How to Get Out of Writer’s Block

Designing plot: like trying to assemble a marble run

Designing plot: like trying to assemble a marble run

For me the most effective way through writer’s block is to become like my three-year-old and son ask questions. “Mummy, why?” is something he repeats ten times a minutes and, as infuriating as it is, it’s how he learns about the world around him. Most of my answers start with “I don’t know, maybe because…”, or, “Let’s google it”.

Working out what’s going on in a new novel is no different. The more questions you ask, the better the story gets. The harder you search for answers the further you get away from clichés and predictable plot lines. But when asking what happens next and why comes up with nothing, you can start questioning the characters instead. What are their motivations? What are they yearning for, even if they don’t know themselves? What are their greatest fears? What might happen to chuck them out their comfort zone.

Like many younger siblings, my protagonist George is looking for his own identity. He knows he isn’t smart like his sister or sporty and musical like his brother. He thinks his mum doesn’t love him, that he’s always useless. Only his dad understood him, and he vanished a year ago. The thing he likes to do most is kill aliens in his computer games. But he also likes to cook.

As the story progresses, George is discovering he’s fitter and smarter than he thinks he is, and his cooking ability is earning him respect. But, now that I’m at a dead end in the plot, I’ve been questioning him to see if he can help me work out what happens next. And he’s reminded me he loves computer games, which means he is observant and tactical. If the games he plays are like the Tomb Raider games I loved as a teenager, he has to work out puzzles and keep trying until something works. He must be tenacious and brave and good at lateral thinking.

So far his co-protagonist Merula has been leading them both and making the decisions. They are in her world and she has the answers. But he’s been challenging her thinking, questioning things she’s always believed in, and now they’re at an impasse. I think it’s time for George to come into his own and develop a clever strategy to take the action forward, using his game-playing skills.

Now if only I knew what games ten-year-old boys are playing these days I would feel on more solid ground. Any ideas?

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Random Reasearch and Character Naming

Photo inspiration

Photo inspiration

I started work on my Middle Grade novel this morning. Well, I wrote 300 words this time last year, but never got further with it than that. I only added 2,000 words today, but as I’m a Pantser, the beginning of a story is always slow. Once it gains momentum, and I have a clue what the story is about, it should hopefully pick up speed. The start of a new novel is always time consuming as well because there is an element of necessary research. I try not to jar the flow too much when I’m writing, as it’s easy to lose hours to internet research, but I do like to check facts as I go. I always have the iPad next to me for quick searches like “When do skylarks nest?” and “When are potatoes harvested?” (Both from this morning.)

I also like to have some photographs of my story setting to help me make it more three-dimensional. The 300 words I wrote last year were all dialogue, with no setting at all. If I don’t have something to prompt me, I do tend to only write dialogue and feelings. This story is set on a traditional small farm, starting in the kitchen, so I looked for a few images to help me. Once upon a time I would have searched until I found the perfect property, so I could steal all the photos, layout, floor maps, street view images, the works. But I’ve lost valuable hours and chunks of sanity to that task in the past, so now I look for general images and piece them all together into one page that I can have beside me when I’m working.

Character names made easy

Character names made easy

As this book will be fantasy, I wanted to come up with an easy way to generate names: I really struggle with character names and often find the same ones cropping up time and again (I have two Daniels as main roles in different manuscripts, for example, even though – or possibly because – I don’t know anyone called Daniel.)

I wanted quirky names for my ‘other world’ people, but ones still more or less easy to pronounce. I find, reading fantasy, that I get irritated if the names are too complicated.

Anyway I came up with the idea of using latin bird names, using a little pocket book that used to belong to my dad (that I think I’ve rescued from hubbie’s charity shop pile more than once!)

So far I have my female protagonist Merula, from Turdus Merula – Blackbird. Naevia, her friend, from Locustella Naevia – Grasshopper Warbler. Otus, from Asio Otus – Long-eared owl, and Alba, from Tyto Alba – Barn Owl. How easy is that? 🙂

I’m quite nervous starting something completely new, and in a new genre (middle grade fiction). It’s been two years since I wrote Dragon Wraiths, and I had such a strong sense of the story when I started it. This time I’m driven more by a desire to try my hand at the genre and hopefully write something my children might like to read before they’re twenty! It’s daunting and exciting at the same time. I know so much more than I did two years ago, and I write more self-consciously, having done a LOT of editing in that time. I don’t know if I can lose myself in a story and just write. Time will tell, I guess! In the meantime, I’m just keeping my fingers crossed and tapping out the words.

