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.

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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 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.

***

We Are Stories: 2013 365 Challenge #286

Happy birthday, sis

Happy birthday, sis

Yesterday my gorgeous sister celebrated her fortieth birthday with a gathering at our parents’ house. As the rain poured outside, a dozen children from four months to fourteen years old played together, while as many adults mingled and discussed the passing of the years.

Two of my sister’s school friends were there with their children: faces I haven’t seen in twenty years but that haven’t changed much. I remember other parties, two decades ago, with the same faces. More music than kids cartoons, back then, and significantly more alcohol. But just as much fun.

As I watched the kids unite in a universal game of balloon fight while disparate groups of my sister’s friends chatted about life, and an old friend who lived in our house even before we moved to the area commented on the same tiles still being there in the kitchen, I could almost see the passing of time happening in that room.

Balloon fights

Balloon fights

Story arcs and character arcs played out in my mother’s kitchen. Our family’s journey, from the day we arrived in the house nearly thirty years ago, when it was all yellow walls and brown carpet. My sister’s journey, from shy school girl to entrepreneur, mother, wife, international traveller. My life, from early heartache to sitting with my children on my lap, happy and content.

I’m often asked how I come up with stuff to write about in my novels: people complain of having no imagination. I used to say the same, until I started my Creative Writing degree, and discovered NaNoWriMo. Then I realised my brain is chock full of stories.

Stories play out around us endlessly. Happy ones, sad ones, stories with no endings, stories only just beginning. The babies in the room yesterday will live an entirely different adventure in a different world to the one I grew up in. Already I can say the same for my children, as they swing from the same apple tree I fell from as a child.

Balloon fighting

Balloon fighting

For character development we need look no further than our own experience: from bolshy or shy teenager to confident or unhappy adult. Whatever our journey, there is a universal truth held within it. Other people have experienced the same emotions, undergone the same changes, albeit in a slightly different way. Like a handmade dress or a home-baked cake, no two stories are quite the same.

My sister and I had almost identical upbringings, as much as can be the case when you’re three years different in age. We’ve lived similar lives, our children could easily be mistaken for siblings. But some of our views on life are worlds apart.

And, by virtue of marrying an American, she now lives in the States. Tiny choices that have huge repercussions. I might have married my Kiwi boyfriend (unlikely!) and my life would have taken a completely different path. To write a story, all I need imagine is one of those what ifs. There are little bits of me in every story, because writing what you know is the easiest place to start. It can be fun, too, exploring the lives I might have lived.

They say everyone has a novel in them. I believe we have as many as we can find the time and energy to write down. All around us, weaving in and out of every day, there are stories. If you want to, go and find them, capture and tame them. Make them your story. There’s no time like now.

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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 pulled into the car park with a sense of relief. Travelling in the car with Kim was beginning to stretch her nerves to breaking point.

I wonder if this is how Bethan felt, travelling with me around New Zealand?

With a guilty flush Claire decided that Bethan probably had more patience. Assuming her dark moods had been of equal blackness, and she suspected they had been, it was a bit like trying to run holding a fragile vase full of excrement. One careless step and the darkness slopped over the side, making everything awful. And all the while there lurked the constant fear that one misstep might shatter the vessel into a thousand pieces.

The town rose around them up into tree-lined hills where white villas sat majestically overlooking the bay. She’d never been to Lyme Regis before and her only knowledge of the town came from a TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

“Apparently Jane Austen loved this town,” she said, as Kim joined her on the pavement.

“I guess someone has to,” Kim responded, staring round with distaste.

Claire bit back a retort and looked instead for somewhere they could get a cup of coffee and some cake. She definitely needed cake.

*

After Kim had turned down the first two cafés for being too busy or too twee, they’d finally settled in a small independent coffee shop that featured a display of divine looking cakes.

Claire wrapped her hands around her mug and read the sign on the wall out loud; “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy tea which is the same kind of thing.” She laughed. “Substitute that for coffee and I couldn’t agree more.”

“I wouldn’t have thought you’d be laughing about money, if you’re as broke as you claim you are.” Kim’s voice cut through Claire’s happiness like a cheese wire.

Claire inhaled sharply, and the words came out before she had time to think. “Give it a rest, Kim. Your life sucks, I get that. Mine’s not exactly rosy either. It’s not going to get better if you stomp around thinking your cup is half empty all the time.” She stopped, her face flaming, and immediately reached out her hand in apology. Kim stared at her through round eyes.

“God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean that.” She tried to lay her hand on her friend’s, but Kim snatched her hand off the table and crossed her arms.

“I’m not sulking, Claire. I’m not choosing to be low. I have depression. The doctor explained it; it’s an imbalance of chemicals in my head. I can’t control it. You wouldn’t ask me to just get up and walk if I had a broken leg.”

The heat continued to pound in Claire’s face as Kim’s words hit out at her. She hung her head. “I know. I understand, really.” She wanted to add that she felt the same; that the world had closed in around her in the past weeks, but suspected Kim wouldn’t appreciate her saying, oh yes, me too.

They sat in silence and Claire sipped at her coffee, more for something to do than out of any enjoyment.

This was a mistake. What was I thinking?

She tried to think of a way out, but nothing presented itself. The idea of travelling with Kim for even a few days, never mind the weeks it would take to get around Cornwall, filled her with dread. And she was meant to be working, not babysitting. How was she supposed to research the tourist activities and compile her recommendations – how was she even going to think straight – with Kim pouring her woe on them all the time. But she couldn’t send Kim home, even though they were in her car. She wasn’t sure Kim was safe by herself and it was a long way back to her apartment.

Claire felt like she was back in Puzzling World, stuck in the maze, lost and confused. Only now she couldn’t climb a tower and figure the way out.

Draining her coffee, she stood up and shouldered her bag. “Come on then, let’s get moving.”

One foot forward, that was the only way.

***

The Hardest Part: 2013 365 Challenge #212

Vol7 Cover, no feet but steps!

Vol7 Cover, no feet but steps!

And so another month ends, another volume of Two Hundred Steps Home goes live on Smashwords. Volume seven! Holy cow.

