Archive for August, 2015

Conehead bush-cricket laying eggs

Yesterday it was yet another dreary overcast day, threatening rain, but I was determined to take my camera for a walk. I needed time to mull over what to do with a particular chapter in the novel I’m currently working on. Once again things weren’t going as planned, and my super dramatic scene was turning out as dynamic as a milk-float with a flat battery. Hey ho, time to switch off and think about something completely different.

So I set out with my camera and macro lens, thinking I might see a grasshopper or cricket at my favourite meadow not far from home. I started by taking a few snaps of a spider, and believe me, the light quality was rubbish. Cranking the ISO up to 1600 was achieving a shutter speed of 125th of a second: not at all adequate for macro photography.

Conehead bush-cricket with egg sacConehead bush-cricket with egg sac

Seeing a few grasshoppers jumping around cheered me up. At least I had a subject. Earlier in the year, to one side of the meadow, I’d come across a colony of long-winged conehead bush-crickets, so this is where I decided to focus my efforts. Indeed, focus would have been a lot easier in brighter light and without sudden gusts of wind beating the long grass against my lens.

After a while I found the coneheads, several of them determined to circulate on one particular clump of grass. My best option was to sit down, so that I could be on eye level with them, and ensure I made as few sudden movements as possible. Then I saw her, a mature female with what appeared to be a dew drop clinging to her body near her ovipositor. I thought this very odd, as although there was moisture in the air, the grass was quite dry.

Conehead bush-cricket laying eggs-1Conehead bush-cricket laying eggs-2

I watched and took a few more photos, trying to keep track of the same female. This wasn’t easy as the wind was swaying the grass, she was moving swiftly from one blade of grass to the next, and each time she relocated I had to adjust camera settings to correct exposure and focus. Half way up one tall stem she suddenly started arching her back, curling round and producing another dew drop from her abdomen. Not water at all, but what appeared to be an egg sac. As luck would have it, of course she’d moved and the light was against me and the wind was blowing grass directly between my lens and my subject. It’s called sod’s law. All I could do was keep clicking the shutter and hoping for the best: absolutely no time to make any adjustments or the action would be over.

Conehead bush-cricket laying eggs-3Conehead bush-cricket laying eggs-5

Once her main dance had abated, I risked changing a few setting and repositioning myself to gain a better angle. By now she’d curled right round into a ball, more resembling a nautilus than a cricket. The dew drop was still clinging to her abdomen, but what she did next surprised me. She was putting it in her mouth. From this point on she proceeded to carry it around, adding something to the clear dew drop and making it slightly opaque. Several times she pressed it hard up against a blade of grass, and I assumed she was deliberately depositing it, or some of it, onto the stem of grass.

Conehead bush-cricket laying eggs-7Conehead bush-cricket laying eggs-8

To my mind she was laying eggs, coating them with something, and then setting them down to over-winter, ready to hatch next year.

I was pretty certain this was the case, until I came home and started researching conehead bush-crickets online. The consensus of opinion from experts online says that, ‘the females lay between their eggs in the stems of grasses in the late summer. They do this by first biting a whole into the stems of grasses or reeds and then insert their eggs using their ovipositors.’

This, of course, threw me, because my female did not directly lay her eggs using her ovipositor, but carried them around in her mouth first. I still believe that she was laying eggs: after all, this is the same meadow that I discovered a pink grasshopper in, so anything is possible!

If I have my facts wrong, please never forget that I’m a writer and photographer, not an entomologist.

The long-winged conehead’s technical name is Conocephalus discolour.

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Virginia Woolf famously said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” So, what do we do if we don’t have both of these much desired essentials? Do we throw ourselves down on the floor screaming, “I’ll never be a writer!”? Not at all. Writers are made of far stronger stuff.

Camping in Dorset

Yes, I have space at home to write, as many authors do, but that doesn’t mean that I necessarily have the freedom to write without constant interruptions.

For several weeks of the year I create that much needed ‘room of her own’ in which to write. I pack my little car to the hilt with camping gear and head off to Dorset. On a fabulous campsite with views across Chesil Beach we pitch our tent. It isn’t a fun-park, theme-park type of campsite, especially not out of season when I choose to go. It’s tranquil. Bordering a nature reserve, the noisiest things we hear at night are the owls hooting in the trees overhead, and the waves crashing against far off pebbles. Unless it’s harvest time and the farmers have to work all night to get their crops in before it rains! On those nights we hear combine harvesters rumbling across distant fields, and rush out to see them lit up like spaceships manoeuvring in the dark. It’s all part of the fun.

