How to pass the time when self-isolating during coronavirus

I’ve worked from home as a full-time crime writer for a year now. It’s been amazing because I’ve only had one bug in that time (one cold, compared to about five colds and one flu per year before that) and a massive reduction in migraines. Plus, I’ve written three novels and various short stories and articles in that time, making it my most productive year yet, career-wise.

But there can be downsides to working from home. You’re socially isolated and it can negatively affect your mental health some days, especially if it’s new to you.

If you’ve been sent home from work to avoid the spread of coronavirus, or you’re choosing to self-isolate (hopefully, as a precaution and you’re not ill) and don’t know what to do with yourself, you might find at least one tip here that appeals to you. I don’t have children (well, 3 cats!) so I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it is to entertain kids if your whole family is self-isolating, but I’m sure there are some great tips online specifically for children.

  • You’ll probably feel like having at least one or two sweatpants days where you just lounge on the sofa or stay in bed all day long, eating all the bad stuff from your cupboards and ignoring the hairbrush. Do it! How often do we get a chance to do this on a weekday? Never! It’s not wasting time, it’s downtime and everyone needs more of that. Give in to eating whatever you want and don’t feel guilty for taking an afternoon nap. Just don’t do this every day of your self-isolation as it will quickly turn bad. One day off is fine, but after that, get productive or your mental health will decline.
  • Why not plant some seeds? In my experience you’ll look forward to checking every morning whether they’ve grown yet. If you can’t get out to buy seeds, use something you already have – sweet peppers, apples, citrus, tomato, an old spud going moldy in the cupboard – just plant something and watch it grow! There are plenty of YouTube videos showing you how to plant anything, but I’ve found trial and error is best. I just put a seed in some compost, water it and put it in a sunny spot. That works 96% of the time. (Cactus seeds refuse to grow in my house!) Another benefit of planting seeds is that we might need home-grown produce if food becomes limited (worst case scenario), so get a head-start now.
  • If you have a garden or balcony, make sure you get outside regularly. The benefits of listening to the birds, watching bees buzz around the flowers and feeling the sun on your face is immediately uplifting. Plan to fill those gaps in your borders by listing what you want to buy when you’re able to get out and about again. Tidy up the pots that have been thrown around the garden in the recent storms. It will help you feel productive which, in my experience, keeps spirits lifted.
  • If you’re well enough, go for a walk every day, even if it’s just around the block. Obviously be careful if you do have coronavirus, you don’t want to accidentally spread it to any at-risk people, but getting outside really breaks up the day, even if just for fifteen minutes. It’s good for your body too as too much sitting will very quickly ruin your overall fitness. Take it from someone who knows!
  • Speaking of exercise; don’t forget YouTube has thousands of free workout videos including aerobics, yoga, indoor walking etc. Try searching for whatever you’re interested in and I guarantee there’s a video for it!
  • Use social media to chat with people who share your interests. There are bound to be lots of other people in the same situation and looking to pass the time, and social media can make you laugh (well some sites are better than others; Twitter is my fave.). You might even end up making new friends (but stay safe online – see my previous blog post!).
  • TV is important because it feels like you’re with people. Watching drama-filled reality shows can fill the void if you’re missing office gossip. I recommend any of the Real Housewives franchises for their drama and gossip and the “OMG, did they really just do that?” moments!
  • Use the time you’re indoors to catch up on the hobbies you’ve been neglecting for years. Dust off your Warhammer 40k miniatures/knitting needles/drum set and lose time!
  • Read those books that have been piled next to your bedside table for years! Many people will want to read uplifting stories right about now but I’m the opposite, I’ve always loved crime, horror and non-fiction so if that’s what helps me escape the news, then that’s what I’ll read. E-readers will certainly be useful during this pandemic!
  • Those DIY jobs you’ve been avoiding? Start small and build up to getting them done. Or just have a spring clean and get rid of all the clutter you’ve been meaning to give away or sell! This is probably a really good time to list stuff on auction sites and make some money. Assuming the post offices stay open of course.
  • If you’re meant to be actually working from home during this time, don’t put it off. Find somewhere comfortable to work from in your house (not your bedroom as this will ruin your sleep routine eventually) and make sure you go there during your normal work hours. Okay, maybe knock off at least an hour either side because let’s face it, these are unprecedented times and we’re not going to work as hard as we would if we were actually at work! Keep your workday routine if you can because you’ll find it easier to mentally switch off when you do stop working. Move to a different room for downtime. That’s why working from the living room or bedroom isn’t always a great idea; it might be comfortable but you’ll start associating it with work. I work from a spare room we’ve converted into a home office, but that’s because my homeworking is long-term.
  • Don’t spend all your downtime watching the news. Sure, get updates once or twice a day because coronavirus is obviously a fast-moving story (and bug) but it’s depressing and actually quite scary for a lot of people, and when you’re stuck at home you need to focus on staying busy and positive as much as you can.
  • Stay in contact with anyone in your family or friend-circle, or neighbours, who live(s) alone. They will be the people who are most scared because they’ll be worrying about contracting the virus and having no way of getting their normal medicine and groceries. Not everyone uses online shopping and even that might be hit eventually. Call/message them regularly or, with elderly neighbours, try to pop by and chat through the closed front-door a few times a week, if they’re open to that. Remember, a lot of people who suffer with long-term chronic illnesses are isolated all the time and they’ll have better tips than me on how to cope.