I found today’s installment the hardest to write. My hands were shaking by the end of it. It twists my stomach even thinking about it now. It took every ounce of willpower learned through 212 daily posts to sit down and write it, because I’m not sure I did the right thing. It is such a heavy blow for Claire. I tempered it from the original, with Jeff’s words, but I’m not sure if that’s enough.

I worry what it says about me (as a person and/or a writer) that what started out as a light-hearted story, with even a few laugh-out-loud moments (according to my husband) back in volume one, has turned so dark. I know I’m not a light-hearted person. Life is tough. And beautiful and amazing, even funny sometimes. But it seems to me that humour in Chick Lit is often at the expense of the protagonist.

And, just as I find it hard to be mean to Claire, I find it equally hard to make an idiot of her. In the early days it was easy. We didn’t know each other very well. She was a parody, a stereotype. We know each other better now.

I notice with my friends that they don’t laugh much with me, but when they are talking to each other they always laugh. I’ve listened to a few exchanges and much of it seems to be about taking the mick out of each other. I’ve never been very good at that. Even with people I know really well, I’m always worried I’ll overstep the mark and what I think is good-humoured jibbing will actually upset them. I used to spar with a friend of my father’s, because he was thick skinned, and my vicious sarcasm never wounded him. Since then, not so much.

Lovely reviews

Lovely reviews

I remember, growing up, that I didn’t like being teased. I took it all too personally. I couldn’t tell the insults from the banter. People soon learned not to wind me up unless they wanted to upset me. Even now, I only really laugh with the children (and then sometimes I have to remember not to get hurt by the blunt things they say).

What does this mean for me as a writer, though? Is Chick Lit my genre, if I can’t write funny? If I can’t stand to let my lovely characters embarrass themselves? Is my writing doomed to become morbid and depressing?

It’s noticeable to me that only the first three volumes of Two Hundred Steps Home have reviews. I’m grateful that no one has written anything nasty about volumes 4-6 but I do take the silence to mean they’re not as good as the earlier volumes.

Sigh. This writing journey is a toughie. I can only hope that I can edit humour in, much as I edit out adverbs. When I’ve finished my daily blogging journey, I hope to take the masses of raw material written about Claire and turn it into one (or probably two) full length novels. This is a first draft after all. In the meantime, sorry, Claire, for doing this to you…

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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 tried to convince her niece that it was time to leave, but Sky’s protests threatened to reach tantrum proportions. Not feeling up to a scene, Claire admitted defeat and suggested instead that they stay in their seats during the interval.

“But, Auntie Claire, I want to see Kim and Jeff. Kim was awesome! And the fairies were brilliant. I want to be a fairy.”

Sky rattled on, filling the half-empty theatre with her chatter. Claire wished she’d had the forethought to bring a flask of coffee or a can of gin and tonic. A hip flask of neat vodka would probably be of most use.

Remembering the look on Kim’s face, Claire bit her bottom lip and willed herself not to cry. We’ve fallen out before. She’ll come round. It wasn’t possible to be friends from the age of five and not have moments of disagreement. There were years when they hardly spoke, as their lives took different paths. They’d always made up and stayed friends, through boyfriends and jobs and university shenanigans. Even when she hadn’t spoken to Kim in months, Claire had always felt the benign presence of her friendship. The idea that it was gone left her shaking.

“Thank goodness you’re still here.”

Claire jumped at the voice in the darkness. The quivering returned to her limbs and she was grateful for the hard plastic beneath her. Jeff slid into the seat next to her, his face concealed in the gloom. He was about to speak when Sky noticed his arrival and jumped up, pushing past Claire to throw her arms around him.

“Jeff! I’m so glad you’re here! Isn’t Kim amazing? I’m so glad Auntie Claire brought me.”

“Yes, Sky, she is. I’m glad to see you too. Can I have a quick word with your Auntie?”

“Here, poppet, play a game on my phone for a moment. There’s a good girl.”

Sky seemed to pick up on the tension and, for once, didn’t challenge Claire’s request. She took the proffered phone and was soon engrossed, the light of the screen throwing stark shadows across her face.

Claire turned to look at Jeff, but she was unable to read his expression in the dark. Her throat contained no moisture and she sat mute waiting for her friend’s husband to speak.

“I saw Kim’s face, when Sky called out. I thought you might go home.”

“I tried to,” Claire managed to croak.

“Sky wouldn’t let you? Well, I’m grateful for her persistence. You need to speak to Kim, Claire. She’s got some terrible ideas in her head. She isn’t thinking straight. You need to talk to her.”

“What. Why? What’s going on, Jeff?” The quivering increased and Claire hugged herself in a futile attempt to control the shaking.

A bell rang loud in the silence. Claire jumped, and Jeff stood up. “I have to go. Kim needs me. Come and find her, after the show is finished. Talk to her. But don’t take everything she says to heart, please. Promise me.” When Claire didn’t respond he leant over. “Promise me?”

Claire nodded.

*

The clapping died away and Claire turned to see if Sky was ready to leave. Her niece was curled up in her chair, asleep. The sight raised a smile, although her facial muscles felt rigid and unresponsive. She wanted to scoop the child up and carry her to the car, but she wasn’t sure she would manage to take her that far. Jeff’s words remained in her mind. If he hadn’t elicited the promise, she would have left. His urgent speech had filled her with wild conjecture.

“Sky?” Claire gently shook her niece’s shoulder. The girl murmured and Claire was able to coax her upright. More asleep than awake, the girl allowed herself to be guided from the theatre into the cool night air.

As the chill stung her face, Claire stood motionless, unsure what to do. Jeff was right, she needed to talk to Kim. But now, after her successful opening night, and with Sky half asleep, didn’t seem like the right time.

Voices approached in the dark. It seemed Jeff had feared her resolution, and had left her no option.

“Come on, Kim, just talk to her. Please.”

Claire could see him pulling his new wife along like a naughty child. He caught sight of Claire waiting with Sky, and exhaled in obvious relief.

