Author Interview: Pat Elliott – All In The Leaves

All In The Leaves by Pat Elliott

All In The Leaves by Pat Elliott

Today I am thrilled to welcome Pat Elliott, author of All In The Leaves, which tells the story of Anna, nearly thirty, living at home and single. When a chance bout of tears leads to a tea leaf reading she is shown a wonderful future: new career, new home, new husband. All by Christmas. All she has to do is get on and make the necessary changes to ensure it happens. When calamity strikes, the battle for happiness begins.

Pat spent eighteen years of her working life in a magazine company, before becoming self employed as a reflexologist. She has had factual pieces published on reflexology and on adopting a dog. All in the Leaves is her first novel, with a second, Leaves for Chloe, currently being written. She has also written a volume of short stories, called At Sanctuary’s Gate.

Pat was born in the Alexandra Palace area of London and currently resides in the Essex countryside, with her husband and adopted terrier. She has a great love for dogs, and is delighted when a rescue dog gets a second chance in life. She also loves to paint in watercolour. Her blog can be found here.

I asked Pat a few question about life, writing and All In The Leaves. I hope you enjoy learning more about her and her novel.

1. Tell us a little about yourself and how you decided to write fiction, after a life working in magazines?

I left the magazine world to set up my reflexology practice. I took up reflexology initially to help my husband, who had a back injury and suffered with subsequent depression. I feel that people who suffer injuries and depression are given short shrift in this world of ours – and if I can help them, I will. Living with injury and depression is not an easy road – either for the person suffering, or the one who tries to help. I see quite a few people who fall into this category. For the helper, it is paramount to maintain outside interests. With that in mind, I like to learn something new. I enrolled on an adult education course which attracted me – Creative Writing, Short Stories. This was such a fabulous course that I signed up for the follow up – Creative Writing, Novels. I was attracted to the fact that after initial instruction, you were out there on your own, getting on it with it. That fits my working life much better than something rigid.

It also means that I can be at home, yet still have an outside interest. The life of a writer can be one of any life they choose to write about. It’s a wonderful escape.

2. Your novel features dogs a great deal. Tell us about the dog(s) in your life

Pat and Missy

Pat and Missy

Yes, indeed. The love of dogs is a theme that runs in my novel. Anyone who owns a dog knows the unconditional love you get from these creatures. We are none of us so full of love, that we couldn’t do with a little extra.

My first dog was a jack russell, Spotty. She lived originally with my neighbours, but they were cruel to her. They’d split her head open by hitting her with a roofing tile – and then refused to take her to the vet. I took her. We spent our first night together under the duvet, on the sofa – after the vet had told us that her life hung in the balance. The first 24 hours were crucial. She lived, and stayed safe in our love for the next 16 years, until she passed, aged 18.

Once Spotty passed away, we went to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to adopt another, where we met the wonderful Missy. Still a russell, but long legged and long haired – the opposite of Spotty. That was important to me, so that we’d never compare the two. Missy was in Battersea for almost two years, waiting for a home. I have nothing but admiration for the care that Battersea took over her. She was 8 years old when we adopted her. She’s 16 now and still a cheeky little minx – but I like that in a dog.

3. All in The Leaves is about tea leaf reading and has sections that are very spiritual. Are these drawn from your own experiences?

There are elements of my own experiences in the story. I did indeed have an Irish relative who could read tea leaves and was surprisingly accurate. Being the daughter of a Irishman, there is great Celtic lore and spirituality in my genes – and this shows in my writing. I like to weave some of that into my stories. I feel it adds another dimension.

4. The novel explores the beauty of Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular. As someone who lives in Essex, is there a secret yearning to live over the border? 🙂

I do live in Essex, yes! Originally my family were from Waterford, then Wexford, Eire. When the work situation forced some of the younger members of the family to spread their wings, some moved to London and some to Scotland. So I feel quite attached to both. Would I live there? I’d certainly consider it, should the opportunity present itself.

5. All in the Leaves is the first in a series of novels. Did you always intend to write a series?

No, originally, I didn’t. I started to write All in the Leaves as part of my novel writing course. When I spoke to other book reader friends, they asked would it be a series? I quite like each book to have an ending, so that’s what I did in Leaves, but I also saw the possibility that there could be other tea leaf readings and other books. Each complete to themselves. That’s when I decided to make a series.

6. The next book will be about Chloe. Tell us a little bit about it; is it set after All in the Leaves (and will we see more of horrid Howard and adorable Angus)?

Leaves for Chloe is set after All in the Leaves. It charts what happens to Chloe in the year after the end of the first book. Yes, horrid Howard does appear a fair bit in book two, like a bad penny, he always turns up! The adorable Angus also returns, patient and kind as ever. Some may say pushover, but he does have a core of steel.

7. You self-published your first novel. Was that something you intended from the start? How did you find the experience?

All In The Leaves - about tea leaf reading

All In The Leaves – about tea leaf reading

Originally, I would have been thrilled to have an agent and a publisher. However, the more research I did, that route did not feel fine to me. The absolute decider was when I read about one poor man, who’d spent two years of his life writing his book, only to see it pulped after a few months on the bookshelves. It hadn’t performed as well and as quickly as the distributors wanted, so it was pulled.

