hassles of daily life, such as frustration in a traffic jam or irritation with an untidy workmate. It is also relevant to both the two fields – writing and medicine – in which I have spent my career.

As a writer it is up to me to make my books “the best they can be”, to choose whether to submit them to traditional publishers or to publish independently, and decide how much time and money to spend on marketing. But whether people want to buy my books, and whether readers like them, is not up to me. So there is no point in getting upset over rejection letters, lack of sales or negative reviews – in theory. In practice, overcoming the desire for external validation and becoming more tolerant of criticism requires mental discipline and training.

Turning to the medical field, again there is a dichotomy between what is “up to us” and what is not in relation to physical health. We can make choices about many aspects of our lifestyle and behaviour, such as diet and exercise, in the hope of preventing or recovering from disease. But there is no guarantee that our efforts will be successful, and nor can we change some of the other factors such as our genetic susceptibilities, exposure to pathogens in the environment, the inevitable deterioration of our bodies as they age. The dichotomy between what we can or cannot control is not always acknowledged. Some put all their faith in external treatments with drugs and surgery, and ignore what patients can do to help themselves. Others advocate total personal responsibility for health, and risk making patients feel guilty for being ill. Both extremes are potentially dangerous.

There is of course much more to Stoic philosophy than this and, having enrolled in the annual online event Stoic Week which is about to start, perhaps I will write more blog post(s) on this subject.

Why I still admire Agatha Christie

I loved Agatha Christie’s books when I was a teenager. I read most if not all of her 66 crime novels featuring the detective skills of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, and occasionally other characters such as Ariadne Oliver or Tommy and Tuppence. Many years later I still have a few dogeared paperback versions, passed down from my mother’s estate, and look at them occasionally.

Agatha Christie’s writing career spanned more than 50 years, from 1920 to 1974. The majority of her books are set between the two world wars, a period that has been called the Golden Age of detective fiction. They seem old-fashioned today, yet I still find them appealing, and am obviously not alone in this. Her novels are still widely read, and new dramatisations and pastiches of her work and biographies of her life continue to be produced.

What is the secret of their enduring popularity? For me, there are several reasons:

The plots, mostly following a classic “whodunnit” formula, are extremely ingenious. Although there are clues scattered throughout the books, the solutions cannot easily be guessed before the end. It is said that the author herself often did not know the identity of the murderer until she had written the first draft, which seems amazing if it is true.

The books provide an authentic picture of an England that no longer exists – a time when life was simpler and more slowly paced, comfortable middle class families in quaint villages or country houses were supported by domestic servants who knew their place, and male and female roles were clearly defined. Whether you feel some sense of nostalgia for those days, or are thankful they are gone, it is interesting to read about a relatively recent period of English history so different from today.

Agatha Christie’s style is highly readable. She had a remarkable gift for writing with a light and sometimes humorous touch, but without trivialising the serious subject of murder. Her characters, if somewhat stereotyped, are mostly sympathetic. There is no graphic sex or violence or sex in her books, and they are often categorised today as belonging to the “cozy crime” genre – a term which seems to me to devalue them. They are quite short, I think around 60,000 words. Many modern crime novels are twice that length, but personally I find the more concise format more satisfying.

As you can see from its cover image, there are references to Agatha Christie’s work in my own recent novel You Yet Shall Die. Set in rural England between the 1950s and early 2000s, it is a story of family secrets and discovery of a long-ago crime. If you haven’t had a chance yet, please have a look on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

Author profile pictures

During the interval between lockdowns I decided to have some professional portrait photos taken, for use on my website and elsewhere. I was quite nervous before my session at headshotstudio.co.nz in central Auckland, but the afternoon with photographer Richard and makeup artist Ruth turned out a very enjoyable experience. 

I had previously been using some amateur photos on my social media. The snaps of me holding cats or kittens were nice but maybe too informal. I rather liked another which showed me drinking wine at a cafe but perhaps this gave the wrong impression.

Like book covers, which I wrote about in my last post, author photos are a marketing tool which should ideally convey an impression appropriate for their genre. A crime writer might want to look slightly sinister or mysterious, a romance writer attractive and glamorous, a writer of medical books serious and academic. When I read a book I always hope to see a photo in the About the Author section at the back, though sometimes there isn’t one.

As I have written in several different genres myself, I aimed for nothing more specific than having a nice picture taken before the ravages of time affect my appearance any more than they have already. Here are the two of the best ones from my recent shoot.