“There you are! Thank you for staying. Here, let me take Sky. Now, you two, talk.”

Jeff pulled Kim to stand directly in front of Claire, then scooped Sky up in his arms. He took the girl to a picnic table a short distance away, near enough to watch, but too far to listen.

Kim hung her head like an exhausted pit-pony after a twelve-hour shift. Claire’s heart lurched at the sight of the deep bags beneath her friend’s eyes. She wanted to pull her close, beg her forgiveness, but there seemed to be a barrier between them. Kim stared at the ground, one hand hanging loose, the other grasping tight to her elbow.

“Kim?”

After an endless moment, Kim raised her eyes and Claire felt their impact like a blow. Kim held her gaze for a moment, then dropped her head once more, as if defeated by the effort.

Claire reached out a hand, but it didn’t quite cross the distance between them.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry Michael guessed your secret from me, and blurted it out to everyone. Has the Director given you a hard time?”

She waited, unsure what else to say. The silence dragged like deep water and the snakes in Claire’s stomach writhed and twisted.

“Please, Kim, I don’t know what else to say. I can’t stand to have you mad at me.”

“It’s all about you, isn’t it,” Kim spat out suddenly. “Never a thought for anyone else. You didn’t wanted me to have the baby. You and your precious pact to never have children. Well, I hope you’re happy.”

The floor lurched beneath Claire. “What do you mean?”

“You always were slow on the uptake.” The venom in Kim’s voice felt like acid dripping into Claire’s heart.

“I don’t understand? Is the baby okay?”

“No, the baby’s not okay. Thanks to you, the baby’s dead. I hope you’re satisfied.” The last words came out on a sob. Kim curled her shoulders in, as if holding herself together, before running away, her cries of anguish trailing behind her.

***

Enlightenment: 2013 365 Challenge #206

A lightbulb moment

A lightbulb moment

I had a great discussion with a fellow author recently. We discussed, among other things, my inability to be mean to my characters. In response to my saying, “I actually have a huge capacity to imagine the worst that can happen, especially since having children, I just don’t like to write about it.”

Vozey said,

“Then, look at yourself. Sometimes it isn’t that we are being mean to our characters, than that we are reliving and remember things that are important and painful to us.”

This was a lightbulb moment for me. This was my (slightly edited) response – Most of my Chick Lit protagonists are a version of me, in one form or another. My YA novel, on the other hand, has a lead protagonist that is nothing like me (not intentionally, anyway!) and it was easier to have bad things happen, particularly the kind of things that a 16 year old might think bad (boyfriends, parents and stuff). I really want to try my hand at Middle Grade Fantasy fiction – I love reading it precisely because the bad things that happen are more external than internal.

He also gave me a great pep talk: “Doubt. I’m sure at several points you’ve thought you wouldn’t finish a novel. You did didn’t you? I know I think that sometimes, but I know that I will.”

I’m back where I was five years ago when I thought I’d never write a novel, and yet now I’ve completed two. I can learn to plot, and structure, and be mean. I maybe need to stop using me, and people from my own life, as base templates. Or maybe I do need to stick to YA and MG. I’ve just had to leave the lounge because the programme hubbie is watching got too violent, and still the images linger in my brain. Since having children my (already minimal) stomach for anything violent, mean or nasty is non-existent. Becoming a writer has in some ways made it worse: I can write different endings, people in the real world can’t.

I think, the more fertile the imagination – the more acute the empathy – the harder it is to live in reality! The world can be a tough place to live, I want to make it better, not worse! Perhaps I should learn how to write endearing children’s picture books instead…

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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 stared at the email until the words blurred. Blinking fast, she checked it again. If this number isn’t set in stone, it means there could be even more on offer. The figure in Carl’s email was twice her current salary, with a bonus to make her eyes water, as and when she completed her tour of all the YHA hostels.

Speculation sprinted through Claire’s mind. This can’t be just because of writing a few blog posts. There must be something else going on.

With a few taps of the screen, Claire loaded up her blog stats. She hadn’t looked in a while, because the paltry figures were demoralising. The graph bore no resemblance to the one she had last viewed. The little bars built exponentially. The viewing figures for that day alone were in the thousands.

What the…?

Scrolling back, Claire tried to see which post had sparked the increase. It was impossible to make sense of the numbers on her tiny phone screen. Her heart fluttered like a new-born child, fast and shallow. Trying to jump down from the wall, the trembling in her legs gave a pre-warning before she collapsed into the sand. Sitting in a tangle of legs, Claire laughed until the tears ran down her cheeks.

What a mess. Why didn’t I check my stats before I resigned? She thought about it, as the chill of the sand seeped through her jeans. Would l have done it? Her eyes widened in horror. Does Carl think I only resigned to force his hand; to get more money?

She thought back to their conversation, when he had asked her why she was leaving, intimating that the lure of a fancy car had precipitated her resignation. All the mirth drained away, and she shuffled across the sand to lean her shoulders against the wall.

Her words came back to her, barely audible through the tinny sound of the amusement arcade music still playing behind her, only partially muffled by the wall. No man, no money, no shiny car or bigger office. Just an opportunity to make a difference; to be me. To live a little in the real world.

Claire shivered and pulled herself up, walking along the beach to the steps. This isn’t just a bigger car. This is a chance to save a significant amount of money, to fund my future. That amount of cash going into my account, while I live in hostels on expenses; that’s life changing. I could help Ruth, I could fulfil any dream, if I only stick it out for a year.

With a jolt Claire realised she didn’t have a dream. Aside from a vague interest in travel writing and an impulsive urge to visit the other side of the world, there was nothing in her future to pull her forward.

Walking blindly, Claire didn’t realise she was lost until the change in sound alerted her. The noise filling her ears was no longer the grating tone of the amusement arcade, but the mellow tones of a man singing, with the twang of an electric guitar.

Dragged from her reverie, Claire looked up and saw she was outside a pub. The sight reminded her of her intention to call Josh; that she’d only gone for a walk to kill time and to get something to eat. Carl’s phone call had driven the thought from her mind, and her gurgling tummy reminded her that she still hadn’t eaten.