I understand that they are a business, and shelf space is at a premium, but my heart went out to the man who’d lost his dream. I decided that if I self published, All in the Leaves could stay on the virtual shelves until it found its own market.

I chose to use ebook partners to convert and distribute my book. I couldn’t be happier with their service. I am not the person to spend hours over the computer, trying to work out how to format a book. Nor spend time dealing with different countries’ tax requirements. I much prefer to pay someone to do all that, so that I can concentrate on what I enjoy. Plus, they only take a fee. No percentage of your sales. That was a big plus to me, because it fit my idea of a professional service

8. You’re an artist and a reflexologist as well as an author; how do you manage your time? Do you find yourself torn between your different creative outlets?

No, I’m never torn. Reflexology is my bread and butter. That time comes first. In any spaces between clients, I balance the other two. As a writer yourself, you know there are times that you could bang your head on a wall, in frustration at not finding the right plot or device. In those times, I paint!

9. You have also published a collection of short stories, At Sanctuary’s Gate; how is writing short stories different to writing novels? Which do you prefer?

Short stories are for me quick insights. A novel is more of a slow, developmental burn. My short stories are more observational than dialogue filled, my novel is more about dialogue and personal interaction. I like them both. That’s not a cop-out – they both fulfil a different need in the writer me.

10. Finally, what advice would you give to someone just starting out in their writing career?

Firstly, write! If there’s a class available, get some instruction. A good tutor will encourage, instruct and inspire. If there’s no class, find the resources online or in your library. Help is there, if you look for it.

You can find out more about All in the Leaves and purchase a copy here. Thanks for reading.

Advice For Writing and Life

This is what I want to do today

This is what I want to do today

Okay, I finally admit it. I’m ill. I went to bed at 8pm last night and slept until hubbie came to bed at midnight. Then I popped a pill to make sure I’d get back to sleep. And didn’t. There’s nothing worse than your body being asleep when your mind is wide awake and all around you the house is coughing like every occupant smokes 40 a day. (We don’t. We’re all ill.)

I would have written a post then, but I was drugged so could only lie awake and worry about life and fume that I’d had a fourth failed delivery from the crap company I had the utter misfortune to choose to deliver my daughter’s new bed.

So this morning I’m taking time to be ill. After the school run I’m heading back to bed. So I am utilising the blog network for today’s post. Here are five great articles to help with writing and life:

1. 10 Foundational Writing Practices – Charlotte Rains Dixon: the importance of getting the basics right. My favourite three are Move your Body; Calm your Mind; Stay Positive

2. The Simple Joy of Slogging Through to the End – Speak Happiness: an old post on the satisfaction of finishing a difficult task. I’m hoping I’ll feel like that when (if) my daughter’s bed finally arrives and I’ve managed not to break anything or anyone in my anger at the company’s sheer incompetence.

3. “Days are Lost Lamenting over Lost Days” – another from Speak Happiness: this explores a quote attributed to Goethe. A very interesting read. The full quote is:

Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting over lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;
What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

4. Why Doing a Jigsaw Puzzle is a Bit Like Writing A Book – Debbie Young: looking at the ways assembling a jigsaw puzzle is like writing a book. As I’m in the difficult stage of redrafting Class Act, trying to make sure all the pieces fit together and the whole picture looks right, this struck a chord. Especially these points:

  • No matter how carefully you prepare the component parts – the corners, the edges, all the pieces with blue sky or Persian carpet or Delft tiles or pink flowers – the assembly of the puzzle never goes entirely according to plan.
  • When daunted by what seems like an insurmountably difficult section, you realise that if you only apply yourself, one piece at a time, you really can conquer the challenge.
  • Sometimes it works best if you switch your conscious mind off for a bit and let the subconscious take over.

5. In Defense of Pantsing – Jami Gold: because Pantsers can write novels too, as long as we remember to apply structure and story beats during redrafting. Enough said!

Right. Back to bed.

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.

What Sharknado Taught Me About Characters

Because of course a chainsaw is weapon of choice against a great white

Because of course a chainsaw is weapon of choice against a great white

Hubbie and I finally watched Sharknado the other night. I’d read about it on Kristen Lamb’s blog and it sounded  right up hubbie’s street: low budget B Movie with awful special effects that’s a bit tongue in cheek and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

I don’t share in his enjoyment and fully intended to go to bed. But the movie was just so darn awful I couldn’t tear myself away. Not being as used to such movies I kept saying “but what about..?” and “that wouldn’t happen..” Then realised I was talking about a movie where sharks were sucked up into a tornado and didn’t suffocate, where sharks could swim through storm drains and jump twenty feet into the air.

However it was all about different levels of suspended disbelief. I could accept all the things to do with the sharks – it was a science fiction movie after all. I could just about accept that you could blow a hurricane apart with a MacGyver home-made bomb (although I’m sure there are plenty of people living in tornado paths that wish it was true.) The bit I struggled with most, however, was character motivation.

Safe on the stairs? I don't think so!

Safe on the stairs? I don’t think so!

