NaNoWriMo Week 1- The Writing Brain

i’ve always known that brain exercise is as energetic as sport. Thanks to Cheryl Fasset for this one.

Catching Fireflies

I am sad that life and juggling work projects has interfered with my chasing NaNoWriMo this year. But, I am still here for moral support for all the crazy writers who took the plunge. And for those of you who have never tried it… It is a roller coaster that I cannot recommend highly enough!

This is Your Brain on Writing

Last June, an article with the same title was written by Carl Zimmer and appeared in the NY Times. It started, “A novelist scrawling away in a notebook in seclusion may not seem to have much in common with an NBA player doing a reverse layup on a basketball court before a screaming crowd. But if you could peer inside their heads, you might see some striking similarities in how their brains were churning.” And I was hooked.

I have never been athletic so learning…

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Nano – It’s Good for Insecurity, But I’m not Attempting It

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No, I’m not doing Nano this year.  Don’t even mention Nano to me.  I’m exhausted.  My stomach is out-of-order and has been, on and off, since Sunday.  Then there’s the four-letter word – WORK.  I’ve just got enough time to write my Insecure Writers’ Support Group post.

You see, Ofsted came to my college at the beginning of this week.  (Non-Brits, you’re so lucky not to have Ofsted.)  In the UK, this organisation inspects schools, colleges, childminders and any other place where it can extend its remit.)  Accordingly, last weekend was spent rushing around preparing all the paperwork they were expected to want (and even some teaching materials) in case an inspector came into my classroom, something which – statistically – was unlikely to happen.  Except that it did, on Monday afternoon.  I was one of just three tutors to be visitated in my college site.

Two years ago, when I was in between teaching jobs, I did do Nano and I reached my 50,000 words.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly the camaraderie online and being able to give myself the excuse to prioritise writing over everything else.  Seeing your word total rising and rising every day bolsters your confidence like nothing else, makes you feel like a proper writer, that that publishing contract is a mere detail.

However, although I finished in the Nano sense – and I have a certificate, and I earned a half-price version of Scrivener through it –  I didn’t reach the end of my novel’s storyline.  Also, later, I was told by a commissioning editor that publishers took adult novels in the region of 80,000 words plus.  I did, however, manage to reach the proper ‘end’ of my novel on the morning before I went for my induction at the college where I teach now (yes, the one with unwelcome visitors).

So, sadly, I will not be writing my next opus this month.  I will, however, continue to edit, and re-draft the 2015 novel.  Very best of luck, everybody who’s attempting Nano this year.

New Historical Fiction Competition

Sharpen your pencils.  Buy a new biro.  Wipe down your computer keyboard.

The  next Association of Christian Writers competition is for historical fiction with a Christian element (for example, a Christian character or a Christian setting).  The deadline is 31 December 2017  and the word count 1200 words.  More information will be available on the ACW website any time now.   I’m giving you, my Dear Readers, the heads up, a little more thinking time.

The judge will be Claire Dunn (C F Dunn), author of The Secret of the Journal series.

Unlike Claire, I’m not a published historical novelist, but I do write historical short stories, some of which have been published online, and I am currently writing a novel set in a period which is just too recent to be historical.  I’d hesitate to offer advice, but I’d like to share what I’ve learned about historical fiction writing as I went along.