Without hesitating to wonder whether going into a local pub alone was a good idea, Claire pushed through the door and found herself in a dim, cosy interior that smelt of sweat and beer. The low-ceilinged room felt crowded, but she was able to get to the bar without making eye contact with any of the punters. The entertainment was set up in a corner, and most eyes were focussed on the singer.

Shouting over the music, Claire asked if the pub served food. With a shake of his head, the barman indicated that crisps and pork scratchings were all he could offer. Cursing her stupidity, Claire ordered a gin & tonic and two bags of crisps. While the barman prepared her drink, she looked around to find an empty table. Her heart rose when she spied one in the corner, shielded from the live music.

Claire wove her way to the secluded corner, praying no one accosted her. When she reached her destination unmolested, her overwhelming sensation was surprise. Are people really polite in Swanage, or are they ignoring me because I’m not a local?

Glad of the anonymity and the loud music drowning out her troubled thoughts, Claire ate her meagre dinner and tried to formulate a plan. Was a dream essential, to enjoy life? She was pretty certain no-one she knew had a burning ambition to do anything more than pay the bills and buy the things that made working bearable. Now she thought about it, the fact struck her as sad. Aside from Ruth, who at least had Sky to focus on, the only person she knew with a dream was Kim, with her ambition to become a famous actress. As unlikely as it was, at least it was a tangible goal.

Thinking about Kim increased Claire’s sadness. She would see her friend in two days, but what kind of greeting would she get? Kim hadn’t answered any of her calls or messages since the wedding. She couldn’t believe their friendship was irrevocably broken, but it was starting to look that way.

If Josh’s wife forgave him for running away to the other side of the world, surely Kim can forgive me for revealing her secret to Michael? It wasn’t my fault he blurted it out to everyone.

All the elation from earlier seeped away, as Claire drained the last of her gin. She was still contemplating whether to drink another and drown her sorrows completely, when a familiar voice hailed her from near the door. With a start she looked up, unable at first to see who had recognised her in this backwater place.

Her searching gaze met a smiling pair of glass-green eyes, and her heart gave a lurch. Conor, that’s all I need. As if I haven’t got enough to think about. She was tempted to drop her head and ignore his hail, but knew it was too soon to burn any bridges. Tempting as Carl’s offer was, it wouldn’t hurt to keep the options open.

She raised her hand in greeting, and Conor threaded his way through the crowd to her table.

“Enjoying yourself? I told you Swanage was a great place.” He leant close, to allow his words to be heard over the music.

Claire inhaled the overpowering scent of his aftershave and leaned back slightly as the man filled her personal space.

“Can I get you another drink?” Conor nodded at her empty glass.

Claire didn’t want to stay; her mind was jumbled enough without being on friendly terms with the man who wanted to be her boss. Unable to think of an excuse without appearing rude, Claire nodded her head.

“Yes, please.”

As she watched him take her glass back to the bar, Claire fought an overwhelming urge to cry.

***

Training Day: 2013 365 Challenge #197

Team Day: I wish my bum still looked like that!

Team Day: I wish my bum still looked like that!

Today I gave myself a training day. Just as a good marketer or manager needs a day out of the office to refresh her knowledge of the essential aspects of the job, so a writer needs to brush up on craft.

However, I found it as hard to have a metaphorical day out of the office today as I did when I had a ‘proper’ job. Whenever it was suggested, I used to whine about workload and deadlines and productive use of my time. Particularly if the day out was for quarterly strategy updates or *shudder* team days.

Oh what I wouldn’t give now for a day riding quad bikes and shooting clays, or pretending to do a school sports day (see photos) with a barbecue lunch and a free bar and – best of all – getting paid to do it! How our perspective on life changes.

I did at least get lunch made for me on my training day today, as hubbie’s contract finished on Friday and he’s at home again. So, when I should have been writing Claire installments or chasing the proofreader for an update, I read through Nigel Watts’ great craft book, Writing a Novel, which I discussed last week.

It’s a chatty book, full of great little quotes, which I have been adding to Twitter and Facebook today. The advice is neither new, profound, nor extensive, but I like the book all the more for that. I read through around half today – before the muggy heat sent my brain to sleep – and I’ve been mapping the advice on structure against Baby Blues, Class Act and Two-Hundred Steps Home.

School Girl Amanda (six years ago!)

School Girl Amanda (six years ago!)

It’s interesting to see that Baby Blues contains more of the necessary components than I realised, although I suspect I don’t have conflict and resolution in every chapter – I know that’s a personal weakness in my writing thus far.

I also struggled to verbalise Helen’s key motivation or pinpoint the exact nature of her character change. I came up with ‘finding a purpose in life’ or ‘creating a happy home’ as her motivations and her main change in terms of character growth as ‘takes her own decisions rather than letting life dictate them’.

For Class Act I had more detail in some places, less in others. I’m still not happy with the name of my lead protagonist and that is actually hampering me. The fact that I don’t have a name means, to me, that she isn’t fully formed in my mind.

The main reason for my training day was to figure out what to do with Claire and Two-Hundred Steps Home. As I’ve said before, the story is finished. She’s been through most of the stages of the eight-point structure. She’s made crucial decisions and dealt with the climax: assisting Josh to reunite with his wife even though she fancied him, looking after Sky despite her fear of children, standing up to Carl, and freeing herself from Michael.

All the early mystery has been revealed and the suspense answered. However, as Rinelle pointed out in the comments, Claire still hasn’t resolved her work situation. I know she has the strength to do it, but she needs a reason. Maybe that will be driven by love or lust (falling for Mitch and leaving for NZ, though I don’t think that’s likely as they didn’t hit it off), or maybe it’s the job offer in NZ (again, unlikely). Her motivation has always been pride – saving face, not being out done, not letting people (Carl, Michael, Josh) get the better of her. Now, though, she’s ready to move beyond pride. I need to figure out where to.

I effectively need to start a new plot, with a new trigger and a new quest. I just have no idea what that will be!