People are people, whether there are sharks falling from the sky or spinning round in a waterspout or not.

So, if a mother was sat on the stairs with her daughter watching her husband being eaten alive by a giant shark, wouldn’t she at least climb a bit higher up the stairs away from the bloody water and body parts? And if a man drove halfway across town to rescue said daughter, would he stop in the path of sharks to rescue a stranger?

Aside from the dire acting and the awful script, the actions of the characters just weren’t believable. I could accept the sharks and the bombs and all that, but I didn’t give two hoots about the characters.

What I took away from the movie (apart from a vivid nightmare about genetically altered wolves which made me wish Horror was my genre of choice) was that you can get people to believe anything if you write it with conviction, but you have to get the character motivation right. With authentic characters, who have clear goals and believable motivation, you can sell anything. Even flying sharks.

A Pantser Plans

Using Beat Sheets to plan my revisions

Using Beat Sheets to plan my revisions

The unthinkable happened today. I did planning. With beat sheets and notecards and everything. I’m a Pantser to the core: analysing a scene down to the tiny details paralyses me. Especially if I do it before I write, as I have done for the extra third of a novel I’m putting at the front of Class Act. But actually, do you know what, it wasn’t so bad.

I’m still working on some of the terminology, for example pinch points and black moments, although instinctively I have a shrewd idea what they are. I have done it before, actually, for all my seat-of-the-pants writing preference, and I’m always relieved at how much of the necessary detail I already have. Sometimes it just needs writing down to reassure myself I do know something (although a VERY VERY long way from everything) about this novel writing lark.

I had gathered much of the required information during my last craft session (the sporadic times when I read through a load of blogs and books to refresh or learn elements of writing craft.). My favourite resource is Jami Gold: as a Pantser and a romance writer, I feel she understands my pain. In fact her Beat Sheet for Romance Writers formed a large part of my morning’s work. She explains that if, like me, you can’t pkan in detail for fear of frightening off the Muse, you can use beats – points in the story – to make sure things are developing as they should.

I also used her posts based on a Michael Hauge workshop she attended to put more thought into my characters’ development, flaws and ultimate romance. The key ones I used were Are These Characters the Perfect Match and An Antidote to “Love at First Sight”. Both of these look at two elements of characterisation – a character’s Mask (the role they play, based on their longings, fears, wounds and beliefs: their emotional armour) and a character’s Essence (who they are inside, behind the masks, or who they have the potential to be). In a good romance, attraction will be based on Essence rather than Mask.

Planning Elements of a Scene

Planning Elements of a Scene

So, in Baby Blues, Helen was attracted to Daniel because his businessman forceful character Mask played to her career orientated Mask. But Marcio was her right love interest, because they both had the same essence underneath: a love of creativity and interpreting the world through their art, and a desire for home and family.

The concept really helps when a character moves from one relationship to another (as mine often do.) You don’t want the protagonist to look like an idiot because the previous relationship was flawed, and also you don’t want the previous partner to be a stereotype or a villain (although Daniel, in Baby Blues, is a bit of both!)

The other thing I’ve been trying to use is an Elements of a Good Scene checklist, which I also found on Jami’s Blog, the idea for which came from Janice Hardy’s blog. I feel exposed, using something like this, as I feel I don’t know the difference between “Plot point” and “action to advance the plot” or “how the stakes are raised” versus “reinforcement of the stakes”. I suspect that might be why I find it hard to write tense page turners! In my head, though, I’ve summarised it as “plot development”, “character development”, “conflict” and “backstory/theme/tone/foreshadowing”. As long as the scene has some of those that’s good. Well, it’s a start!

Of course, I was right – at the beginning when I said planning paralyses me. I need to start writing, before I spend so long on planning I’m fed up with the story or too scared to start. But it was a useful day’s work and hopefully, when I sit at my desk on Monday, I’ll be able to write some of the additional 45,000 words the story needs to get to a full length novel!

Anyway, hopefully now I have a plan this will be the last of the ‘I’ve forgotten how to do manuscript revision’ posts and I’ll get on to writing something more interesting for the non-writers who follow my blog! Thank you for your patience.

How Many Heads?

How many viewpoints in a novel?

How many viewpoints in a novel?

When you’re reading a modern third-person limited perspective novel (he said, she said from inside a single character’s head – see this great post for an explanation on narrative modes in literature) how many heads are acceptable?

When I first wrote Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes, which is written from two key protagonists’ perspectives, I switched from head to head without thinking about it, and would quite often jump into the head of minor characters. Strictly speaking that’s nearer third person omniscient, without that irritating ‘know-it-all-ness’ of an Eighteenth Century narrator.

I didn’t give it much thought, until a Beta Reader pointed out that head-hopping within a scene can be confusing and is generally avoided, and that it wasn’t a good idea to see inside the head of minor as well as major characters. It came as a surprise, because I didn’t really think about it as I wrote – the almost-omniscient style seems to be my default.