What’s Your Character’s Love Language?

Do you know your characters' love languages?

Do you know your characters’ love languages?

It’s no secret, here on the blog, that I was strongly affected by reading The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, and coming to understand mine and my husband’s particular languages. It has strengthened our relationship and helped us communicate. I’m also now looking at the children and trying to understand how they feel love.

But, being me, I never miss an opportunity to put my life lessons to work on my writing.

Today, at the end of walking the dog – it taking that long for my drugged brain to start working – I turned my mind to the dilemma of my current writer’s block. I’m trying to pen an emotional scene in Class Act, to get my protagonist Rebecca past a difficult experience in her life, without having any direct knowledge of the issue.

I don’t want to belabour the point. Like the postnatal depression in Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes (which I do have experience of), the issues in Rebecca’s past are important for the effect they have on her character and relationships, but I don’t want them forming the be all and end all of the novel. I’m writing genre fiction not literary fiction and aiming for a happy ever after, albeit a plausible one that survives challenges.

So I wondered how I could help Rebecca get through the difficulty most quickly, and whether that could be done genuinely with the right man without it all seeming too convenient and unrealistic. It made me ponder what her Love Language might be and I realised that – for her – the love language has to be Words of Affirmation. Therefore Alex, the love interest, needs to talk to her, reassure her, convince her of his sincerity. I’m not sure what his Love Language is yet. I think his might be Quality Time. That’s the thing lacking from his childhood and the thing he yearned for in his failed relationship at the start of the novel.

I feel as empowered in my writing as I did in my marriage by looking at things this way. I have also realised that I know my characters better than I might give myself credit for. I think I’ll use the five love languages again when considering my romantic protagonists. It’s a new, interesting and simple way to ensure coherent, three-dimensional characters, particularly in the Romance genre.

Just goes to show, you can learn from the strangest of sources. As a friend of mine used to say, “Every day’s a school day.”

2013 365 Challenge: Some Lessons Learned

Conquering mountains

Conquering mountains

For anyone new to the blog (where have you been? *grin*) I spent last year undertaking a writing experiment I called the 2013 365 Challenge.

I set myself a tri-fold task: I would write a blog post everyday, I would include pictures in every post (mostly from what I had been doing that day) and I would write an installment of a novel every day. Not just serialise a novel already written, or write 10,000 words at the beginning of the month and parcel it up, but sit down every single day and think of something new to happen in my novel.

I set myself rules, too. I would try and post by 10am every day (which I mostly did!) I would collate each set of installments into a free monthly ebook and publish it by the last day of the month (which I mostly did). And, most importantly, I would not go back and change things (which I didn’t, aside from typos and spelling mistakes, which slipped through due to tiredness, and – once – when I accidentally changed the name of a character to one in the novel I was also editing at the time. I changed that for the sake of readers’ sanity. But I never changed more than a word at a time).

I think reaching the end of my challenge, the end of Claire’s (my protagonist’s) story, and realising I had written 285,000 words in a year and published them, counts as one of my greatest life achievements.

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

It isn’t Pulitzer Prize winning fiction. In some places it rambles. In many places I’m sure the lack of editing is obvious. But, still, hundreds of people read it and enjoyed it (as far as I can tell, by almost as many copies of the later volumes being downloaded as the first one). I felt like I reached the mountain top and the view was amazing.

Most importantly, I learned so much about being a writer that, even if I hadn’t had a single download, I think I would consider it time well spent. (Although, if I hadn’t had a single download I probably wouldn’t have made it past January, as knowing people were expecting the next installment was often the only thing giving me the motivation to write when all I wanted to do was sleep.)

I’m still processing all the things I learned from my challenge, but I promised in yesterday’s post that I would write some of them down. So these are the things that occur to me right now:

  • It really is important to write every day. That is probably more true for the blogging than the novel challenge, actually. I’m working on my current novel only three days a week (as I used to before the 2013 365 Challenge) but writing something everyday keeps the words flowing
  • You can write great prose even when you’re tired and uninspired (in fact, sometimes having half my brain worried about other things kept my conscious brain busy and left my creative sub-consciousness to get on with it)
  • Writing to a deadline sharpens the mind. Knowing you have to write something, anything, in the next hour, frees you from restraint.
  • Writing to a deadline can also cause terrible writer’s block. Knowing you have to write something, anything, in the next hour can make the white screen the most terrifying thing in the world
  • If the white screen scares you, turn it off and write somewhere else. Tap out a text message, scribble on an envelope. Once the words start flowing, it’s easy
  • Walking sets a great rhythm for dialogue. If I ever got stuck with a scene of dialogue, getting outside and walking the dog helped the words come. The conversation would run in my head in time to my footsteps and all I had to do was write it down
  • Research can spark off new and exciting ideas. Many of my best installments were triggered from a Tripadvisor review. Reading about other people’s experiences can set off a train of thought that leads to a new story, character, or source of conflict.
  • Keep your characters moving. If they must have internal dialogue or introspection, having the protagonist physically moving can give interest and momentum. Claire did some of her best thinking while hiking along cliffs or driving country lanes. It also makes it easier to match scene to mood: a lashing thunderstorm made a great backdrop for a moment of angst
  • Weather is important. It isn’t always sunny. Using Google StreetView to look at different parts of the UK also gave me impetus to write about different types of weather. Now I know to think about the weather and make sure it’s appropriate both for the time of year and mood of scene (see above)
  • Character arcs are fun. Having Claire change from a shallow work-driven career woman into a nature-loving, child-hugging, self-aware woman was very satisfying.
  • Nasty characters can be fun, too. When Claire’s brother turned out to be an utter git (which I hadn’t completely anticipated) I absolutely loved writing his scenes. We don’t often get to say mean things in real life and not feel guilty afterwards. Writing is cathartic
  • Your own experiences are a limitless resource. I used many things from my own life, including (but not exclusively) my time in hospital having my second child; my father’s cancer; my breakdown and subsequent depression; my year living, working and travelling around New Zealand; summers spent in Swanage with my father; hiking holidays in the Lake District, my time working as a Marketing Manager
  • Friends are also great resources. Two examples that spring to mind are when I used emotional anecdotes (not the details) from my paediatrician friend to get inside Josh’s mind, and an accidental conversation with a friend who used to live in the Lake District that greatly enhanced my Grasmere episode.
  • The mind is a well that can run dry. Whether I write 1,000 words a day for a week or 8,000 words in a day, my overall work rate stays fairly level. I just can’t generate the ideas to write more than 10,000 words in a week. The brain needs time to refill and replenish
  • Coffee shops and town centres are great places to refill the mind. Eavesdropping on conversations and watching how people interact can help to create stories
  • Reading is just as important as writing. Immersing yourself in a well-written book can fill the word-well in the mind and reinvigorate an exhausted muse
  • Formatting for Smashwords and Kindle are really boring but actually fairly straightforward. It helps to format as you draft, if it isn’t too distracting. I’ve learned to do it when I’m waiting for the next idea to come, or while watching TV
  • People don’t leave reviews for free books

I’m sure there are loads more things I’ve learned and I’m equally sure that some of these things only apply to me and not to all writers. Looking at the list, though, it makes me realise how far I have come as a writer and how much my confidence has grown. Turning up to work every day, whether I wanted to or not, moved me from “aspiring writer” to “writer”. I just need to make sure I keep it going! This year’s (unofficial) challenge is to build on my learning and concentrate on the craft of writing. Quality over quantity. I’ll keep you posted.

Research and The Raven Boys

What Alex's London flat might look like

What Alex’s London flat might look like

I miss Claire. There, I’ve said it. I miss writing an installment of her journey each day, with a reasonable idea of where she was in the world, at least, and where her story was going. I miss guaranteed word count.

I’m in redrafting hell at present, trying to rescue two characters I love from a badly plotted and planned novel awash with backstory. The problem with loading a first draft with backstory is that changing one thing has a rippling effect across the entire manuscript, especially if you’re trying to rewrite two lines of throwaway history into a whole chapter or even two.

My lead man Alex has a friend called Philip who is essential to the story. Starting In Media Res I didn’t have to worry too much about their relationship before; where they first met, how they met, considering they’re so different. Now, though, we first see them catching up down the pub, setting up the rest of the story’s action, and I have to understand all these things. How do people from different backgrounds meet? How do their different careers and incomes affect their friendship? What’s the age difference? I managed 700 words of stilted dialogue today and gave up in disgust.

I’m also trying not to be overly influenced by the book I’m reading – The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – as her novel contains a character that could be, or at least have known, Alex as a public school boy. Maggie Stiefvater’s character is so convincing I’m finding parts of him creeping into my prose: except Raven Boys is set in America, whereas Alex would have gone to an English boarding school (which I know very little about, another fact that wasn’t especially important before.)