Now, I expect you’re envisaging a little two man tent and a camp fire flickering under the stars. Nothing quite so romantic, I’m afraid; but I expect you’ve already sneaked a peek at the photo, haven’t you? My tent is a veritable mansion! The label says it sleeps six adults, and yes, there are only two of us. Furthermore, we cheat. We pay a bit extra so that we can have an electric hook-up to power my laptop, run a light and boil a kettle. When it’s really cold we also plug in a heater. This enormous space is no longer a tent: it’s the author’s hub.

My partner and I use the main living area for sitting and chatting, and eating together. We cook in the little front canopy. The sleeping area we fill with king-size inflatable mattresses, sleeping bags and extremely warm duvets. It can get very cold in Dorset in September. Of an evening, this sleeping compartment becomes my ‘room of her own.’ After supper I say the now famous words, “I’m going in.” My partner nods sagely and switches the kettle on. Once inside my room, with the partitioning flap zipped up, I sit cross legged on my mattress, set up my laptop, and pull the duvet around my shoulders. After a while my partner calls, “Tea’s ready,” and I unzip the dividing flap just enough to reach out and be handed my mug of tea.

From then on I write, mostly straight through until morning. Zipped in my secret room, with the light filtering through from the living area, I’m in a world all of my own. It’s magic. Every so often I pass my empty mug out through the flap, and miraculously it gets filled up again with hot tea. It’s very much like having a room of my own with service!

Please don’t think that I totally ignore my partner. During the day we go for long walks, and I take photographs of the wildlife: or we go into Bridport, West Bay or Weymouth and meet some of the locals. Every Saturday in Bridport there’s a flea-market, and we love to go along and have a good rummage, pick up something vintage or a few crystals from one of our favourite stall-holders. Speaking of crystals, in West Bay you can find pieces of calcite along the cliff faces, and fossils as well if you’re lucky.

Rainbow over the Fleet - DorsetSometimes we just walk and talk. On one such occasion we were walking along the Fleet from the campsite to Old Fleet Church, having great fun discussing and enacting a fight scene I was in the process of writing in Saving Anna. Passers-by must have thought we were completely mad, as we kept pretending to strike one-another with a knife, which to them would have been quite invisible. At times a piece of driftwood stood in for the weapon, and then we had to explain that I was an author, and that we weren’t really having a punch-up and trying to hurt each other. By the time we got back to the tent, some three hours later at dusk, we’d finalised the fight scene; every move choreographed to perfection, every word spoken flowing smoothly. We were excited. It was so well planned.

“I’ll make supper,” my partner said. “While you go in and get it written down.”
So, in I went, the action we’d outlined fresh in my mind. I read through the couple of paragraphs I’d already written leading up to the fight scene, drank tea: then began typing.
Within fifteen minutes I called out, “Sorry!”
My partner rushed to the partitioning flap and whispered, “What’s happened?”
“As soon as I started writing, Talbot went and did something completely different,” I explained. “I couldn’t help it. He just didn’t want the fight to end up like that.”
My partner sighed, heavily. “That man Talbot’s a rogue. You can never trust him to follow orders.”
We laughed, but you see, this is what happens, when a woman has a room of her own in which to write fiction. In the peace and solitude of one’s own space, the story takes on a life all of its own.

Saving Anna is the second book in the Jake Talbot Investigates series: due for release this autumn. Book 1 Visiting Lilly is available on Amazon and free on Kindle Unlimited.

Visiting Lilly free on Kindle Unlimited

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It was an overcast day, no doubt about it. Pretty grim lighting for Unusual Mothany kind of photography, but I’m not one to give up and leave my camera at home.

So there I was, trudging along the boardwalk at Elstead, Surrey, when I saw it, walked on, then about-turned and did a double take. What had I just seen? A brown leaf resting on a blade of grass where it had fallen off…hmm, no suitable trees in sight. So, then I stared and stared, and stared some more. Would I ever be able to find that particular blade of grass again? Ah yes, there it was, a few paces away.

Approaching with caution, in case whatever it was got nudged and fell down between the slats of the boardwalk, I then crouched to investigate. It appeared to be a moth. I say appeared to be, because like so many of these clever fellas, it was cunningly disguised as a piece of dried wood or a fallen leaf. To be honest, I’ve never seen any moth like it before. I’ve seen moths that look like twigs or leaves, but never this particular species.