That probably reflects the literature I read: authors like Georgette Heyer, who write in what I suppose to be omniscient third person. Even though Heyer spends most of the time following one person’s viewpoint, she’s happy to hop into the thoughts of anyone relevant to explain the scene. Even though I’ve studied the theory and know the principles I still struggle when I write (and even when I read) to always know the difference. I read this great article today that helps to explain it.

That’s why Dragon Wraiths was refreshing – in first-person-present you only know what the main character sees, hears and feels. It adds other challenges to do with character development and so on, but you don’t have to worry about head-hopping.

Class Act Cover

Class Act Cover

I’ve just been through my first draft of Class Act and, like Baby Blues, it’s littered with head-hopping. That’s fine, I can fix that. But, also like Baby Blues, some of my favourite writing is inside the heads of secondary characters. I cut it all out in Baby Blues but now I’m wondering if that was entirely necessary. Maybe it’s just my voice, my style. Maybe I tend more towards multi-voice perspective or omniscient than tight third person (sticking to one head). Maybe I should embrace it rather than fix it.

I say this only because I’ve just finished The Radleys by Matt Haig and it reads like a soap opera script, seen from everyone’s perspective. I have to admit it added to my enjoyment of the novel rather than detracting from it. (Possibly because I love omniscient authors like Heyer.)

Now Haig is a much more experienced and talented writer than I am, and my execution is bound to fall a long way short, but that’s no reason not to try.

So, my question is, if you were reading a novel that took you on a brief trip inside the mind of the mum or the best friend, would that confuse or irritate you? I guess until I finish my revisions and send it out to Beta readers I won’t know. Here’s an example scene to show what I mean.

Daphne looked up, and her smile was like the sun rising over the horizon. She put the tapestry aside and rose to her feet, holding both hands out in greeting. Alex took two paces forwards and enveloped her in a bear hug, her scent infusing the space between them, bringing with it all the comfort and memories of childhood. He hadn’t been home for weeks, not since he’d started rehearsing the play, even though it wasn’t that far away. He felt terrible, but his mother of all people understood his need to carve his own way in the world, away from Sidderton.

“Alex, darling, how lovely to see you,” she said as she finally released him from the embrace. “Sit down. Does your grandfather know you’re here yet?”

“No, I came to see you first, of course.”

“You mean you crept around the side like a naughty school boy?”

His smile made him look every inch as she’d described him. “Maybe. I need to ask for something and I thought I’d ask your advice about the best approach.”

“You need money? I thought you’d got a handsome settlement when you left your last place of employment? Didn’t you talk of share options?”

“I don’t need money, and as if I’d ask Grandfather if I did! He’d roast me alive. No, it’s more complicated than that.”

“Then it’s about a girl. Have you got someone in trouble?”

“Mother!” Alex was genuinely shocked. “What do you think of me? Firstly, no, I haven’t got some poor girl pregnant. Secondly, this is the twenty-first century, not Downton Abbey. We don’t buy the servants and wenches off with money these days you know.” His tone was ironic and gently chiding. Sometimes he thought living here at the hall had confused his mother into believing they lived in the eighteenth century.

“You are partly right though,” he continued, “it is about a girl.”

“I thought you had decided girls were all fortune hunters out to ensnare you? Has one managed to catch you?” She looked worried, and he laid a hand on hers to reassure her.

“Well, I suppose I have been snared, but not for my fortune. She doesn’t know anything about it.”

“What do you mean? Does she think we are one of those impoverished families who spend every penny on their crumbling manor?”

Alex thought about the immaculate interior of Sidderton Hall – Mother had been an interior designer before she married – and laughed. The laughter lit his handsome face from within, like the sun breaking suddenly from behind storm clouds. Then the clouds drew across the light again, as he realised his charade was no laughing matter. He had to think of a way to make Rebecca love him despite his background. He had to get to the bottom of her dislike of the landed gentry – there had to be more to it than a few idiots being rude to their gardener. That was for another day. He was here to help her build her future, whether that included him or not. Acts of altruism were not part of his general make up, and he found he quite liked the sensation.

Daphne sat patiently whilst these thoughts played out across her son’s even features. She was used to her son’s internal dialogue and knew he would present his conclusions when he was ready. He shifted his position on the ancient and battered leather sofa that dominated the family room and she knew he was ready to speak.

“I need to get grandfather to agree to sell the old hay barn down in the south east corner.”

Whatever Daphne was expecting, it wasn’t that. She spoke aloud her first thought.

“No Sidderton has ever sold one inch of the estate, not even when they faced bankruptcy”.

Alex laughed suddenly as she said it. She gave him a bewildered look and he clarified: “That’s what the estate manager said to me, and I thought the same recently when I was talking with Rebecca about buying property. It must be a mantra that we’ve all been brainwashed with.”

“What makes you think you’ll convince grandfather otherwise, when you know it is so much against the family way?”

“Because I have to,” his voice was urgent, “Because it’s important. Just because that’s the way something has always been doesn’t mean that’s the way it always has to be. Because I want to help the woman I love, and – if I’m really lucky and dig myself out of the huge hole I’m in – it won’t be out of the family for long.” His words came out in a rush, as if to explain it all to his mother suddenly seemed both difficult and vital.