As each of these random strands of research crop up, I keep losing the flow of writing because I need to research the role of a stage hand or investigate pubs in North London or apartments in Chelsea. I might even have to watch an episode of Made in Chelsea – *shudder* – to try and understand Alex’s present girlfriend Paige more, as again she has moved from a paragraph of explanation to a speaking part.

I swear this is the last time I rescue an old manuscript by moving the timeline back a few months. Next time it starts where it starts and that’s that!

Getting into the 80s Groove: 2013 365 Challenge #353

Can't beat the 80s rock vibe

Can’t beat the 80s rock vibe

To get in the mood to write today’s Claire installment, I listened to some 80s covers by a band called Ashes to Ashes (which, incidentally, were playing at a pub in Plymouth on 17th August, the day Claire and Conor visited. Isn’t that handy and isn’t the internet amazing?) You can listen to their cover songs here.

I don’t normally listen to music while I’m writing. I often read blogs and articles about authors and the soundtracks to their books: the songs they listened to while writing or to get them in the right frame of mind or mood. I find music distracting and only use it to drown out even more distracting noises (the neighbour’s barking dogs or the kids screaming downstairs.) I have a playlist that I know so well it’s like white noise. Or I play Ludovico Einaudi, which makes soothing background music.

Today, though, bopping to Walk Like An Egyptian really helped me imagine that I was standing with Claire in the cobbled square listening to a live band, rather than sitting on a sofa next to a snoring dog, feeling bunged up and poorly, and irritated after a morning of Christmas chaos (forgetting to take broken toy back to the shop when I collected the new one, so having to buy a second one instead. Sigh.)

What I found interesting, though, was realising I have no idea what kind of music Claire would choose to listen to. I don’t tend to create fully formed, three-dimensional characters in a first draft. I like to get to know my characters as I write, just as a reader does. I know it breaks all the writing rules – the standard view is you should know everything and anything about your characters, from their date of birth, background and schooling to favourite colour and first boyfriend. I’m lucky if I know their age and surname by the end of a book.

Writing to an 80s groove with Ashes to Ashes

Writing to an 80s groove with Ashes to Ashes

Maybe it’s lazy writing. Characters are often based on an element of me to begin with, so when they make decisions I kind of know what they’re going to do. As the novel grows they separate from me and become themselves, but I know no more about their history than I do about the mummies I see every day at school pick up. We chat, we get on, we share anecdotes and agonies, but I don’t know if they like Megadeth or Mozart.

When I’ve finished a first draft I compile a character template, listing all the things I have learnt about my protagonists through our journey together, and I add in a few more to make the stories more three-dimensional.

Of course, with Two-Hundred Steps Home, I’ve had to fill the template out as I go along, to try and maintain consistency and authenticity. I’ve made a few mistakes – Robert’s children are a bit old, Kim’s character has wobbled a bit (to me anyway) and I haven’t yet decided how many siblings Conor has (which I need to know soon). I know that Claire went to a private school and did an Arts degree, but I don’t know when she had her first kiss or whether she reads chick lit or sci fi.

I would be interested to know if any readers, who didn’t know about the challenge when they started reading THSH, have noticed the lack of depth, or have discovered any inconsistencies. As for whether Conor or Claire would like 80s music (or if Robert would have listened to it in his teens) that’s another question entirely. As my taste in music stopped in the mid-90s, if she likes twenty-first century music I’m afraid she’s on her own!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire held Conor’s hand tightly as he led her down the street towards the noise. To their right, three huge stained glass windows loomed in the gathering darkness, reflecting the street light. They passed a café, where people sat at tables outside, trying to talk over the racket from further down the road. Ahead Claire saw the crest of the magistrates’ court, and wondered exactly where Conor was taking them.

They’d met in Plymouth for lunch and Conor had asked if he could choose their evening entertainment, saying with a twinkle, “I’ve let you try and drown me in the surf and walk my feet off on the cliffs. It’s my turn to introduce you to my thing.”

Worried by the glint in his eyes, Claire had reluctantly agreed. Now, as her ears protested against the battering of loud music and shouting voices, she wished she’d pressed him for details.

“What do you think?” he yelled, over the wail of an electric guitar. “A great craic, yes?”