Excited, I took a couple of photographs and quickly enlarged them on my screen, so that I could get a better idea of what it looked like and catch the detail. How cute. Its face is almost cat like, with a dinky little upturned nose. Furry like a cat too, yet it’s got a back fin that would sit well on any dinosaur. Most unusual.

Unfortunately, my new friend, ‘dinosaur cat moth,’ was in a really awkward position to photograph at a good angle. He was resting quite close to the ground, tucked back in amongst the grass and heather. What little light there was, refused to penetrate his safe hiding hole, and even though he was sitting comfortably and had no intention of flying away, capturing a decent shot was near enough impossible. If you think the photo looks burnt out at the top of his quiff, that’s because he’s bright white on top.

Unusual Moth

Okay, here’s a really mediocre shot of his top view so that you can see what I’m talking about. I’d say he’s about an inch in height, but it was difficult to judge because he’s bent round.

If anyone knows what species he is, please let me know so that I can name him correctly. Feel free to Tweet and share these images around. Help me discover who he is. Someone, somewhere, must know the real name of ‘dinosaur cat moth.’ He sure is cute!

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I’ve been writing fiction for many, many years, and during this time I’ve met numerous aspiring authors. It doesn’t matter whether we write detective mysteries or period romance, we all tend to have one thing in common – self-doubt. We constantly wonder whether an agent will like our work, whether a publisher will accept our work, and most of all, whether the readers will relate to our work and take our characters to their hearts.

So, how do we overcome this demon?

For my own part I remind myself of the high praise I received from one of the world’s top crime writers, P.D. James.

At the time I was living on the Isle of Wight and an active member of two exceptionally good writing groups. One group focused on critique and perfecting craft, while the other had built a strong list of famous authors who were willing to attend as speakers. When this latter group decided to run a nationwide competition, they invited P.D. James to judge the finalists, and select the winner. Graciously, she accepted. The theme was: The First Chapter of a Novel.

As a group we were all encouraged to enter something to support the competition, but as it was we needn’t have concerned ourselves about lack of entries, because we ended up with well over a thousand submissions. The piece I submitted was from a work in progress, a rather complex novel I was busy plotting, that had three time-lines I was trying to thread together. I’d written about 15,000 words. For the competition I decided to polish my first chapter, which started, “I know I am in a dream,” written from a man’s first person viewpoint. I was happy enough with my submission, but with so many entries flooding in, didn’t concern myself over winning or losing.

When the big day came for the winner to be announced, and the prize to be handed over, the only person who knew the outcome was P.D. James herself. Not even the writing group’s chairman was privy to the result. The meeting hall we’d booked for the occasion was packed, and the event started with P.D. James giving a talk on her writing methods, and explaining how she drew inspiration from newspaper headlines. A story would pique her interest, usually a topic that had social impact, such as adopted children being permitted to trace their birth parents; then she’d set to researching facts and building characters.

Once we’d all taken a break and afternoon tea had been served, we sat down to hear the results of our competition. Third prize: not me. Second prize: not me. P.D. James started to say how very much she’d enjoyed the winning entry and how extremely well written it was. Then she named the winner. First Prize goes to… Oh my goodness me! That was my name! I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned.

P.D. James asked if the winner was in the room and would they like to step up to the table. I stood.

“I don’t believe it!” she exclaimed. “I thought this piece was written by a man.” She stood, her face alight with excitement. “You’re a woman writing in a man’s viewpoint. I was completely convinced it was a man’s voice. This makes it an even stronger winner. I read your name and assumed you were a man!” She applauded me. This great crime writer stood and gave me a standing ovation. Then she shook my hand and handed me the best prize ever, her praise.

This took place back in the late ‘80s. Shortly after this amazing occasion, life events hit me hard and I suddenly found myself thrust into having to cope with exceptional circumstances. My writer friends told me not to worry if I couldn’t find the time or concentration to write, and assured me that I was building a storehouse of experiences which one day I would draw upon and use in my novels. They were absolutely correct.

I never did finish the complex novel P.D. James so loved, but she gave me the confidence to never stop writing. Since then I have written many other novels, and never given up on my dream of becoming a published author. In 2014 when Booktrope accepted Visiting Lilly, my dream came true.

Book 2 in the Jake Talbot Investigates series, Saving Anna, is due for release this autumn.

If you’re an aspiring author, what keeps you going, and pushing beyond self-doubt? I’d love to hear your story.

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