In limited third person the entire scene should be either from Alex’s or Daphne’s perspective, or there should be a scene break when it hops from Alex’s to Daphne’s head. But, to me, the scene works fine as it is. Maybe it’s the subject matter: there is an air of Heyer, or of nineteenth-century romance, about the novel. Should I have the same consistent voice across all my novels or is it permissible to shift it according to the needs of the novel. Answers on a postcard, please… 🙂

Boxing Day and Family: 2013 365 Challenge #361

Decorating the box boat

Decorating the box boat

Today is Boxing Day in the UK. For many it’s Christmas Day Mark 2, when the rest of the rellies visit or are visited. As a child and into adulthood it was my ‘Other Christmas’, as I alternated between divorced parents year after year.

I think sometimes that’s why Christmas has never been uber exciting for me: it was always “whose Christmas is it, where are we this year?” and visiting my Dad was never easy.

Now he’s gone, of course I wish nothing more than to be travelling down the A1 with my children to see the grandpa they never got to meet.

That said, I have enjoyed having a day home with my immediate family today. A quiet morning watching Princess and the Frog (well, I watched it, the kids gave up and played on the ipad) followed by a trip to get coffee and magazines.

Assembling the trampoline

Assembling the trampoline

In the afternoon Grandpa popped over and he and Daddy assembled the giant 14ft trampoline which is ostensibly the kids’ Christmas gift but might become Mummy’s new workout place. We’ll see how the knees cope.

We were lucky enough to catch up with most of our extended family on Christmas Eve and yesterday. Hubbie’s sister and nephew Skyped from Italy on Christmas Eve and my sister and Family Skyped from the States 9am Christmas morning to show off their gifts. Grandad called from a cruise ship in the middle of the Tasmanian sea, on the other side of the world, without even a hint of delay on the line. I shared pictures and videos on Facebook as gifts were opened.

With my family at the end of an internet connection, there was no need to be in the car today. Though I’ll be the first to admit it isn’t ideal. The best Christmas ever was when they were all around my kitchen table (and my amazing mother still did the cooking); but it isn’t lonely.

Bouncing high

Bouncing high

With an afternoon in the chilly sun with excited children watching their gift being built, without a sale or a shop in sight, it was a perfect Boxing Day. They even managed to get in a quick bounce before the setting sun spread dew across the surface and it became more an ice rink than a trampoline.

Of course at 4.30pm, having been up since 6am on five hours’ sleep, with the kids still going strong, I am about ready for the day to be over. I’m walking the dog instead. Only 2 hours of board games and rock guitar until bedtime (for them at least: I still have to get Claire home!)

A little PS as a writer – the weather has totally defined this Christmas. It wouldn’t have been half as magical without the blue skies and lack of predicted stormy weather. Something to think about.

________________________________________________________________________________

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:

________________________________________________________________________________

Claire scanned the posts on her blog again and opened her eyes wide. According to her calculations, her first Monday at her new job working for Timothy would mark two-hundred days since she left for Berwick-Upon-Tweed. All those months of thinking the two-hundred steps signified the two hundred hostels, and in the end it meant something completely different.

And will I be home? Not the home I started from, that’s for sure.

She thought back to her apartment in Manchester, her car, her job. It wasn’t just another lifetime away, it belonged to another person. She would no more fit in that world now than that Claire would be comfortable here, sitting on a red velour sofa by the fireplace in an Edwardian villa, looking out the window at Lyme Bay and wondering if there was any surf.

Her previous life felt meaningless, frivolous. Working to buy things to make up for spending so much time working. With all her possessions in storage she felt unfettered and able to fly. But she also felt an emptiness that frightened her. Without the need to strive for success, what was there? Where was life’s meaning? What was the point of getting up every day?

She put down her laptop and rubbed her eyes. Despite knowing the presentation backwards, her stomach still bubbled like a hot spring when she thought about delivering it in the morning. She knew the real reason for her nerves, and pushed the unwelcome thought away. Walking over to the window, she tried to look past the fenced-in  scrubland directly in front of the hostel, to see the endless shingle of Chesil beach. All she could make out was a line of blue, back lit against dark storm clouds.

Suddenly she needed to be outside, under the moody skies. She grabbed the laptop and hurried back to her room. She cursed as she tangled the laces on her hiking boots, tugging at them until they threatened to snap. Tied at last, she pulled on her waterproof jacket, pocketed her phone, and headed out.

*

From a distance, Chesil beach had appeared to be a golden arc of glorious sand. After walking along it for an hour, Claire could testify that it was anything but. Her ankles ached from trying to keep balance on the endless pebbles, and she wondered why she hadn’t turned back. Did she intend to walk the full eighteen miles? What then; walk eighteen miles back? What was she trying to prove?

With no answers, Claire continued on. The sea talked to her endlessly as she walked; the waves rushing in only to fall back with a hissing sigh. Over and over the waves caressed the indifferent shore, and each time they uttered a drawn-out exhalation on the futility of life. It was a mournful sound but , at the same time, it provided comfort. The ticking clock of nature.