Ultimately, anything that passes the time will help you get through self-isolation and you have to keep both your mind and your body active because mental health is absolutely linked to physical health. Oh, and having pets like Joey (pictured above) helps!

If you have any other tips, leave a comment!

Wendy. x

October – the season for horror

October is one of my favourite months of the year because I grew up reading horror books and watching horror films and October is perfect for indulging in both. The nights are closing in and the heating is going on, which is perfect for shutting the world out and pretending you’re in your own (safe) horror story. In fact, the first short stories I ever tried writing were horror, although cheap imitations of Stephen King. I still have a couple and although they’re pretty bad, I can see where I was beginning to learn the rules of grammar and dialogue which helped me become published in the future.

The first short story I had published wasn’t quite horror but it was dark. It’s called Blue and it later turned into my first ever novel – The Girl Who Died. It’s about a teenage girl whose best friend dies. It starts with the main character – Hannah – laying next to her best friend’s body. We don’t know at that stage whether Hannah was involved in her death and why she died. Hannah also features in my latest release – Where the Snow Bleeds. Unfortunately, her life doesn’t get much better in that! So yes, my writing definitely has a dark side to it! It’s hard to avoid that when you’ve been the victim of horrific crime from a young age because your life takes on this darkness that it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to darker subjects for my writing and reading choices, and to my favourite season of the year; autumn. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy lighter subjects and comedy, but light and fluffy just doesn’t interest me. Unless it’s a cat! That’s another reason to love October – Halloween and cats.

The photo above is of Teddy – my youngest cat – when he was a kitten. I don’t dress him up for Halloween (there’s no way he’d even let me) but his ginger colouring fits the pumpkin season perfectly!

So, October for me will be filled with writing my next novel, reading some favourite horror books and watching new and old horror films. One of which is Paranormal Activity 3. The PA films were great when they first came out, really different from other films in the genre. But they peaked at the third film – that camera on the oscillating fan was genius and creepy as hell! I watch it every year now. I’m not a fan of slasher horror and I can’t watch people being tortured, but I love paranormal and psychological horror. My next release (early 2020) – book 3 in the Dean Matheson crime thriller series – gets pretty dark and features some horror classics but I can’t really say any more than that yet!

After October we’ll all begin the countdown to my next favourite time of year – Christmas! (Sorry!)

Author Q&A

Here is an author Q&A I did a couple of years ago for the lovely Abby from Anne Bonny Book Reviews after my YA crime novel (The Girl Who Died) was released:

Q) For the readers, can you talk us through your background and the synopsis of your new novel?

I have been an avid reader ever since I was small, always preferring books over dolls for presents, and that love of reading resulted in an inevitable love of writing.  I started writing stories from about ten years old and I still have some I wrote as a teenager (they’re not good but they make me smile!).  I eventually completed some Creative Writing modules as part of my degree and found they really helped me focus on writing every day.

The Girl Who Died was the first novel I wrote.  It centres around fifteen-year-old Hannah, who thinks she’s killed her best friend, Katie, and then has to deal with the aftermath.  From dealing with the police investigation to starting a friendship with Katie’s devastated older brother, Josh, Hannah is put in some awful situations that she isn’t mature enough to deal with.  It’s not an easy read when we learn what Katie was going through before she died, but I believe it’s important to be honest when writing Young Adult fiction.  When I was a teenager I would have liked to have read something like this, to show I wasn’t alone in what I was going through.

Q) Can you talk us through the journey from idea to writing to publication?

This novel started as a nightmare I had when I was fifteen years old.  I must have been arguing with my best friend that day because I dreamt I killed her, cut her up into tiny chunks and then buried her in various places in our local field!  I woke up drenched in sweat and feeling the worst guilt I’d ever experienced.  Not because I thought I’d killed my best friend (we had a love-hate relationship!) but because I thought I’d get caught!  It took me a while to realise it was a dream.  But that dream stuck with me for years and I finally turned it into a short story in my early thirties.  That story got published in the ‘Fish Anthology’ and I had such a good response to it that everyone wanted to know what happened next to Hannah, the main character.  I decided to find out by continuing the story and that turned into the YA novel ‘The Girl Who Died’.  Although I wrote it in my late thirties, I’ve received great feedback about how realistic the fifteen-year-old characters are, which is great.

Q) What are your favourite authors and recommended reads?

Stephen King’s earlier books such as Pet Sematary and IT had a huge influence on me growing up and I still read everything he writes.  I’m also a huge fan of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series, which was unexpected for me because I hadn’t read any fantasy before that.  I am currently working my way through everything ever written by Joyce Carol Oates as something about her writing draws me in.  I also love Daphne Du Maurier and Shirley Jackson.