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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 hung up the phone and grinned. It had taken a dozen phone calls and not a small amount of patience, but she had managed it. Now for the difficult call. She stared at the piece of paper in front of her, with the all-important name and number on it, and resisted the urge to put the call off until later. Now. It has to be now, or I’ll chicken out.

Tapping her pen against the table, she waited for the phone to connect, the contents of her stomach doing the hula.

“Good morning, Ruth speaking.”

“Hi, it’s me.” She heard the wobble in her voice, and wondered what was causing it. She was helping, wasn’t she?

“Hello, why are you calling? Is everything okay? I thought you were on your travels again. Did you speak to Mum?”

Claire swallowed. She’d forgotten about her conversation the previous evening. “Ah, yes. She and Dad are away, at a spa or something.” She prayed her sister wouldn’t ask any more questions. There were mental images that were best forgotten.

“What? She didn’t tell me she was going away. Who is going to collect Sky from school? It was all I could do to get her there this morning.”

Ignoring the stab of irritation at her sister’s attitude, Claire reminded herself that she was sick and needed all the help she could get.

“That’s why I’m ringing, actually. I’ve been thinking about it since I left. Mum and Dad need some time to rebuild their bridges-” She heard her sister’s intake of breath, and rushed on, “-Not that Mum minds helping you, but it must be frustrating for you, to always have to ask her for help. I thought about what you said – about needing a child-minder – and I’ve found one.”

“I told you, I can’t afford childcare.” Ruth’s tone made it clear what she felt about Claire’s interference.

“You don’t have to. It’s my gift to you. I should be helping, but I’m stuck doing this stupid challenge. The least I can do is let Carl fund a child-minder for you. They’re still paying me, and my outgoings are minimal. Anyway, it’s all arranged. It might be a bit make-do this term, but Jenny assures me she’ll have plenty of space next term.”

“That’s September, Claire. Four months away. I can’t make-do for all that time.”

Claire inhaled and tried not to react. She’d known it wouldn’t be easy to help her sister.

“All Jenny means is she will have to share the childcare with Mum, as she doesn’t have space every day. But she lives near you, so bringing Sky home won’t be a problem. Even if all she does is walk her home from school, that will help. Won’t it?”

Silence followed her words. Sensing it would be a concession too far from Ruth to admit that, Claire shrugged and let it go. “I’ll text you the details. I’ve asked Jenny to call you about collecting Sky from school today. I’m guessing you’ll have to get it authorised. And Ruth,” she hesitated, then decided nothing ventured. “Try and accept the help, okay. Think of it as recompense for me still doing this awful challenge when I’d rather be playing with my niece.”

She hung up the phone before her sister could respond. Realising she was breathing hard, Claire was about to head down to reception to check out and continue to the next hostel, when the phone rang. Oh, Ruth, don’t be a dummy. Take the help.

Glancing at the phone, she realised it wasn’t her sister calling back, but a withheld number. Hoping against reason that it was Kim, Claire answered the call.

“Hello, is that Claire Carleton?”

“Yes, speaking.”

“Ah, Claire. My name is Linda Small, I work for a recruitment agency. I have a position that might interest you, if you’re in the market for a change of role.”

Claire sank back onto the bunk bed, and listened with wide eyes to what Linda had to say.

***

A Time for Decisions: 2013 365 Challenge #150

Two-Hundred Steps Home

Two-Hundred Steps Home

It doesn’t seem possible that this is post 150 of the 365 challenge. How quickly the numbers stack up. If only Claire was racking up hostels as quickly as I have been writing posts. She is currently staying in her 31st hostel, with well over a hundred to go, discounting the bunkhouses and hostels that aren’t open to individuals.

I also sense that Claire’s personal journey might not require her to visit all the hostels, which would result in TwoHundred Steps Home becoming too much of a travel journal. At over 114,000 words already (now just longer than Dragon Wraiths), the novel isn’t what you’d call pacey! I have two directions in mind for where the series will go, and I probably need to make a decision soon about which road to take.

Both lead to a second, normal-length novel that I would write and publish as I have done Dragon Wraiths (just what I need, another manuscript to join the other unfinished works). In an ideal world I would write that now, alongside the daily one, so people could rush out and buy it on 1st Jan 2014, when there is no more Claire here on the blog.

Ha ha ha ha. Excuse me while I wipe tears of mirth from my eyes.

I have so many projects, the only thing that has priority is feeding the demanding, screaming, baby that is the daily blog. I don’t know what Claire’s going to do today, never mind writing a whole novel of new Claire adventures. And the sequel to Dragon Wraiths. And the new MG one. Plus, of course, editing and publishing the two complete manuscripts sitting patiently on my laptop. No wonder Claire doesn’t know what she’s doing today – her creator is swamped beneath a mound of unfinished projects.

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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 looked up at the building and wondered which way to go. The dome dominated the skyline in front of her as if it was a true mountain rather than a monstrosity of steel filled with fake snow. Her nerves were already rattled from searching for a parking space: not that the car park was full, but the rainbow of coloured bays confused her.

It’s too early and I haven’t had enough coffee. Was this a good idea? It’s not exactly Val d’Isère. How can it be anything like the real thing, here in Milton Keynes, as far from the mountains as it’s possible to be?

Knowing she had little choice, Claire followed the signs into the building and to her check-in location. If I don’t do something spectacular, Julia’s going to be all over me like hives.

She’d thought about cheating – pretending she had never skied and taking a skiing lesson. I’m pretty sure Carl will remember I went skiing with Michael last November. I don’t need that particular conversation. At least learning to snowboard will be fun and something useful for after I’ve finished this stupid assignment.

A gaggle of children clambered down from a coach nearby, making Claire jump. Their excited shrieking gave her the shivers. I hope they’re going bowling. That’s too much energy to share a slope with.

Memories of skiing flickered in Claire’s mind and she pushed them away. She didn’t want to picture Michael skiing up and showering her in powder before smothering her in kisses. Nor did she want to remember the twelve-year-olds who had swooped round her on the blue runs as if the skis had been on their feet since birth. Much as she had enjoyed skiing, she had to admit she wasn’t a natural.