The waves grew higher, stronger. Great plumes of white foam swirled up the beach at an angle, surging towards Claire’s feet as if seeking to drag her back into the frothy deep. She’d read in the guide book that the waves created a lethal undertow and that surfing and swimming were only for the suicidal.

Now and then she passed fishermen and women, staring out to sea next to a stationary rod.

I wonder if they catch anything. Or if they even want to.

She stopped once, some distance behind one of the solitary figures, and followed their gaze out to sea. The quiet roar of the ocean became the only sound and, as she stood motionless, Claire felt herself swaying with the pulse of the universe. A sudden surge of water broke the stillness and – like the lightning at the festival earlier in the week – reminded her of the power of nature and the insignificance of man.

After all, what is a failed romance to the infinite universe? A spec of sand on an eighteen-mile beach.

Claire stooped and scooped up a handful of wet pebbles. They glistened in bright hues of red and brown, orange and grey. She knew the beauty would disappear when they dried and they would become ordinary stones, unremarkable. But drenched by the engulfing waves they shone like gemstones.

Still crouched by the edge of the tide, Claire looked along the beach as far as she could. Despite the ache deep inside where her affection for Conor lay broken, she felt a sense of peace, of oneness with something greater than herself. She felt refreshed, as if she too had been washed clean by the never-ending waves. As if it was her time to reveal her true colours.

She stood and put her shoulders back. Turning to face the way she had come, Claire walked back to the hostel and whatever the morning would bring.

***

Write Now, Write Naked: 2013 365 Challenge #330

The Inconvenient Urge

The Inconvenient Urge

I’ve read several posts this morning with great writing advice in them, or posts about the importance of writing. The online blog community is a wondrous resource for all things writerly. Even if you aren’t a writer, these are still great reads.

So I thought I’d share the highlights of my morning reads (as a nice change from hearing all about me and my lovely children!)

The first post I read this morning was by Robert Benson, on his blog Ubiquitous. Quotidian, called The Inconvenient Urge.

The post discusses how the need and inspiration to write comes at the worst possible times:

“The urge to write often settles on me when there is too much to do at work. When there are already too many unfinished projects and too many dishes to wash and too many clothes to fold. The urge comes when family members are sick, when the child needs my attention, when things are already impossibly complex and there are too many things competing for my focus.”

Aside from the fact that it’s nice to hear a man also complaining about the laundry and the dishes (hurrah it isn’t just me!) it is also a feeling I can completely relate to. I went to write in the local Motorway Services this morning (it’s not far from preschool and I find if I go there, rather than going home, I get more done. Especially when the internet isn’t working!) Even though the WiFi was on today, meaning I wrote fewer than half of the 4,000 words I wrote last Monday, I still got engrossed enough in Claire’s journey to forget to get my McD breakfast before 10.30am. 🙂

I’ve been known to be late for the school run, or lose several hours of what is meant to be productive housework time, or forget to walk the dog, because I’m wrapped up in another world. As Robert Benson concludes, however, “the urge to write comes when it will. Be grateful. Be ready. It is always inconvenient.”

Thought Catalog Article

Thought Catalog Article

The second post I read today (via http://jeryder.blogspot.co.uk) was a list of great quotes on writing by famous authors, on the Thought Catalog blog. Entitled 21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips by Great Authors, my favourites include these:

11. Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die. – Anne Enright

and

17. Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. – Mark Twain

The final blog I read today, by the Write Practice, was called Write Naked, and it discusses a favourite topic of mine: writing what you know. Like the author of the article, I used to think that suggested you could only write about your personal sphere of experience: meaning I could only write stories about marketing managers who had been to New Zealand. (Well, actually, that does feature quite a lot in my stories! Ahem.)

Write Naked

Write Naked

But that isn’t what it means. It means writing about the sensations you can relate to. It isn’t the detail of the job you do that defines it, but the emotions you experience along the way.

So, even though Dragon Wraiths is about a sixteen-year-old orphan, and that wasn’t my childhood, I could still draw from enough experiences of my life growing up to write authentically about loneliness and not fitting in and the exhilaration of being outside in nature.

In the article, Sophie Novak says:

“Write naked. The raw can be a million times more powerful than the best polish. Do you know why? Because truth shines.  It can’t be beaten by invention. Just forget any inhibitions, and share the truth. Your truth. It’s quite scary, and absolutely worth it.”

Or, as Neil Gaiman puts it, “The moment that you feel that just possibly you are walking down the street naked…that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”

________________________________________________________________________________

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:

________________________________________________________________________________

“Right, boys, get dressed, we’ve got a busy day ahead.”

Claire laughed at the groans emanating from the bunks as she stuck her head around the door. The hostel had been mostly empty when they arrived, and they’d been able to secure adjacent rooms. After sharing with the boys for a week at the previous hostel, Claire was glad to go back to her own, private, sweet-smelling space.

The only movement her words provoked was a pulling up of duvets, muffling the grumbling protests that it was too early. Claire thought there had to be a happy medium between Sky waking up with the birds, and these boys who needed a rocket under them to get them going in the morning.

With a sly glance she said, “I guess I’ll have to cancel the motor boat trip then, and we’ll go to the seal sanctuary after all.”

The duvets flung back and first Jack and then Alex sat up in bed.