Claire stumbled slightly, as the tarmac turned into cobbles, and grabbed Conor for support. He wrapped his arm around her and looked down, as if gauging her reaction. Sensing something was required, she tried to process the scene before her. A bar was just visible in the corner of the street, its black arched windows obscured by milling bodies. Next to the bar were the steps to the magistrates’ court, and on top – using the entrance as a kind of stage – was a band. Every other square inch of available space was packed in with bodies.

Feeling as if she was standing beneath a waterfall, Claire leant in to Conor and concentrated on breathing. Six months ago this would have been a normal night out. But months on the road, often with only the stars for company, had erased the memories from her mind. The music travelled up through the cobbles and into her feet, vibrating through her body like she was a gong.

“Sorry,” Conor said into her ear, “I shouldn’t have brought you. We can go if you like.”

Claire looked up eagerly, ready to assent, and caught the disappointment in his expression. She reached up and kissed him on the cheek, then said, “Don’t be silly. It looks great.” She was about to ask for a gin and tonic when she noticed the mobile bar near the impromptu stage. “Mine’s a pint of Guinness.”

Her words were rewarded with a wide grin. He turned towards the bar, pulling her along behind him through the press of people. Claire tried to work out what music it was, as she responded to the pressure on her arm to stop and move as the crowd dictated. Conor dropped her hand to get to the bar, and she backed up against a railing to avoid getting crushed.

Slowly, as her ears tuned into the music, she realised she knew the tune: a cover of an ’80s rock song. Around her, people jumped in time to the beat and she felt her own feet responding. It wasn’t really her era, but Robert had gone through a phase in his teens, and she recognised the songs.

Sensing movement out the corner of her eye, she saw Conor returning with two pints of black liquid. Accepting hers, and wondering when she’d last drunk from a pint glass, Claire stood by Conor’s side and watched the band.

The music wormed in deep. The riffs were basic, the vocals a reasonable mimic of the original, and the crowd extremely enthusiastic.

When did I last go to a gig? Apart from in that bar in Swanage, when I bumped into Conor?

She and Kim had gone a few times when they were younger, but her adult life had been more about wine bars and restaurants, with the occasional venture to the theatre. So much more passive than watching a live band, dancing and singing along. She looked over at Conor and saw that he was watching her rather than the stage. She felt self-conscious, as if she were eighteen again. He leaned forwards to kiss her. Her tummy squirmed and the years fell away.

*

As they walked back to their hotel, fingers entwined, Conor looked down at Claire and laughed. “The look on your face when we turned the corner was priceless.”

Claire dropped her head. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be a grouch. I’m out of practice.”

“You looked like you found your groove, bopping with the best. Very sexy.” He stopped near a shop window and pulled her close. “I know we like different things, you and I,” he said in a low, husky voice. “But don’t let that convince you we have nothing in common.”

A shiver ran across Claire’s skin, despite the warm evening. It felt like he’d crept into her mind and read the deepest secrets. The gig had worried her, made her wonder how they would spend their time together, wonder what kind of a future they could have. She realised she didn’t even know how a relationship functioned, away from the routine of working week and playtime weekends.

Some of her thoughts must have shown on her face because Conor brushed his hand across her cheek. “Don’t overthink it. You’ve spent a lot of time on your own, finding your place in the world. You and I; we work. Don’t try and figure out why, or you’ll go nuts. Just trust that it’s true.”

He leant forwards and kissed her gently. Her mind resisted and she told it to shut up. Lacing her arms behind his head, she surrendered to the kiss.

***

Bringing Scenes to Life: 2013 365 Challenge #325

Satellite view of St Mawes Castle

Satellite view of St Mawes Castle

As part of my writing challenge this year, I have had to do a lot of research on the locations that Claire visits in Two-Hundred Steps Home, to make it plausible. Of course I could have made her journey entirely fictional, but that would have been considerably harder for me.

Because, while I can write dialogue in my sleep, I cannot visualise places. My brain, my imagination, doesn’t think in 3D or in colour.

Even when I’m reading a well-described fantasy novel, I struggle to picture the scene being described. And I’m okay with that.

I read for characters, for dialogue and stories and action. I’m not overly fussed about what a castle looks like, or how the armies are set out on the battlefield. Tell me a mystical city is beautiful and has spires and walkways, and that’s enough. No need to describe it in detail, I’ll only pull myself out of the story trying to build the picture in my mind, and get frustrated when I fail.

A house Claire could buy in Cornwall

A house Claire could buy in Cornwall

However, not everyone is like me, happy to exist inside a vague grey mist when they read. Some people like to be able to see the scene, to know the sea is visible in the distance, or whether the building is Georgian or Victorian or Modern.

Not only that; having characters exist in a three-dimensional space makes the action work. If a character is moving, even if it’s only drinking a glass of wine, it pulls the story forward.

My inability to visualise places used to be a major cause of writer’s block. I’d try and figure out what a character’s house looked like, and whether the phone was in the lounge, or if the post fell on the mat or into a box, and it would paralyse me.

Then I discovered the wonders of research and stealing appropriation, and I’ve never looked back. In the UK the main property website is Rightmove (although there are others). If I need a house for a character, I pop on Rightmove and find one.

Reviews on Tripadvisor

Reviews on Tripadvisor

I usually have an idea whether my characters live in a cottage or an apartment, what they might be able to afford, and I generally have a city or town or village in mind. When I’ve found the right one, (and pulled myself away from dreaming about cottages in Cornwall or houses in Wales) I print out the details (important because they disappear off the website when the house is sold, and are gone forever), and put it in a scrap-book.

In Finding Lucy, (my first, though still unfinished, novel), I have the floor plans and everything for Lucy’s grandmother’s house. I know where the TV is, and the telephones. I don’t worry quite so much about that level of detail now, although it is useful for adding depth to a scene.

For example, instead of “Lucy ran down the stairs to answer the phone,” I can write, “Lucy took the steep stairs two at a time, knocking her hip against the breakfast bar as she reached for the phone. She kept forgetting her grandmother’s cottage was so darn small.”

Another thing I’ve found useful is Google Streetview. Looking at a two-dimensional photograph of a location is useful, but it can be misleading. If you go to streetview, though, (assuming the location is covered), you can literally walk down the road and spin round for a 360 view. You can see that there is a cemetery across the road, or that the bus stop is dirty, or that there are cars parked all along the street.

Streetview of St Mawes car park

Streetview of St Mawes car park

You can even get an idea about the weather. For a recent scene in THSH, it had been sunny all day in the story. Then I “drove” the road out to the hostel, as Claire did in a towering rage, and the streetview photos had stacked clouds along the horizon. Hey presto, her rage is mirrored by the approaching storm.

Incidentally, for Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes, which is set in London, I actually visited the street where I had located Helen’s apartment. I walked her route to the tube station and sat in the park where she first thinks she might be pregnant. It added extra detail, such as the smells and sounds, and how close the buses got to the pavement. You can’t beat first hand research, but I’d have to put in a lot of miles to follow Claire’s journey around the UK!

Hostel Claire's in currently

Hostel Claire’s in currently

The final site I go to often for internet research is Tripadvisor, particularly for the places that Claire visits. I’ve never been to the Eden Project, Pendennis Castle or even Cornwall for that matter.

The YHA website has a few reviews and things to do, but for variety it helps to read a lot of different perspectives. Tripadvisor is how I found out that the Eden Project has a problem with queueing because of gift aid or how the English Heritage will ask you if you want to pay a thousand pounds for lifetime membership.

There isn’t a single activity that Claire has done, or a café that she’s visited, in the UK or New Zealand, that isn’t based on fact. I’ve even been known to check the opening times of the Starbucks and write the story around it! If you wanted to, with some planning, you could follow in Claire’s footsteps for about 95% of the story.

I try and get two or three reviews that agree before I write something (I’m always a bit worried about libel!) but it would be easy enough to make the place fictional, just to be safe. Reviews are brilliant, because they’re genuine and colloquial and so very varied. Two people can visit the same place, in the same week, and have completely different experiences, based on how easy it is to get in, the weather, who they are with, and their expectations. There’s half your story written, right there.

The world is at your fingertips, with a good internet connection and some patience. Sometimes it feels like cheating. But I prefer to call it research! 🙂

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Hello, how’s it going? I thought I’d call and make sure you’re still alive. Or, more to the point, that your brother is. The look on your face when you left the restaurant was something to behold.”

Claire cradled the phone to her ear and looked across to see if the boys were listening. They appeared to be engrossed in some car show on the TV. Even so, Claire kept her voice low as she replied to her boss’s question.

“We’re all still alive. Just. Have you any idea how far you have to go to find a McDonalds in Cornwall? Robert’s gone back to Geneva.”

“With a flea in his ear?” She could hear the grin in Conor’s voice.

“I never understood that phrase. But if you mean did I let him know I was cross with him: I tried. Might as well attempt to chastise an elephant for all the good it did me.”

“And the boys? Do you think you’ll cope?” The tone of concern in his voice was almost masked by the humour, but not quite. It made Claire’s stomach twist and squirm.

“Jack will be fine. He’s a nice lad; open and enthusiastic, if a little eager to emulate his brother.”

“And the other one?”

“Alex. Hmmm. Let’s say he’s practising hard for his teenage years. If the chip on his shoulder gets any bigger he’ll fall out of his bunk at night.”

“Must be tough, not having a settled home at that age. He might even have girl trouble.”

“At twelve?” Claire’s voice rose, and Jack glanced at her before turning back to the screen.

“Oh, yes. Didn’t you say they were at boarding school? Is it mixed? Not that that matters. Twelve was about when I, well, never mind.”

“Twelve?” Claire felt the blood drain from her face. “Seriously?” She tried to remember how old she was when she first even noticed boys. Then she realised it wasn’t the conversation to have with her boss, and she coughed. “Anyway, if that’s it, I’m sure it will blow over. They’re only here for a fortnight.”

“Did you want me to come out with you guys tomorrow, help you ease into it a bit? I’ve got brothers and nephews; I might be able to help.”

The surge of gratitude warmed Claire from her toes to the tips of her fingers. Then she realised what impression it might give and the words of acceptance died on her lips.

“Think of it as a work assignment,” Conor added, apparently as an afterthought. “We can go visit a castle or something and take notes together.”

“Are you checking up on me?”

“Would I? No, you’d be doing me a favour, actually. I’m meant to be going to Mass in the morning, for the baptism of some random cousin in Birmingham. I can live without it. Mum thinks because I’m in the same country I should go.”

“Same country, yes, but Birmingham is miles away. Is that why you came to St Austell; to hide? You don’t have a work appointment at all, do you?”

“You’ve found me out, I confess,” he said, then fell silent.

Claire’s mind filled with conjecture. Escaping a Baptism seemed a flimsy excuse to drive all the way to Cornwall. She didn’t want to think about it too deeply, so she said, “Well, if you’re sure, that would be great. Thanks.”

They agreed a time and place to meet in the morning and hung up the phone. Claire curled into the corner of the sofa and let her mind wander.

*

Claire’s heart gave a little hiccup when she saw Conor strolling towards them. It had been a difficult morning already and it wasn’t yet ten o’clock. Alex and Jack had bickered non-stop over breakfast, and then Alex had refused to come with them to the castle, insisting he was old enough to stay at the hostel by himself. He tried to hide it, but Claire saw him with a phone clutched in his hand, and she began to suspect that Conor might have been right.

Damn him.

The boys had moaned all the way up from the car park and now, looking at the site from the outside, Claire thought they should probably have gone back to Pendennis Castle, on the other side of the water.

“Top of the morning to you.” Conor said in greeting as he approached, and Claire recognised the jovial Irish man act he’d put on for her mother, what felt like months ago.

She rolled her eyes at him, then gave him a meaningful look, trying to convey some sense of the morning they’d had. He gave a tiny wink, barely more than a crinkling of one cheek, and turned to face the children.

“Hello, I’m Jack.” Claire’s youngest nephew said brightly, holding out his hand. Conor shook it formally then turned to face Alex.

“And yer man must be Alex. Pleased to meet you.” Conor had the sense not to hold out his hand to be left hanging. Alex stood with his hands buried deep in his jeans pockets and stared at the ground. With a twinkle in his eye, Conor winked at Claire again.

“Shall we go in?” Claire said, leading the way to the entrance and trying to ignore Alex’s fit of the sullens. She’d hidden most of Robert’s money at the hostel, retaining enough to pay for their tickets and lunch. When she handed over the fifty-pound note to a suspicious cashier, Conor sidled up behind her.

“Big brother flashed the cash then? At least you haven’t got to pay for his grumpy kids as well.”

“You mean Alex? I think you might have been right,” she murmured. “He’s been clutching his phone like a lifeline all morning.”

“Ah, love’s sweet torment.”

She blushed hotly and she turned away in confusion. With a throaty chuckle, Conor moved to stand by Jack. She heard him ask about the boy’s home town and school, and felt able to breathe again.

Just what game is he playing?

Whatever it was, she wished she knew some of the rules.

***