Claire arrived at the desk and smiled at the young woman waiting to check people in. She received a glittering grin in return, and felt some of the tension seep out of her shoulders. Following the directions, Claire went to pull on her snow trousers and jacket and locate her board. Maybe this won’t be so bad.

*

“Ow!”

Claire glared at the child who had crashed into her, sending her sprawling in the snow.

“Sorry, Miss, I lost my balance.”

Fairness caused Claire to grin. “No apology needed, I’m not exactly getting the hang of it myself.”

“You’re doing great, Miss.”

The boy flipped onto his feet, tilted his board, and sailed off down the slope. Claire looked round, trying to work out how to get to her feet with as much elegance. She ached and her clothes were wet. This snow is far too real for my liking. Though at least it is soft.

A whoosh behind her signalled the arrival of her coach. He held out an arm and Claire allowed herself to be pulled upright.

“Are you naturally clumsy, or just not awake?”

The words were said with humour but Claire bristled. We can’t all be born graceful.

“I’m used to skis,” she said, defensively, before regretting her words.

“Ah, yes, that figures. Nice safe option. Boring, but much easier.” He raised an eyebrow and Claire felt the ire build in her chest, warming her from the inside.

“I’m not done yet. I’ve only been here an hour.” She gritted her teeth, tilted the board, adjusted her bodyweight as instructed, and headed down the slope. For the first time since arriving she managed to remain upright.

Wow, this is amazing! Okay I begin to understand the hype. The words were barely formed in her mind before she lost her balance and landed heavily in the snow, her arm trapped awkwardly beneath her. Pain flooded through her mind like hot ice, and she screamed.

***

Cheeky Characters: 2013 365 Challenge #135

Dad playing the fool

Dad playing the fool

Characters are like children: they are a part of you, and you steer and shape them, but much of the time they don’t do what they’re told.

I wrote two or three scenes together yesterday, as I’m desperately trying to get ahead in case we don’t have internet access on holiday. Writing one installment at a time keeps the characters mostly under control, as I put them in a situation with a clear purpose.

When I let the writing flow, though, they can sneak off and do their own thing. In a normal first draft that’s fine because if they end up changing too much it’s possible to go back and reintroduce the new character traits. Writing in daily installments, knowing the first four books are published and unchangeable, makes it much harder.

I have a new-found respect for authors like Charles Dickens, writing serious literature in serial form.

My lovely dad

My lovely dad

Not only do I have to remember what the characters are like and what they’ve said and done – I also can’t really change it.

The person who has morphed in today’s installment is Claire’s Dad. He’s middle class through and through, and he’s taciturn, uptight, distant: but all of a sudden he started chatting away and I didn’t have the heart to stop him. I wonder if he’s channeling my memories of my Dad, after the pictures I used of him recently.

That’s always the danger. Stuff seeps into the subconscious. It’s why it’s not a good idea to read in the genre you’re writing as you pen a first draft. Too easy to plagiarise ideas and not even be aware of it.

I like the new version of Claire’s dad, though, and I think sometimes people can surprise you. So I’ll let him stay and hope readers are forgiving of a little shift from expectation. After all, the characters are in charge!

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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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When the door closed behind his son, Claire’s father seemed to relax and become smaller, shorter. It was as if he had maintained some act of standing tall in Robert’s presence that he didn’t need to continue in front of Claire.

“Cup of tea, Dad?”

Her father turned and smiled, a twinkle in his eye. “Yes, love. Now he’s gone maybe we can have a proper natter. Feels like having my old boss in the house, with him in his suit and tie. Doesn’t the boy ever relax?”

Claire grinned, feeling like a collaborator. “He’s got a lot on his mind, I guess.”

“Yes, that stuck up cow of a wife is giving him a hard time, from what I can gather.”

“Dad!” Claire stared, open-mouthed, as her father shuffled into the lounge and settled in his favourite chair. She followed him in, perching on the sofa, all thought of making tea forgotten.

“Well, don’t tell me you like her? I don’t suppose you’ve visited once since the wedding: silly pretentious affair that it was.”

Claire wondered when aliens had come and kidnapped her father. He was the one always a stickler for formality. When he was working, chief financial officer of some major company or other, he’d seemed so stiff and unapproachable. She’d never seen this side to him, lounging in a comfy chair having a gossip.

In fact, I never see him at all normally. Last time I was home he was off playing golf all the time. She thought about his question. When had she last seen Francesca and the boys?

“I Skype now and then, on the boys’ birthdays. If I remember.”

“Ah, yes. Easy to put on a front on the phone. Even with that new-fangled thing that allows you to see the other person.” He shuddered, as if the future made him uncomfortable.

“The truth is in what Robert doesn’t say. Never talks about her, you know. Nor about the boys much. It’s all work, work, work. Well, I gave all that up. Glad to see the back of it, too.”

Claire raised her eyebrows. “I thought you hated leaving your job? Mum says you’re never here. I guessed you were busy with non-exec roles, that kind of thing.”

Her father’s face flushed, and he looked towards the door, as if expecting to see his wife enter at any moment. Then he turned back to Claire and his face was conspiratorial. “Don’t tell your mother, but I’m usually at the library.”

Claire felt like a clown that had just been splatted in the face by a custard pie. “The library? Why? Mum says you play golf, when you’re not working.”

“Golf? Whatever for? Stupid game. I go to the club sometimes, to catch up with the old boys. Really, though, what’s that thing Twain was meant to have said? ‘A good walk spoiled.’ No I’ve been doing research.”

Settling back into the sofa, Claire leaned on the arm so she could face her father. “Research for what?”

“I’m writing a book.” He beamed, like a child admitting they’d won first prize in a competition. “Your mother would think it was foolish, so I haven’t told her. She’s so busy keeping up with the Jones’s and doing her WI things. She would think it awfully common to be writing a book.” He frowned. “You won’t tell her, will you?”

Claire’s mind whirled with the flood of new information. She felt like she had never truly known her father. Either that or her first surmise was right, and aliens had kidnapped Gerald Carleton and replaced him with someone new.