“Motor boat? Are we going water skiing?” Jack asked, looking adorable with his tousled hair and sleepy excited eyes.

Claire’s smile drooped. “Ah, no. We’re going on a day out on the estuary.” She watched their excitement fade, and thought quickly. “But we’re taking the boat out on our own. Have you steered a motor boat before? And are you any good at map reading?”

Alex’s expression remained disgruntled, but Jack jumped up. “Bagsy I get to steer the boat first. Thank you, Aunt– I mean Claire.” He ran over and gave her an impulsive hug.

Claire returned the embrace, a little surprised at the gesture. The boys were not very tactile, unless you included thumping each other and wrestling on the bedroom floor.

“You’re welcome, Jack. Come on boys, get dressed. This hostel is self-catering, so we’re going out for a fry up.” She’d learnt that a hearty breakfast was essential. As with men, so with boys: regular feeding was a core requirement of good relations.

*

Claire looked at the tiny craft bobbing on the water, and thought better of her great idea. For something licensed to hold six people it looked tiny.

And very vulnerable, she thought, watching the boat pull at its mooring as the wake of a passing yacht stirred up the water.

“You boys taking your Mum fishing?”

All three of them turned to look over as a man approached them, his lined face split in a wide grin. “They’ll be biting today. It’s high tide around mid-morning, but you’re best to wait until the afternoon. Forecast is good. Did you want to borrow some rods? I’m sure I can find something.”

Claire shuddered, and hoped the boys were more interested in steering the boat than pulling slimy squirming creatures from the water.

“Can we, Claire, can we, please? I’d love to catch something. I’ve never been sea fishing before.” Jack’s voice rose high with eagerness.

“Doesn’t Robert take you?” As she said the words, she tried to imagine her brother, as she knew him now, attaching maggots to a hook. “Never mind. Er, yes, if you can borrow all the gear I don’t see why not. Just don’t expect me to touch them. If you catch something you’re on your own.”

The answering grin from both boys was electric. Claire hoped the friendly stranger was wrong, and the fish weren’t biting. Leaving them discussing the merits of various types of bait with the man from the boat yard, Claire wandered off in search of caffeine. It was going to be a long day.

***

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! 🙂

________________________________________________________________________________

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:

________________________________________________________________________________

“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.

***

Why I will always be a Pantser: 2013 365 Challenge #323

Letting the kids paint their own faces

Letting the kids paint their own faces

In a fit of inspiration on Sunday morning, I wrote notes for the next few installments of Two-Hundred Steps Home. I don’t do it very often, partly because my mind goes blank as soon as I’ve written the day’s 500-1000 words and partly because planning isn’t in my nature. When I write, I have a (very) rough idea of how a story will end but that can and does change as I come to know my characters better.

With THSH I’ve thought of a dozen endings, all of which have been scrapped as the story has followed its twists and turns. I admire people who plan even one book, never mind a whole series, as Two-Hundred Steps Home has become.

Incidentally the books I’m reading at the moment are one story told over ten volumes (although the second set of five possibly were added after the first five were finished) and it all hangs together. They were published year after year, with no chance to go back and change stuff, yet there are hints in book one that only come to fruition in book five or ten. My response to that is Wow. Since writing Claire’s story, there are loads of things I’d go back and change if I could, if I wasn’t writing it live, as it were.

Artistic face painting!

Artistic face painting!

Maybe it’s because they’re plot driven rather than character driven stories. Maybe I’m just missing a writing gene. All I know is that, if I plan for something to happen, my characters always mess it up.

For example my notes had Claire falling apart in her confrontation with Robert, because she’s all emotional about Conor. One commenter on yesterday’s post suggested Conor should come and punch Robert. Neither situation suited Claire. To be honest Robert was not really on her radar except as the person who ended her lunch with Conor early.

She was angry but still in control. How far she’s come, I’m so proud. 🙂 She doesn’t need a man fighting for her and she won’t let Robert’s arrogance derail her. Besides, he’s her brother, she’s used to him being an arse (and doesn’t he do it well?)

Without intention, Claire has allowed me to set up a comparison between Robert and Conor, a parenting story line and some fun dialogue. Much better than my ideas, that’s for sure. My advice? Trust your characters, they know what they’re doing.

________________________________________________________________________________

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:

________________________________________________________________________________

Claire let the warmth from the chipped mug soothe her as she inhaled the reviving scent of Earl Grey. Her skin prickled and her body remained still only under sufferance. She wanted to pull her hiking boots on and stride down to the beach, to let the sea breeze blow the dark thoughts from her mind. But outside the window, the mountainous clouds had turned black and the wind dragged at the tree tops, sending the green leaves dancing.

She knew, also, that despite extreme provocation, she wasn’t about to send the boys back to Geneva with their father. If it meant buying a phrase book or spending a fortnight doing sign language, she wouldn’t quit now.

I’m sure some of it will come back. I learnt the language for eleven years, some of it has to have stuck.

Her brain presented her with a range of French phrases, none of which were appropriate for communicating with two pre-teen boys. Her ire at Robert’s duplicity rose again, and she gripped the mug tightly before taking a calming sip of tea. Despite her desire to punch him, she knew from experience that she might as well smack a rock.

Footsteps approached down the corridor, accompanied by a deep voice murmuring dire consequences. Claire braced herself for confrontation, focussing on the steam rising from her mug as if it was a meditation candle.

“Ah, Claire, there you are.”

Robert’s urbane tone rolled around the small room, and Claire wondered if he ever lost his cool. She glanced up and saw him in the doorway, phone in one hand, the other hand buried in his pocket. Behind him the boys giggled and shoved each other in the arm. She took a moment to look at them properly, as much to avoid having to endure Robert’s bland, appraising, stare. She knew if she looked her brother in the eye she was likely to lose her temper again and she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

The boys were almost as tall as their father, but with the boyish round faces and gangly limbs of the adolescent. The tallest boy had dark hair, thick like his dad’s. The youngest was fairer and his hair tended to curly. It reminded her of Conor’s, although both lads had dark brown eyes and eyelashes that would be the envy of future girlfriends. She tried to picture Francesca in her mind, and remembered that she, too, was a dark beauty.

As if sensing Claire’s resolve, Robert turned his attention to his sons. “That’s enough, boys. Now you apologise to your Aunt or I will take the iPads back with me.”

His words provoked muttering and hanging of heads. Claire wondered what they had to apologise for, noting also that the boys clearly understood English, even if they didn’t speak it. As she watched, a suspicion crept into her mind, fanning the flames of her latent fury.

The kitchen filled with silence. Claire added her stare to her brother’s and eventually the younger boy cracked.

“We’re sorry we pretended not to speak English, Auntie Claire. It was only meant to be a joke.”

His voice held no trace of the French accent from earlier, but rather rang out with the public school boy vowels of his father.

Robert didn’t acknowledge his son’s apology, he merely transferred his gaze to the elder child. When he remained silent, Robert said in a low, menacing, tone, “Alex?”

“Sorry,” the boy spat out, his face turning sullen at his father’s reprimand. Robert raised an eyebrow at him with a clear message and the boy glared back. “Sorry, Aunt Claire,” he amended, in a tone no more friendly than before.

It seemed to Claire that her brother wasn’t going to let it go, so she pushed back from the table and walked over to the boys.

“That’s okay, guys. Great trick, you certainly had me fooled.” She gave them both what she hoped was a non-patronising smile and was rewarded with a grin from the younger boy. Relieved, she glanced up at Robert’s face and came to a decision. “Can you give me a minute to chat with your dad? Have you been allocated a room?”

Jack nodded, while Alex folded his arms and stared at the floor. Claire swallowed a sigh.

“Great. Why don’t you go and play some games on your iPads, then? I’ll come get you when your father is ready to leave.”

She shooed them out with her hands, waiting until their footsteps had faded, before she turned back to Robert.

“Well?” She said in a low voice.

“Well, what, Claire? I don’t really care for your tone.”

“And I don’t care for your behaviour. Treating me like one of your PAs, whispering sweet nothings to your new lady friend while your boys try to convince me they only speak French. And what was that all about?” She jerked her chin to indicate she meant the scene that had just taken place in the kitchen. “You acted like they’d mugged me. It was only a game; you didn’t need to be so hard on them. I’m sure we did much worse when we were kids.”

She knew she wasn’t making sense, but the thoughts were all jumbled in her mind. Robert stood motionless and absorbed her anger like a sponge.

When she ran out of words, he said calmly, “Boys need a firm hand. You’ll find that out, assuming you’ve recovered from your fit of pique and are still going to take them?”

Claire’s palms itched and she stalked back to the table to collect her tea. It was safer if she gave her hands something to do other than slap her brother. She wondered why he was being so hostile. What happened to the brother who had sat in the hospital with her, worrying about Ruth?

“Let me get something straight,” she said, enunciating each word. “What you are asking me to do is beyond a little favour. I’m not one of your unfortunate staff and taking your boys for a fortnight is a big ask. In case it slipped your notice, I am working here. This isn’t a jolly, this is my job. I’m lucky my boss is understanding enough to let the boys tag along. They’re here on his goodwill as much as mine.”

“Ah yes, your boss that you have cosy lunches with.” He sneered and Claire’s eyes opened wide.

“Where do you get off, speaking like that, Robert? You dumped your wife and moved on to someone new. You’re in no position to judge.”

“So you are sleeping with your boss.”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but no, I’m not. Some of us have principles.” She thought back to her parting conversation with Conor and hoped Robert took the flush on her cheeks for anger. “This is all beside the point. I said I’ll take the boys and I will, but do not forget that I am helping you.”

Their eyes locked for an angry minute, then Robert suddenly smiled. “Thank you, Claire. I’m sorry; I don’t mean to be ungrateful. There’s a lot going on.” He took his wallet out of a pocket and retrieved a roll of notes.

“Here. This should cover it, but if you need any more let me know, and I’ll wire it to you. I have to go now.”

Claire took the money mutely, wondering if it was too late to inflict violence. She looked at the notes in her hand and decided her brother would pay, one way or another.

***