Juggling with knives. And potatoes.

With the recent jump in temperature as we approach the summer solstice, and the old adage of Write What You Know uppermost in my mind, I’m reminded of summer jobs I worked at in my youth.

Mostly juggling knives. And potatoes.

Stood between a range cooker and a hostess cabinet serving hot food under hot, bright lights. The kitchens were so hot we’d open the windows for a breeze, then the midges came in and all hell broke loose as we itched and scratched and tried not to look like pariahs. We’d put on the big noisy extractor fans instead, and have to use sign language to make ourselves understood.

Sweat gathering in the folds behind your knees, trickling down your legs as if you’d peed yourself. Still smiling at customers fresh from a dip in the nearby river, leisured holiday-makers paying your wages.

Another kitchen, hovering over a deep-fat fryer the size of a washing machine. Praying a customer would order something other than saveloy-and-chips so I could stand in front of the fridge – or the freezer, yay! – for a few seconds while the cool air seeped out onto my blotchy ankles.

Walking home, the dust on the road sticking to my bare skin and my hair stinking of fryer grease.

Offices too, often too cold in winter and far too hot in summer.

One building with an air-circulation system that moved air from one floor to another – how’s that faring these days, now that COVID is airborne?

Another office, in full sun all day under a corrugated steel roof; we’d trip the electrical circuits using fans where none should have been needed, but the building was made in a time before computers and printers and photocopiers, and designed for half as many people.

I’m mindful of these experiences when I write.

In the Petticoat Katie novels, my characters don’t swan around country houses with servants to bring them iced tea by the pool.

They don’t stride across the countryside with their companions on a quest to throw a gold ring into a volcano.

They don’t zip through time and space in an air-conditioned police box larger on the inside than the out.

My characters have to work for a living.

They travel by Tube, and the journeys are often crowded, hot and gritty.

On other occasions they travel by airship above shimmering city streets or sandwiched between forest and thunderclouds, cocooned: oppressive, humid, inescapable.

a chimpanzee seated at an old-fashioned typewriter

Petticoat Katie has an office filled with monkeys in an inner-city block built in the Victorian era. Small windows, one door, and did I mention the monkeys which must not be allowed to escape?

Sledgehammer Girl spends her spare hours in a cramped cellar workshop inventing cute gadgets. Much activity with hammers and drills and flaming torches of the non-pitchforky kind.

In summer both locations are unbearable, the first too hot with the stench of bananas and typewriter ink, the other too breathless for brazing or fabrication.

Each place is similar enough to where I’ve worked that I can make a guess on its conditions. Where I have to put my characters into an unfamiliar situation – as we all have to as writers, especially SF or historical fiction – there’s always the research of other writers or the testimony of witnesses.

The more you know, the better you can imagine.

(And right now, I’m imagining ice-cream on a seafront promenade with just enough breeze to be comfy.)


This week’s links – happy, happy.

Moderna HIV vaccine to begin trials.

Great news – Laziness Does Not Exist. Interesting article on Medium.com, which emphasises the link between situation and response. Worthwhile reading to consider when you’re creating new characters.

And, while I’m not a big fan of podcasts, there are plenty of interest at Fourble including many BBC radio comedies and drama series. Here’s A Canticle For Liebowitz, an SF classic novel adapted for NPR.

Published in: on June 13, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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One Comment

  1. […] of us are on the other end of that transaction, juggling knives and potatoes in a dead-end catering job or washing up the dirty plates and […]


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