“Of course I won’t tell Mum, if you don’t want me to. What’s the book about?” She expected him to say Business Finance, or Military Strategies in the Second World War.

“It’s a thriller. I’ve been having writing lessons. You know, one of those free Adult Learning courses they do at the college? They say everyone has a book in them. I think mine’s tending towards a Grisham.”

Laughter built in Claire’s chest for the first time in days. She threw her head back and the sound filled the empty magnolia room, rolling off the walls.

“Oh Dad, that’s brilliant. Can I read it?”

“It’s not finished yet.” He looked furtive. “You won’t tell your mother,” he repeated.

“Why not? It’s great that you’re doing something with your time, now you’re retired. Maybe Mum could proof-read it. She did used to be a secretary.”

That was how her parents had met. Her mother had been her father’s secretary, just to prove that clichés did happen in real life.

“Lord no, I couldn’t do that. She hates being reminded of the past. Between you and me, I think it makes her feel uncomfortable, as if she’s a fraud.” He gestured at the room. “Take this house. It’s got no warmth, but she’s so afraid of it turning into her Mother’s house, full of tat and mess and pictures. As if clutter somehow makes you working class.”

His words, said in a thoughtful tone, amazed Claire. Who knew the old man was so astute? It came as a surprise to think there were busy thoughts going on behind her father’s placid face. He’d always been in the background of her life, rarely getting involved in the day to day events. Now he seemed to come alive, three-dimensional and vivid before her.

“Anyway, girl, how about that tea? And then I suppose you best be getting on your way. You’ll be stuck awhile chatting at Ruth’s and you don’t want to drive to a new hostel in the dark.”

Almost numb to the shock of fresh revelations, Claire knew she shouldn’t be surprised that her father knew she was booked into a hostel for the night, and needed to drive by Ruth’s place to say her farewells. Carl had agreed to only the week’s holiday and, with Sky returning to school in the morning, her presence was no longer required.

“Okay, Dad. Coming right up.”

***

Stealing Memories: 2013 365 Challenge #132

Dad in Mount Vernon receiving chemo

Dad in Mount Vernon receiving chemo

As a writer it is difficult to know how much to borrow from the people around you. I often have stabs of conscience regarding writing about the children on my blog, particularly as I use their names (I’m not a big fan of calling them child 1 / child 2 or anything).

I rarely share stuff about my husband or friends, particularly not names or specifics. But utilising stories, that’s different. I need other people’s lives and experiences. I have a great set of my own memories to draw upon – I’ve had a varied and not always easy life – but there are also many things I haven’t done that my friends have.

I have a doctor friend, two teacher friends, a nurse. They share titbits about their lives that I end up weaving into stories. Never the exact tale, certainly never exact people, but definitely flavours. And it does make me feel uncomfortable. How else to find stories though?

My Dad how I like to remember him

My Dad how I like to remember him

Right now I am borrowing my husband’s memories, combined with my own, to write Ruth’s story in Two-Hundred Steps Home. My father suffered from cancer and eventually lost his battle (not specifically with cancer, but associated complications). My relationship with my father was rocky, though, and I live more with the guilt of not doing enough, than with the memories of caring for him. If I’m honest I could have done more and been with him more, but he didn’t want to burden us with how bad it really was and it was too easy to take him at his word.

My husband lost his mother to a brain tumour, a year or two before I met him. They were very close and he felt the loss deeply. He has spoken of it many times and the memories of his last few months with her are raw and beautiful.

I haven’t recreated either scenario completely in Two-Hundred Steps Home (or in the Nanowrimo manuscript I wrote last November, that also features hospital scenes), but I do ask Hubbie about details to make my stories authentic. It feels wrong, though, to ask personal questions just for the sake of my writing. When does it stop being acceptable and become a bit icky? I suppose that’s one of the many unanswerable questions that comes with being a writer.

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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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“Mummy, Auntie Claire says she’ll pay for me to go to ballet again, can I go, can I, please?”

Sky’s rush of words made Claire’s tummy squirm. She looked up guiltily at Ruth, remembering her thoughts about why the ballet lessons had stopped. Don’t say anything spiteful about the ballet teacher, for goodness sake. Then Sky is bound to tell you she met up with her father and said ballet teacher’s baby.  

The morning with Sky and Ruth had not been an easy one. Sky’s chatter, irritating at the best of times, came with the added burden of fear, worrying what titbit from her ten days with Claire she might toss out for Ruth’s entertainment. On top of that, Claire could see her sister was sagging under the weight of endless words, but didn’t want to let her daughter out of her sight.

Mouthing, “Sorry,” at Ruth, Claire fished in her handbag for the iPad. “Sky, poppet, would you like to play that word game I downloaded for you, so your Mummy can have a rest?”

Sky’s head spun quickly, her hair whipping Ruth across the face. She scrambled off the bed and climbed onto the pull-down mattress next to Claire. “Can I paint nails instead? Pleeeeease.”

Claire’s cheeks flushed red-hot in the stuffy room. Great, now Ruth’s going to blame me for letting Sky play silly computer games. This isn’t how it was supposed to go: I was meant to drop her back home and carry on with my assignment, not sit and listen to all my Auntie-Fails being revealed.

She studied Ruth’s face to see what level of censure it contained, and exhaled in relief at the sight of her closed eyes. Poor thing. I find Sky exhausting, and I’m not sick.

Silence spread through the room, punctuated only by the buzzing light and the whir of technology monitoring Ruth’s life-signs. Claire let her mind drift, wondering where Robert had disappeared to, and whether Carl had noticed yet that she hadn’t blogged a new hostel.

I’ll have to call in and book this week as holiday. I have no idea how long Ruth is going to be in here and it doesn’t seem right to dash off to whatever remote destination boasts the nearest hostel. Carl will just have to sod off.

Settling back against the wall, Claire shifted until she was vaguely comfortable, then she followed Ruth’s example and closed her eyes.