Q) What were your childhood/teenage favourite reads?

I grew up on Stephen King.  I would search the local car boot sales for any of his books I could find and ended up collecting them.  I prefer his earlier work such as Pet Sematary and IT because I’m a horror fan at heart, but I still read everything he writes.  I’ve learnt a lot from him.  At college I had to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and that became a favourite, which meant I went on to read his other work.  It’s so important to read widely and not just stick to one genre.

Q) What has been your favourite moment of being a published author?

When I got a story traditionally published for the first time I was so proud of myself.  I had entered a short story competition but I wasn’t bothered about winning the cash prizes, I just wanted to make sure I was at least one of the runners up as they would be published in the anthology.  Once I found out I was a runner up I couldn’t have been happier than if I’d have won the money.  Receiving five complementary copies of the anthology and seeing my work in a ‘real’ book for the first time was a huge moment for me.  It made me realise for the first time that I can start saying out loud than I’m a writer.  I didn’t feel like I was pretending anymore.

Q) Who has been your source of support/encouragement, throughout the writing process?

I never had anyone to encourage me while I was growing up and I never told school/college/work friends that I was writing in my spare time, as I felt embarrassed about it.  It was only when I met my husband at 25 that I revealed my writing hobby, and it took me a couple of years before I could show him any of my work.  I had such low self-esteem due to my upbringing that I didn’t feel confident enough to submit to competitions or publishers until I was in my thirties.  My husband has supported my writing ever since we met and now he’s a beta reader for my Dean Matheson crime series!

NaNoWriMo – Can you really write a novel in a month?

When I first heard of NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) about 5 years ago, I laughed, shook my head and thought, ‘Yeah, right. As if you can write a novel in a month.’ I thought if someone finished a whole novel in one month then it would be utter rubbish and unedited. So, I avoided the idea completely…until I joined Twitter.

On Twitter, people take #NaNoWriMo seriously. That made me look into it in more detail and I discovered the point isn’t actually to write a whole novel in a month. It’s to write 50,000 words of a novel during November (the quietest time of the year, apparently, and therefore there should be less distractions). That works out at just 1,667 words per day. Just! So you’re not actually expected to start, finish and edit your novel in one month.

Once I signed up to the website (there are no fees involved), it felt like a challenge I wanted to try. So, on 31st October 2015, I sat down with a notepad and thought about what kind of book I wanted to write. All I had was a character and a location in mind. I didn’t plot or plan any more than that because I’m naturally what Nano-ers call a ‘pantser’, meaning I fly by the seat of my pants! But many people prefer to spend October plotting out their novels in advance.

On 1st November, I sat at my computer, opened a blank Word document and started to write. It was easier than I had expected. What followed was 30 frenzied days of trying to fit in 1,667 words a day, around life and a day job. I learned that if you don’t write enough words one day, you can catch up another day. Or, if you’re really organised, you can write in excess of 1,667 words on the glorious days when the words are flowing and plentiful. There’s a great word count tracker on the NaNo website (www.nanowrimo.org) so you can log your progress, plus there’s a whole community of people willing to spur you along.

By 1st December I was a nervous wreck! I’d just managed 50k words and I had the shell of a first draft novel. But it wasn’t finished. I needed around another 40k words and many edits before I could consider it finished. I’m happy to report that I did finish it and then I edited it for months and now it’s traditionally published and called Who Cares if They Die. It has become a crime series with two more books now finished!

So I’m grateful to NaNoWriMo and this is what I’ve learned since participating:

The good:

  • It gets you into the habit of sitting down to write every single day. Something I’d never done before and I loved it.
  • It kick starts a new novel and leaves no time for doubt.
  • You’re less likely to edit as you go because there’s no time to! I love editing as I go but it slows me down completely. I once spent 6 months on the first 30k words of a book, editing it over and over. In the end I had to scrap it all and start again (during NaNo!).
  • The writing community on Twitter is amazing and the NaNo hashtag is really encouraging during November. You really feel as though you’re writing with people for a change. It feels like we’re all in it together.

The not-so-good:

  • Writing every day gives me migraines. Staring at a PC all day was bad for my eyes. I should’ve had more regular breaks from my screen.
  • I exercised much less. My shoulders were aching and my hands turned into claws! Better time management on my part could’ve solved this.
  • You need an understanding partner/family/roommate, because they will probably have to take over most of the housework during November! (Which is a bonus for us!)
  • You’ll want to put your novel to one side in December and not return to it for months! But that’s good, because when you pick it up again you’ll have a fresh perspective, which is invaluable for the editing phase.

So, what I’ve really learned is that while it is possible to write 50k in one month, it’s not really possible to write and edit a whole novel in one month (although I know some writers have mastered this). Also, writing every single day isn’t good for your body, but having a set routine of writing most days, whilst taking the weekend off, is best. NaNo can really get you motivated to start that new novel in a way that’s hard to beat.

If you’ve never tried it and always wondered about it, I highly recommend you give it a go! Good luck and see you on Twitter in November!