  • Write a story, not a history book.  The characters should lead, as in any other fiction.
  • Although you’ll carry out a lot of research into your historical setting, resist the temptation to include it all in your text; in fact, use very little of it.  Georgette Heyer, author supreme of Regency romances, rarely mentions any solid history (the Battle of Waterloo, once or twice, perhaps).  Your research may inform what your characters don’t  do and think.  For instance, in my novel, at various times, nobody could use a telephone, because the government had cut the lines.
  • Every historical fact must be accurate, especially dates.  Build yourself a historical timeline and write the events of your story beside it. a useful source for finding out the days of the week for specific dates in recent history.  Use Wikipedia for general schedules of world events in particular years.
  • Do a site visit, remembering that cities and places change.
  • As well as political history, research what people wore, what they ate, how they travelled, what they thought.  If possible, read contemporary books, and look at photos.  If you can find any cartoons, or any jokes, study them intensely.  Listen to popular music, including folk songs, paying particular attention to the lyrics.  Look up any words or phrases you don’t understand, as these may be the key to the hidden soul of the people you’re writing about.
  • Don’t bend historical happenings to suit your plot.  Use real history to generate confrontation in your story.
  • Consider what your characters are in a position to know, and, more importantly, what they don’t know.  The general British public didn’t know about gas chambers in concentration camps until some time after World War Two had ended.  And how they learned it; the characters in my WIP learned all that was important, listening to Radio Free Europe whilst leaning against a toilet seat.
  • In stories set in recent history (after about 1900), real historical persons should feature hardly at all.  Before 1900, use them if you wish, accurately, and without lapsing into biography.
  • Editors of historical fiction ezines and mags tell me that stories set in The Second World War and the Victorian era are in glut – avoid these settings.  Regency period, also, but certain markets can’t get enough of them.
  • Whereas people of every age have the same personalities, those living in byegone eras have their own worldviews and ways of treating servants, other races, animals, women, children.  They were definitely not politically correct.  No girl knights, please, or Roman families without slaves.  Also, European and North American characters in earlier eras are more likely to have strong religious views – a bonus, seeing as you need to include a Christian element.

(If you’ve read my last More Than Writers blog post, you will have read all this before.  Sorry.  It’s worth advertising the historical fiction comp again.)

Resources for Writing Descriptions

I would answer No to both poll questions.  I find writing descriptions tedious, that they slow me down when what I really want to do is get on with the action.  When I’m reading, I often skip through descriptions.  When editing, I enjoy refining a piece of dialogue to get it just right for the character’s voice and, at the same time, to move the story on.  However, even I recognise – oh so reluctantly – that writing is much more effective when readers are shown how characters spoke, any hand movements, facial expressions and how they held their bodies, but, here I am, half way through a novel of characters who are all raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyes (or so it seemed to me).  If you are an editor or publisher, please stop reading now.  The Novel won’t be like it when it reaches you. 

I have found some resources to help writing descriptions.  I came across Descriptionari – a website where other writers post their favourite descriptions – accidentally.  To be honest, at first, it felt like cheating, like one of those pay-for-GCSE-essay sites, but it isn’t because what fits the Descriptionari writer’s context doesn’t fit yours.  Yet, it is so helpful to be able to analyse what other writers have written in similar situations.   I also find the Macmillan Dictionary Online Thesaurus  to be better than other thesauruses as it includes related words too.

Inevitably, I have also discovered, on the internet, many many articles saying, in so many words, ‘Don’t do descriptions’… and then told you how to do them.  These demotivated me.  As I put my computer down and picked up my book, wondering why all other writers could do descriptions and I couldn’t, I realised that the biggest resource of all was staring at me in the face.

Coincidentally, when I was doing a bit of clearing up at home, I found a copy of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy (actually awarded to my father as a school prize in the 1930s).  As this book was falling to bits, I downloaded it on to my Kindle and I’m still reading it.  I know what you’re going to say, Dear Reader, that nobody reads The Forsyte Saga, but those people who watch the box-set are missing some of the most vivid word descriptions ever, of characters,  how they move, how they look, how they speak, how they react without speaking.

Soames looked very real, sitting square yet almost elegant with the clipped moustache on his pale face, and a tooth showing where a lip was lifted in a fixed smile. 

Accidental/Deliberate Use of Personal Information

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Wednesday is the day for the Insecure Writers’ Support Group.  I’m writing this post early because I’m about to go on holiday and my iPad is refusing to charge.  (I’m sure computer equipment has a mind of its own, as well as a memory.)

This month I have managed to carry out quite a bit of editing of The Novel, although I’m nowhere near the point of submitting, or even sending to a professional editor.  I wonder why it is we always feel more secure about our writing when we’re at this stage.  I wonder, wonder, wonder…

This month we’re asked if we have ever slipped any of your personal information into your characters, either by accident or on purpose.  Well, my main character in The Novel lives in a town very close to me, the town where I say I live when people ask, and where I worked for twenty years – although she’s there in the 1980s, when I wasn’t, which means I have to check that schools, hospitals, roads etc were in the same place then as now.