When Claire woke, Sky was no longer sat next to her on the bed. Heart hammering in panic, she flicked her gaze towards Ruth’s bed. Ruth was still sleeping, but her daughter wasn’t with her. Rising slowly, trying not to disturb her sister, Claire crept from the room and prayed her niece was out in the corridor.

Maybe she’s gone for a wee. Yes, that must be it. Claire trotted to the ladies and called out for Sky. When there was no answer, she went back to the nurses’ station and asked if they’d seen a blonde child.

“Yes, she went up to the canteen with the man that came in this morning. Mr Carleton? Is that Ms Carleton’s husband?”

Claire frowned, wondering if Chris had come to the hospital. How would he know? I can’t believe Ruth would have called him. Then the penny dropped. Mr Carleton. Robert, of course.

With a smile she shook her head at the nurse’s assumption. “No, that’s our brother. He flew in from Geneva this morning.” Another thought teased into her brain, scratching at her mind like a briar. Mr Carleton? Not Mr Carleton-Bise? Since when did he drop Francesca’s surname? I thought they loved that whole double-barrelled thing.

Claire’s mind whirled with conjecture as she walked the now-familiar route to the canteen. I wonder if everything is alright with him and Francesca. She recalled their conversation over coffee what seemed like days ago but in reality was only that morning. Now I think about it, he was acting a bit odd. It made the knots in her stomach tighten even more. Robert and Francesca had been together since she was a teenager. The idea that anything could shake their marriage gave her the shivers.

***

Lessons from The Wee Free Men: 2013 365 Challenge #119

Lessons to be Learned

Lessons to be Learned

I finished rereading The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett today and it was wonderful to realise it lost nothing on a second (possibly third) reading. In fact, since I’ve had a daughter of my own, I think the book has changed and grown in significance. It’s up there in the books I’d like my daughter to read as she comes into an awareness of herself.

If you don’t know Terry Pratchatt’s Discworld novels, they are based in a world that’s like a warped mirror of our own, with magic in place of science and technology. Witches hold a special place in the world: they are both central and outside life, revered and feared in equal measure. As their greatest witch – Granny Weatherwax – puts it, they guard the Edges between Dark and Light, Good and Evil, Life and Death. They have First Sight and Second Thoughts. They see what’s really there. Above all, they’re cool. I love them.

Granny Weatherwax is possibly one of the greatest characters ever invented. She gets inside your head and makes you question everything. (If you want to see Granny at her finest, read Carpe Jugulum.)

The Wee Free Men isn’t about Granny, it’s about Tiffany: a nine-year-old girl who lives on a farm on the Chalk, makes cheese and minds are younger brother. She also has First Sight and Second – even Third – Thoughts. And she has to rescue her brother from the Fairy Queen, even though she doesn’t like him very much. I won’t go into the story, just recommend you read it in words much better than mine.

My reason for writing about it here is to explain why I think it’s a must-read for any little girl (or boy possibly) coming to a sense of herself: It explores the voices that exist inside a person’s head, and the difficulty of understanding which of the many voices is Me.

Tiffany is the kind of girl who sits just outside life, watching. The Discworld Witches always are. And Terry Pratchett says That’s okay. In our society, the people in the kitchen at parties – the ones not drinking or joining in, the ones just observing – are a little bit wrong. They are considered aloof, boring, shy, weird, cold. I know because I am that person And all those labels have been applied to me. I’ve been ridiculed for not wanting to get drunk, for not letting go.

There has always been a little voice in my head that watches me and comments on my behaviour. It’s hard to get drunk and be silly when there’s a sober person in your head telling you what a pratt you’re making of yourself. As a result I don’t often drink and I’m rarely the one telling jokes. At my last place of work, and in many other situations in my life, that has meant almost complete exclusion. It’s not a nice place to be, feeling like a freak or someone who didn’t get the memo on how to have fun.

Growing up I read endlessly to live in my own world. I read Sweet Valley High and Lord of the Rings, Famous Five and Mills and Boon. Romance and action/adventure. For some reason ‘thinking’ books – what might be called literary books – didn’t come my way. I don’t know why, although I often feel the need to apologise for it, as if a ten-year-old can control the books they’re exposed to. So I read nothing that told me that having a cacophony of voices in my head was okay, was normal, whatever that is.

What The Wee Free Men explores is the notion that it’s okay to be different. That people who sit outside the group and watch – who listen to the voices in their heads – are the kind of people who speak up for things without a voice, who save the day, even if no one acknowledges it. They are strong people who won’t be beaten. I suspect my daughter may grow up to be a girl who watches, one who doesn’t follow the pack. I want her to know that’s okay. I think she’ll learn that from this book.

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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: [Warning today’s post contains strong language.]

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The car felt warm and comforting after the chill of Lavender Farm and the unexpected encounter. Claire looked across at Sky eating her ice cream; her face still showed red mottling from crying, but her eyes were calm. Kids are amazing. I’d still be crying now, if that wanker was my father. She could see her niece’s eyes were heavy and thought a sleep in the car would do her good.

Claire programmed in the SatNav and reached forwards to attach it to the windscreen. Movement in the rear-view mirror caught her eye: It was Chris. She tried to ignore his gestures, but his demeanour dragged her attention. He looked as if he was signalling for her to come out the car by herself. Intrigued – and not unwilling to go and give him a piece of her mind away from listening ears – Claire sat back in the seat and dramatically slapped her forehead.

“Sorry, Sky. I just remembered I left my mobile phone in the shop. Will you be alright here in the car for a moment, if I just run in and get it?”

Sky looked across with fear in her eyes and Claire’s stomach lurched. I really shouldn’t leave her alone, after the shock she’s had. I can hardly take her with me and use all the words I want to use though.

“How about if I lock the doors? I’ll be back before you finish your ice cream.”

After a moment, Sky nodded tentatively and pushed down the button on the door next to her. Sky reached over and locked the others, making sure she had the keys in her hand before she left the car.

It felt good to stalk over to the man who had broken her sister and niece’s hearts. Words of heat and wrath built like fire in her throat. She felt tempted to start shouting before she reached him, but he stood with his arms at his side and his head low. I want to look in his eyes and see that he’s hearing me. