Great ideas going cheap in the charity shop

Sometime ago I heard a writer say she often felt like answering the ‘where do you get your ideas’ question by saying she picked them up in a charity shop. I laughed, thinking I might use the line the next time someone asked me that question.

Later, though, I found myself thinking about a charity shop as a source of inspiration for characters as well as possible storylines. I worked for Oxfam for many years as an organiser for a cluster of shops, which raised money for the projects the charity supports. I loved my work and have fond memories of those years and of the people I met. I thought I’d share a few snapshots of some those characters – feel free to choose any and develop them as you see fit! Names have been changed to protect the guilty.


© Copyright Roger A Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Patricia was a terribly posh volunteer who entertained us with scurrilous stories about the landed gentry and other members of the upper classes she would meet at the various royal garden parties to which she seemed to be always being invited. Patricia had an alcohol problem and smoked like a chimney. On one occasion she was working in the back of the shop putting clothes for recycling into black bin liners which, when full were piled up to be collected. Patricia climbed up the mountain of sacks to add one more to the top of the pile, slipped and slithered down, passing out, dead drunk at the bottom. It was about 11 o’clock in the morning.

I remember her telling me of the time she had pneumonia and was confined to bed, forbidden to smoke. She would wait until her husband had gone out then bump on her bottom down the stairs to smoke an illicit cigarette (kept no doubt in a silver cigarette box) then crawl, gasping for breath, back upstairs.

Another volunteer, Helen was such a softie she couldn’t bear to go near the big open market in the run up to Christmas because the sight of all the plucked turkeys hanging up made her cry. She admitted she volunteered to work in the charity shop because she wanted to raise money for the poor people in Africa and India – so they would stay there.

Volunteer Molly struggled to balance her till roll and cash receipts after the introduction of electronic tills. Every time she was on duty the till roll showed quite ridiculous amounts of money. She swore she was entering the correct amount for each sale. I watched her one day and she was indeed very accurate in pressing in the right amount. Then, I spotted what was happening. Molly was extremely well endowed and any time she leant over the counter towards a customer her boobs would ring up yet another sale of a few thousand quid!

A cross dresser frequented one shop because he said the volunteers made him feel comfortable, unlike the attitude towards him in another, not-to-be-named-here charity shop. Our volunteers used to lay aside dresses, skirts and blouses they would fit – and suit – Pearl. He did always moan there were never any high heels to fit his size ten feet.

During a spring clean in one shop we moved the large mirror which leant against the wall in the fitting room. An avalanche of price tickets fell out. Thieves had been taking clothes into the fitting room, putting them, removing the price tickets and presumably putting their own clothes on top.

An extremely scruffy man asked to try on a pair of shoes. The volunteer noticed his toes poked through holes in his socks. The shoes were too small and he handed them back. Just before he reached the door her returned, asked to borrow a pair of scissors, which the bemused shop assistant, with some reluctance, handed over. He sat down, removed his shoes again and proceeded to cut his toenails – though the holes in his socks. Finished, he tried on the shoes again and declared they fit just fine.

I’m stopping here, not because I have run out of characters but there is a danger this blog post might go on forever.


Discovering a lovely review, written by a total stranger, of one of my books on Amazon fills me with a warm glow. That someone has found my book out of the many millions out there, read it, ‘got’ it, liked my characters – and taken the time to post a review – is hugely satisfying and uplifting. I want to hug this discerning reader but, as I don’t know them, I celebrate with a little happy dance at my desk.

best way to thank an author

I am sure most authors feel much the same level of delight when someone leaves a good review on Amazon – and probably the same level of pain when they suddenly come across a nasty little 2*.

I admit I’m not good at putting reviews on Amazon even though I want other readers to find and enjoy books I’ve read and loved. It’s partly because I don’t feel confident about writing a review, finding it difficult to precis a plot in a couple of sentences. I worry someone will look at what I’ve written and sneer at it or someone will buy the book I’ve raved about and hate it.

At the end of July, Rosie Amber, one of my favourite book review bloggers (though she and her team of reviewers cost me a fortune!) put up a post urging readers to post reviews on Goodreads or Amazon.  She gives short shrift to my excuses – seems I’m by no means the only reluctant reviewer – and gave tips on how to write a review.

A couple of days later, author and blogger Terry Tyler, came up with an idea to encourage readers – and surely all authors are readers? – to write a review on Amazon. Her blog post is here.

When someone  puts a review on Amazon this month they can tweet it and, if the hashtag #AugustReviews is used Terry then lists those on her blog.

As for my worries about not being good at writing reviews I found something Terry wrote reassuring. She says: “Remember, this isn’t the Times Literary Supplement, it’s Amazon, where ordinary people go to choose their next £1.99 Kindle book.  No one expects you to write a thousand word, in-depth critique; I don’t know about you, but I’m more likely to read one short paragraph or a couple of lines saying what an average reader thought of a book, than a long-winded essay about the pros and cons of the various literary techniques used.”