Changing covers

As a self-published author I really enjoy choosing the covers for my books, but have learned that it’s not just about finding a pretty picture. The cover image is very important for marketing purposes, so it can be worth employing a professional designer rather than relying on stock photos. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” may be good advice in theory but, in practice, our first impressions about both objects and people are usually based on their appearance. A split-second glance at the cover often determines whether or not a potential reader will look inside.

What makes a good cover for a novel? Ideally the image, in combination with the title, will “capture the essence of the book” so as to appeal to its target audience – a tall order. Experts advise that the image should be relevant to the genre, but distinctive enough to stand out from other titles in the field. It should convey something about the story in a way that excites readers’ curiosity. The design is best kept fairly simple, with a single focal point to draw the eye, and needs to look good in thumbnail view. Personally I think the colour scheme is also very important.

A highly skilled artist may be able to ignore these rules, and create a cover image which looks so stunning that it attracts potential readers even if it bears no obvious relation to what the book is about.

Revamping a book’s cover from time to time can stimulate sales by attracting a fresh group of readers, and I recently changed the image for my novel You Yet Shall Die. The original version showed a photo of the North Kent marshes, where much of the story is set. I really liked the appearance of that one, but it gave little indication of the genre or content. The new version, featuring an old-fashioned dressing table strewn with books, is more relevant to the plot and more likely to appeal to the mature women who are the main target audience – hopefully without putting off all the men, considering that several of my male friends have enjoyed it.

Original cover on the left, new one on the right.

You Yet Shall Die is a gentle mystery novel set in Kent and Sussex. Who is the woman who claims to be Dr Harper’s “love child”? What was the true cause of his wife’s early death? As Hilda Harper researches her parents’ early lives in postwar Oxford and Swinging London’s nightclub scene, she discovers some shocking secrets but also finds new hope for her own future. You Yet Shall Die is available in paperback or ebook format from Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk and other Amazon marketplaces.

What I’ve been reading (January – June 2020)

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

A positive aspect of my lockdown experience was having more time to read, which enabled me to finish a very long book – The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. This is the final volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy set in England during the reign of Henry VIII, the first two books in the series being Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. Although I would have enjoyed it even more if it had not been quite so detailed, the trilogy – a product of extensive historical research and vivid imagination – is a monumental achievement.

Another “faction” book (that is, a book based on a historical figure or events interwoven with fictitious elements) is The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester. The surgeon in question, WC Minor, murdered a man under the influence of paranoid delusions and was committed to Broadmoor Hospital in 1872. During the long years of his confinement there he devoted himself to researching the origin of words, contributing over 12,000 quotations to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. This book was recently made into a film called The Professor and the Madman.

Having spent my professional life in general hospital psychiatry I am interested in popular books based on real-life case histories. Writers in this genre face a challenge; they must alter the details enough to preserve patients’ confidentiality, but not so much as to sacrifice medical accuracy. Three such books I have read this year are Love’s Executioner by Irvin Yalom, an American psychotherapist; Into the Abyss by Anthony David, a British neuropsychiatrist; and The Prison Doctor by Amanda Brown, a British GP.

I enjoyed autobiographies by two very different women. Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner is an engaging description of the life of a socialite who was born and married into the British aristocracy and had close connections to royalty, especially Princess Margaret. Her family’s privileged and hedonistic lifestyle was no protection against a series of tragedies, and after reading this book I felt glad that my own social background was more ordinary. Becoming by Michelle Obama is a longer book written in a more serious style. Born into a modest, hardworking black family in Chicago, she qualified as a lawyer and could have pursued a high-flying corporate career, but elected to focus instead on community and social issues, and as the wife of Barack Obama spent the years 2009-17 as First Lady of the United States.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel You Yet Shall Die is a mystery about family secrets and a long-ago crime. 

Older books: renounce or revive?

Today I donated the last box of my book Focus on Healing to the church fair. It was published just before print-on-demand paperbacks and ebooks became widespread, and although it was well received by readers, more copies were printed than were sold. I didn’t want to be like the author I once heard about whose garage was full of his own books when he died, and whose heirs gave the books away at his funeral.

Just as new cars start losing value as soon as they are sold, books on medical and healthcare topics start going out of date as soon as they are published. The content of Focus on Healing is still valid, and the ebook version is still available, but there is new information that could be added if I wrote a second edition. I’m not intending to do that, because I no longer work in the healthcare field.

Novels do not go out of date in the same way, although most sales usually occur in the first few months after publication. My own latest You Yet Shall Die is certainly selling better than my earlier ones, the Dr Peabody series which provide a somewhat cynical picture of medical practice in the 1980s, and the Three Novellas which are mystery/romances set between England and New Zealand. Some readers dislike older novels simply because their content seems out of fashion, or because they convey racist or sexist views, intolerance of minority groups, or other attitudes that would be indefensible today. Other readers accept these things as representative of the time the novels were written, and find that the historical aspect adds to the interest of the story.

A few older books become classics. Most of them fade into obscurity unless, rather sadly I think, they only become popular after being mentioned in the author’s obituary.

For details on the books mentioned here, please visit my Amazon author page.

Expat blues

Even though I’ve been very happy living in New Zealand for the past twenty years, I expect England will always feel like home. I’ve been fortunate to be able to return for a short visit every summer – until now. I had booked to fly to London next week but my trip has been cancelled due to Covid-related restrictions.

Earlier visits involved a joyful, if exhausting, whirlwind of activity – travelling round the British Isles by train and plane, staying a night or two in several different places, often having lunch, tea and dinner engagements with different people on the same day. The itinerary has gradually become less demanding, as I realise I can’t see everyone every time, so recently I’ve just stayed in London and done day trips. I always try to see my closest friends and relatives, and visit some favourite places – Oxford, Malvern, the countryside of Kent and Sussex – which hold special memories or are featured in my novels. I also like to visit one or two tourist attractions such as Blenheim Palace or the Tower of London. And I always buy something from Marks and Spencer.

The change to a less hectic pace is partly my own choice, as I don’t have so much energy as I used to, but partly because my circle of friends – mostly in their 70s and 80s – is shrinking. Six of those I knew and loved have died in recent years. I was able to visit all of them in the last months of their lives, but because of being back in New Zealand was unable to attend any of their funerals. Several of my surviving friends are unwell at present, and one of the hardest things about being unable to travel this year is not knowing when and if I will see them again.

Apart from that, I don’t mind staying home. I have my memories and photos of England, and the internet has made it easy to keep in contact with people at the other side of the world, even if not all of them can accesss Zoom. I’m glad not to be parted from Brian, the cats and the dog. And Auckland is a lovely place to be, even in winter, with the weather reasonably warm and many flowers in bloom.

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Jennifer Barraclough’s latest novel You Yet Shall Die, set in Kent and Sussex, is available from Amazon.

Memories of a childhood in Kent

Apple blossom in Kent: photo courtesy of Bruce Williamson on Unsplash

Until the age of nine I lived with my family in Gravesend, Kent. I was happy there and did not want to leave, but life took me in other directions and it was about sixty years before I went back. I found many changes, but still felt an attachment to the town and the surrounding countryside, and had intended to return this summer from my present home in New Zealand. That trip is no longer possible because of coronavirus travel restrictions. Instead I joined several Facebook groups devoted to the area, and seeing all the old photos posted there has triggered a few memories of my own.

Our address was 22 The Overcliff, a Victorian house which is now a children’s day care centre. I believe there had been an orchard on that site, and the back garden contained many fruit trees, mainly apples and pears. The Bramley apples, individually wrapped, were stored in the basement over the winter. The front bedroom looked out over the Thames, with the port of Tilbury on the other side, always busy with ships sailing in and out. Between the street and the river was a disused chalk quarry where I used to play, for children were left to their own devices in those days. It was a short walk down to the river itself, and it was there that I learned to swim; no doubt the waters were polluted but I came to no harm.

I attended Milton Road Primary School but remember very little about that, and it’s not there any more. My best friend was called Jennifer Clements; we lost touch years ago.

Much clearer memories relate to outings with my grandfather, Ernest Guy. He was head of the Technical School in the 1940s till the early 50s. He had a great love and knowledge of the English countryside and, especially after he retired, took every opportunity to drive his old black car (an Austin 7?) to different parts of Kent. Summer holidays were spent camping in the Isle of Sheppey, or visiting resorts on the south coast.

Short local visits involved identifying wild flowers and birds, exploring local churches, collecting nuts or blackberries or mushrooms to cook for tea. I remember the orchards and hop fields and oast houses, and walks near Meopham, Shorne, Cobham Woods, Holly Hill … and wonder how many of the old footpaths and woodlands have now been built over, and how many “areas of natural beauty” developed into tourist sites. With no prospect of international travel in the near future perhaps it is best to remember these places as they used to be.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel You Yet Shall Die, a family mystery set on the North Kent marshes, is available from Amazon.com.

Letters from the past

Over four years have passed since my mother died. The financial side of her estate has finally been settled, following prolonged correspondence with accountants and lawyers. A personal aspect, namely the letters in two of the box files I discovered in the spare bedroom when clearing her house, remains unresolved. I hope this is the last weekend of the Covid-19 lockdown, which would seem an ideal opportunity to deal with these boxes before my life gets busy again. But I still can’t decide what to do with them.

One box contains a series of letters written to my mother during my childhood in the 1950s and 60s, regarding a situation of which I was only dimly aware. I don’t know whether she intended me to find them after her death, but as she was a very “private person” I suspect not. I did read them, while feeling somewhat guilty about doing so. I think it likely that she intended to destroy them one day, but having become weak and unwell in the last months of her life, either lacked the energy to do so or forgot they were there. I haven’t shown the letters to my husband, but he knows something about their content, and suggests that it could make a good basis for my next novel. This may be true, but writing such a book would seem disloyal however heavily I disguised the plot. I have several options. I could destroy all the letters now. I could go through them again and copy selected extracts into a file on my computer for future reference, then destroy the rest. I could leave them in the box, with a note asking whoever finds them after my death to destroy them unread.

The other box contains the letters I sent home to my mother and grandparents in Yorkshire when I was a medical student in Oxford in the late 1960s. I have only reread some of these, having found the style embarrassingly naive, but some contain descriptions of the course which might perhaps be of interest to a medical historian. I was shocked to find that I remember nothing about most of the people and events described. What a contrast to my husband Brian Barraclough and my friend Jean Hendy-Harris, who can both recall their past lives in great detail and have published memoirs about them. I wonder which of us is the more unusual.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest one You Yet Shall Die, a novel about family secrets and a long-ago crime set in southern England, is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukSmashwords.com and other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries.

Writing in lockdown

For the sake of all the people round the world who are suffering real hardship linked directly or indirectly to Covid-19, I do hope the epidemic will soon be over and the lockdowns can be eased. For myself the restrictions have caused nothing worse than frustration, and as far as writing goes they have had their positive side. No longer able to have coffee with friends, go to the cinema, sing with my choir, do my own shopping or volunteer at the SPCA, I am largely confined to house and garden. Domestic work is only satisfying to some extent, and Netflix only enjoyable for limited periods. The highlight of the day is the afternoon walk with Ireland, my dog-share Labrador, but there is plenty of free time.

Ireland ready to go home after his walk

Having this time has motivated me to resume two writing projects that had been flagging lately. On a friend’s recommendation I downloaded the Scrivener programme and am very glad I did so. To learn to use the system I needed some documents to work on, so was stimulated to make a start on the new novel for which vague ideas had been floating round in my mind for some time. I am not the sort of writer who can summarise the whole structure of a book in advance, and work through the chapters in sequence from beginning to end. For a novel I tend to start with a general sense of the theme, setting and characters, writing fragments as they occur to me, before putting them together to form an outline of the plot, which will probably change when I fill it out in more detail. Scrivener, using templates for both fiction and non-fiction, is ideally suited for this way of writing because it enables everything – draft chapters with notes and summaries, character sketches, links to relevant websites and images – to be seen at a glance and arranged in any sequence.

My other project has been the editing of my husband’s memoir about the early years of his life, 1933-65, mainly focused on his psychiatric training at the Maudsley Hospital in London. Collaborating with each other on this book has been a long process, sometimes fraught. However we both agreed on the final version, which will be published shortly – details in my next blog post. The book may appeal to those with an interest in medical history, and to anyone who knows Brian or used to work with him.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel  You Yet Shall Die is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukSmashwords.comand other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries. A selection of comments from readers:

A wonderful book which I learnt a lot from as well enjoying immensely.

Both intriguing and unusual. I could hardly wait for the story to unfold as family secrets, crime and murder came to light – the ending was totally unexpected. An absorbing read.

I couldn’t put it down. I was wondering about the twists and turns all the way through. I’m not a cat person and thought I was going to be put off by all the cats, but no …

The way the story was told from all the characters’ personal viewpoints made the story deeper and more exciting. The twist at the end was great.

Well done, it was superb. Great twist that you didn’t really guess.

A revelatory read.

I loved it! I really liked the characters and the sense of buried secrets gradually coming to light. And the twists were excellent, very clever!

Loved your book.  Enjoyed it right to end (including ending).