The real problem for me is that, if I’m not careful, all my characters tend, after a few chapters, to become me.  I’m on my guard against this more than I used to be, because I’m aware of the problem.  Someone once said to me that I should let my characters just develop on their own, and become who they become, but everything comes out of my imagination, doesn’t it?  Possible strategies for dealing with it (seeing as I’m a woman) might be to write about a male leading character – perhaps.

Looking forward to reading other writers’ posts, iPad permitting.


Family Meals – a Resource for Historical Fiction Writers

Hope this title is not too pompous.  When you’re writing historical fiction, it’s always the little details that you crave, and can’t find, like what people ate and drank.  Including these can bring your story to life.  Having been around longer on this earth than many writers, I’m setting down some of the things I remember about food in the 1960s Britain.


Older people insisted that strawberries must be eaten with bread and butter

Strawberries served with sugar, which was stirred into them in the bowl hours beforehand, drawing out the strawberry juices which sweated into it, generating pink goo.

Melon (always hard, always honeydew) as a starter, with a glace cherry on top, and served with a little dish of ground ginger?

How rare pineapples were.  I remember seeing one for the first time in Sainsbury’s in about 1967, priced 3s 6d.

Blueberries were for Americans only.

Tinned fruit as a treat.  One tin did the whole family.

A lot of rhubarb.  Every family grew rhubarb (always very tart, made your teeth go chalky).  Stewed rhubarb was often used to eke out other more expensive fruit.

Puddings (Desserts were for Americans)
Queen's Pudding (with a touch too much meringue)
Attrib BBC Good Food.
Queen’s Pudding (with a touch too much meringue)

Queen of puddings:  breadcrumbs mixed with egg yolk, vanilla essence and jam, topped with a light meringue crust.

Cabinet pudding:  like bread and butter pudding, but using slices of stale cake.

Apple pie, baked in a pie dish, with the apples swimming about in juice at the bottom and the crust several inches above it, held aloft by a pie funnel. Also plum pie – as for apple pie but with tinned plums.

Manchester tart:  pastry case baked blind, spread with jam at the bottom, then topped with custard (see below).

Chocolate tart:  pastry case baked blind, and with chocolate goo on top.

Custard:  mix 2 dessertspoonfuls of custard powder and 2 dessertspoonfuls of sugar in a very little milk at the bottom of a pudding basin.  Pour on boiling milk and stir vigorously until it thickens.  This was an essential condiment for every pudding.

Traditional Egg Custard
Traditional Egg Custard

Egg custard (the genuine article).  Egg and milk, with nutmeg on top,  prepared in a pie dish and baked, at a very low temperature, for several hours.  Exquisite!


Ham with a yellow crumb rind.

Potted meat.  A sort of basic (and very cheap) smooth pate, sold, by the piece, from a blue rimmed enamel dish.

Stews, very watery, flavourless and generally disgusting.

Liver casserole, liver with the texture of blotting paper, but served with bacon, which gave it some sort of taste.

All hot meat served with gravy, from a gravy boat on the table, which always dripped nasty congealing droplets on the outside of its spout.

Curry served in ‘duo-cans’, one portion of the tin containing cooked rice and in the other a curried meat sauce (looked like dog food).

(Wonder why I became a vegetarian?)

Fish (a rare treat)

Watery (topped with yellow breadcrumbs – from a tub).

No prawns.   Occasional shrimps, from a tin.

Tinned salmon, brought out on special occasions and served with salad.  One tin would serve a whole family and guests.  There were two sorts, pink (cheaper) and red (more expensive).

Boil-in-the-bag fish, mostly a watery and greasy sauce, with a small square of fish (usually coley).

(Still wondering why I became a vegetarian?)


Green vegetables predominated.  My parents didn’t seem to like carrots, parsnips and swedes much (but that maybe was their personal taste).

A lot of frozen peas.  Even before the age of freezers, a bag of frozen peas could be kept in the ice compartment of the fridge.

No courgettes.

Mushrooms rare.

Peppers were for the French.

Freshly grown vegetables from someone’s garden gratefully received.  If you had a good crop of a particular vegetable (eg runner beans) you ate runners every dinnertime until they were finished.


Sliced and always white.  Delivered by the breadman daily.


Always lots of it.  Yum.

Snack Meals
Welsh Rarebit
Attrib Wikimedia Commons
Welsh Rarebit

Welsh Rarebit (cheese on toast, but with a touch of mustard).

Everything on toast (egg cooked in various different ways, cheese, tinned tomatoes, baked beans).

Salad.  Yes, you all know about salad, but in those days they consisted of several different vegetables laid out on the plate, separately and not touching each other.  There would always be lettuce (leaves pulled apart and washed in a bowl containing cold water and a piece of coal), except in deepest winter when it might be replaced by garden cress or just left out.  Also tomatoes and cucumber and, if you were lucky, beetroot, or even watercress.  No pepper, no grated carrot.  Coleslaw was for Americans, until it took the supermarkets (and my grandmother’s table) by storm in the late 1960s, in small white tubs.  At Christmas, you got small white pickled onions or huge brown pickled onions with your salad.

Soup (always out of a tin or from a packet).

Fruit jelly.

Powdered sweets in packets, reconstituted with milk (instant whip, angel delight etc).

A loaf of sliced bread would also be on the table.

Timing of Meals

Breakfast was the full English, always.  Even when my parents were both ill with flu, it was felt necessary that I should go to school on cereal/ egg and bacon/ toast and marmalade.  I cooked it myself, setting fire to the fried bread in the grill, then making things much worse by moving the grill pan to the sink and turning on the tap.  Flames leaped up to the ceiling.  I ran out of the kitchen screaming, dragging my poor father out of his sickbed, only for us both to return to smoke and steam.

Dinner was generally served at midday.  Many men and schoolchildren went home to eat with their families in the middle of the day.  In the evening, at about five thirty to six, the family would eat high tea.

Foreign Food

Was generally considered nasty.   Foreign food was often cited as a good reason for not going abroad.  “You don’t know where it’s been,” was a common comment.

I could go on.  I’ve always been fascinated by food and cookery and still am.  If I’ve been working on the computer, writing or preparing a lesson (work), I often break off, after lunch, to prepare our evening meal.  I find doing something physical, particularly chopping vegetables, is therapeutic and refreshing.  I occasionally think of running a cookery blog, but I can hardly find the time to maintain this and the Dear Reader blog.

Oh What a Bad Blogger?

I’m being a bad blogger again.  I missed last week and, the way things are going, I’m going to miss this week as well, and, in seven days’ time, I’m going on holiday to Tenerife for a week.  So, here goes.  I’m exhausted, having just cleared out the garage today, and, as I’m typing, my cat is standing on my lap, pummeling it.  And the television is on; one and only husband has to watch The News.

So, have I been posting loads of book reviews on my other blog, Dear Reader?  No, I need to write about three reviews, one for Instant Apostle (which I will do tomorrow, honestly) and a couple for books I read a few weeks ago (whoops!)

Afternoon Tea at The Belmont Hotel, Leicester
Afternoon Tea at The Belmont Hotel, Leicester

Yesterday, I went to Leicester, to see some friends from school, many of whom I hadn’t seen for a very long time.  It was absolutely amazing to see them.  We picked up as if the intervening years hadn’t happened.  Who would have thought us lot of tearaways,  our school uniform skirts bunched up under our school belts and school hats folded into four, rim cut off and mutilated in every conceivable way, would be eating anything so ladylike as afternoon tea?  But we did, and it was very nice.  Afterwards, having put flowers on my parents’ grave, I wandered into town and took a look at the Clock Tower, and Leicester Market.  Years ago (not telling you how many), I sourced the material for my wedding dress in Leicester Market, from a stall called ‘Geoff the Pirate’.  £10, it cost.

Clock Tower, Leicester
Clock Tower, Leicester

I have been doing some writing over the last couple of weeks.  I even managed to write on the train up to Leicester and back.  I’m getting good at writing on trains.  I  don’t seem to be distracted by endless announcements, although other people’s conversations are more difficult to cut out.  I’ve been plodding away at The Novel.  Editing is such hard work.  Getting anything down, as per the Nano philosophy, is the easy bit.  Putting it right – no reps, punctuation correct, using the right phrase, the one that says just what you want it to, making sure you involve all the senses – all this is much harder… but, just when you think you’re there,  you think of an alternative – and much better –  way of writing the scene.  Next day, when you look at the alternative scene again, you see how that could be improved by editing… and so on.