I like that ‘ordinary people’ and I’m further encouraging myself with the reminder that a review is my opinion – so it can’t be right or wrong.

I think reviews do help people decide whether or not to buy a book. I certainly have a quick read through before I make a decision and hit the buy button. If I have enjoyed a book, I do want to let other people know about so I’ve started to take part in #AugustReviews. I’ve only done three or four but it’s a start.

How about others? Do you put reviews on Amazon for books you’ve enjoyed reading?  If not, why not?

Does a good review for one of your books make you happy? If you have enjoyed a book, how about making another author feel as happy as you?

There are still a few days left in August – why not make an author smile (unless it’s a dead author, obviously) and tell other readers about a book you enjoyed? And don’t stop in September – carry on sharing the love.


PS This is NOT about giving your writer friends 5* reviews, which can make for uncomfortable feelings all round.

Summer Solstice Splash ‘n Cash Giveaway!


I’ve teamed up with four other authors this week for a Rafflecopter giving readers the chance to win a $100 Grand Prize, which can be taken in the form of either cash or an Amazon gift card – who doesn’t need more books!

It’s free to enter – just click on the link at the bottom of this post to be taken to the Rafflecopter. Good luck.

Summer Solstice
 Splash ‘n Cash Giveaway!


$100 Grand Prize
(Amazon Gift Card or PayPal Cash)


Sponsored by:

Best loved children’s book

At my writers’ group, YA author Claire Watts recently ran a workshop on writing for different age groups of children from tiny tots to young adults. We were asked to think about a book which had made an impact on us in our own childhood.whatkatydid

I thought immediately of What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. I loved that book. I remember once snapping it shut saying, “Thank goodness, I’ve finished it.”

My mother asked if I hadn’t enjoyed it. And when I assured her I had, asked, “So why are you pleased you’ve finished it?”

“So I can read it again,” I said. And I did, many times. The number 23 resonates but I couldn’t have read it 23 times, could I?

I did read many other books throughout my childhood – unlike my young sister who, having read a Hardy Boys novel declared it was the best book she’d ever read and refused to read another book for several years because, she insisted, “It won’t be as good as that one.”

Hearing others in the writing group talk about the book which had most made an impact on them, reminded me of the many other wonderful books I’d read. Like many of my fellow writers I enjoyed Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven series and The Famous Five. More and more memories of happy reading flooded back: Josephine Pullein-Thompson had allowed me to live in a world of ponies while the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton (again) or The Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer let me enter a different world of boarding school, tuck boxes and midnight feasts in the dorm.

I longed to be sent to a boarding school (and/or own my own pony). The nearest I came to a midnight feast was when my friend who was visiting her grandparents next door agreed to meet in my garden shed at midnight. We climbed out of our respective windows – luckily we lived in bungalows – but she cut her finger trying to open a tin of corned beef and ran home, blood dripping down her granny’s nightdress. It was the kind of scrape Katy might have got chalet school

What was the allure of What Katy Did and, to a lesser extent, what she did at school and after? I decided to find out by re-reading. Rather than searching our freezing cold attic, where hundreds of boxes of books have been temporarily stashed, I took the easy way out and downloaded the trio of books from Amazon.

It’s been like bumping into an old, much-loved friend. As soon as I began reading I remembered the sequence of events and could almost recite parts of it. While there are some things with which my adult self takes issue – the message that disabled people should be good and kind and sweet-natured (a message found in other children’s books – think of Heidi for example) – I understand why as a child I loved Katy so much. She scribbled stories, she and her brothers and sisters played daft games -remember Kikeri? – and wreaked havoc. She was real. She tried to be good but, like most children, she usually failed. It’s full of humour, both in the things that happen and in the narrator’s voice.

And the narrator took Katy’s side most of the time, which I suspect was unusual. When Katy disobeyed Aunt Lizzie and used the swing in the barn the narrator points out that although she was wrong to ignore her aunt, it was also wrong of the aunt to expect unquestioning obedience. Had Aunt Lizzie explained the swing was not safe, Katy would not have swung on it with such disastrous results. As a young girl I must have relished a grown up person (as the narrator surely is) taking the side of the child.

I think I’m going off to join the girls at Malory Towers now. Which book made the most impact on you as a child?

Excited to be here

Hello, it’s Mary here and I’m really excited to be sharing in this five-author blog. I hope you will enjoy visiting as with five very different writers putting up posts there’s sure to be lots to amuse, inform and entertain you.

I work in a book-lined room which overlooks the main street of my small town. Over the rooftops I can just see the hills while directly opposite are the Solicitors Property Centre and a shop selling sports goods and pet supplies. The latter has a rather mesmerising white and blue Christmas star flashing at me at night.

My desk is much too messy to show you so I’m only going to let you have a glimpse of some of the books.


In the room where I work