The problem is I don’t seem to be able to see the minutiae until I start  what is really proofreading; this is all upside down, I know.  I should be getting the big picture right and then cross ts and dot is.  I’m sure that a proper writer would be able envisage his/her story much better and save himself/herself time.  Next time, I will do it differently.  (Says she.)

Now, I’m logging off.  I’m exhausted.

Holding That Thought (Thoughts)

I’m writing this as Florida is being ravaged by Hurricane Irma.  It’s hovering outside Naples, a  beautiful seaside resort, with a wide and sandy beach, lined with old fashioned clinker-built houses, with raised verandas, seemingly straight out of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ (although I know TKAM is set in Alabama).  I visited Naples in 2008.  I (and my neighbours opposite, who have a holiday home there) are waiting for it to reach Sarasota, where I stayed with in 2008, with our wonderful friends, A and S, who are (thank God) safe and in north London.  I remember sitting outside with them, in late October, at a cafe in Sarasota, drinking gallons and gallons of black coffee from a metal jug.  The atmosphere was so relaxed and peaceful.


Galveston, Texas
Galveston, where the buildings are on stilts, to protect against hurricanes and tsunamis.

I feel as if I’ve been through this emotional process all before, a few weeks ago, when Hurricane Neville swept through Texas.   In 2011, we stayed in Houston with our friends B and C and we heard all about their daughter, J, who was, at that time, at college in Louisana.  Sadly, C has since passed away, and J has returned home.  A fortnight ago I was following J’s Facebook feed, as she described how the water swept up their road in Houston, up the sidewalk, creeping up the garden… but never inside the

San Antonio, Texas
San Antonio, Texas, which was too far west to be damaged by Hurricane Neville.

house.  I noted the many prayers – as this is Bible Belt – and the urgent calls for anyone who has a boat to come and help.  Is it coincidence that the film ‘Dunkirk’ has just been released?    Amazingly J found time to respond to our many (well-meant but probably irksome) emails, assuring us that THIS IS TEXAS.  WE LOOK AFTER OUR OWN.  And then she went on to tell us about some football star who had raised several million dollars in hours.  Hold those thoughts.

We too have experienced flooding, in our village in Essex, several times over.  The day of the Referendum in June 2016 was a case in point.  My husband tried to ring the Election Office to say that we might not make it to the polling station (we were both working as poll staff), but he got no reply as – guess what?  – the Election Office was also flooded.  (We did get there btw.)  In previous years I have waded through the surging river in what was hitherto our road.  Other neighbours (not the ones with the house in Florida) with whom we had had any contact for years, knocked on our door, walked into our garage and (as I was alone in the house) moved our mower on to wood blocks so it didn’t get waterlogged.   I then walked further up the road and, seeing that other houses were indeed flooded, offered to put anyone up who needed it.  Another neighbour, remembering that we used to offer bed and breakfast, sniggered and asked me how much I would charge.  I walked away feeling very hurt.  Hold these thoughts also!

Further back, we’ve known hurricanes.  Remember 1987?  We lived in Surrey back then.  We went to bed that night, thinking it was a bit windy.  In the small hours, I looked down our garden, to the two stout (and I mean really stout, with trunks as thick as a man) oak trees bending over like pipe straws.  (Amazingly, they returned to their normal posture afterwards and I continued to fasten my washing line to them.)  My husband noticed that his car boot was open and that his library of sheet music (which he used when he played the organ, worth probably about £1000) was blowing about in the ‘breeze’.  He rushed outside in his pyjamas to rescue it, pinning down ancient, dog-eared pages with one hand as he attempted to pick up others.  He didn’t lose any of it.  We debated whether to wake our four-year-old daughter, sleeping upstairs in her attic-conversion room – we didn’t and she was ok, but I think we should’ve done.  The following morning, I got her up as usual, dressed her in her uniform and drove her to school; she was one of only four children to arrive in her class.  Many of the roads in Surrey were blocked by falling branches and whole spinneys and woods were flattened.  Hold that thought also!

We writers need our resources.  We need to hold on to our memories, not just what happened (which will get recorded in the history books and in Wikpedia), but what we were thinking and doing at the time.  If you can’t use it in your writing, someone else will.

Insecure Writers’ Support Group – Surprising Myself

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Tomorrow is Insecure Writers’ Support Group day, but I’m writing this early because tomorrow (Wednesday) I’m travelling to London, to the Albert Hall, to hear/see the Proms.  They’re playing Shostakovitch’s Symphony number 11.  Very exciting.

The summer has not been a good time for writing.  Not enough time.  Too many other things to do, nice things like a holiday to Ireland – and Proms.  Now the evenings are drawing in and the light in the mornings, shining brightly through our windows only last week, has suddenly become dull, and I’m switching on the lights before making breakfast.  The summer is over.  Like many, I think of the year as beginning in September, because that’s when the academic year begins.

I have got very cross with myself for not doing any writing during the summer, especially as I’m not teaching.  It’s been very difficult gathering up the threads of my novel every time when writing sessions are so far apart.  However, I surprised myself last week by doing just that and carrying out some really useful editing.  Note to self:  must stop wanting to alter (improve?) the action in the beginning chapters.

View of Himilayas from Shimla, India.
View of Himilayas from Shimla, India.

Last February, I truly surprised myself by writing a poem, in common metre (6, 8, 6,8) for reading aloud, to pre-school children, all about dinosaurs.  I’ve always convinced myself that I can’t do children’s and I can’t do poetry.  Given the topic The Sea by my writing group, I scribbled the lines of my poem whilst on holiday in Shimla (in the very north of India), on those tiny scraps of notepaper provided in hotel bedrooms, singing to myself Amazing Grace (which, according to Wikipedia, is in common metre).  There, Sudbury Writing Group, I did it for you.

My Favourite Things

Unlike Bob Geldof, I do like Mondays, because  I look forward to reading the blogs I follow on WordPress. Other people’s blogs can be funds of information.  This week, from Meredith Allard’s blog, I learn about Anne Bradstreet, an early American poet.  From Blog About Writing, and Words about Writing and Writing about Words, I find out about about new writing competitions.  From several other blogs, I discover books I want to read.  One of my favourite blogs,  however, Campari and Sofa,  is just fun.  Written by two mature women (one in LA and one in South Africa), it often just contains a quote, but this week was about ‘#143 Things We Love’. #143?  Sooo… I think I’d better get going and list #1 Things I Love… not in any particular order.

  • Relaxing with a cup of tea or coffee, made exactly the right way, right temperature, right strength, right amount of milk and no food served with it to spoil it.  Btw, I don’t do herbal teas and I don’t do instant coffee.
  • A cup of tea in bed – made by someone else.
  • Hanging-out washing on a warm, spring day, listening to the lambs bleating in the field half a mile away.  (You didn’t expect that one, did you?)
  • Shutting the dishwasher-door and switching it on, thinking about how it’s doing all my work for me.
  • Stationery, especially blank, lined notebooks, smelling of freshly minted paper.  The hardback ones, especially with a pretty pattern on them, are the best.  I also have a thing about pencils with rubbers on the ends, staplers and hole punches.
  • Roses, and dahlias, because of their strong colours, and range of colours.
  • A really good book.
  • Having a piece of my writing accepted by a webzine or other publisher.
  • Chancing upon something funny, such as a road sign or notice, like the ones below:
Prayors Hill. Road sign in Sible Hedingham, Essex
Sible Hedingham, Essex. This road leads to the church.
Advert in train. Excellent summing up of the story arc for Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Mikado'.
Advert in train. Excellent summing up of the story arc for Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado’.
  • Computers.
  • Cats.
  • The roar of a football crowd.
  • The moment you touch down on the tarmac in the UK on returning from holiday.
  • Warm, sunny days at home in England, you know, the ones that are so warm and pleasant that you consider cancelling your holiday.
  • Walking outside early in the morning in summer, into a world fresh, untouched and full of amazing potential.
  • Sitting by a roaring fire (in the grate) in winter.
  • Ooh… and writing.

I know I’m supposed to mention things like ‘spending time with my grandchildren’.  I love them dearly.  They are the reason I haven’t been doing much writing recently, but  I’m listing THINGS not people.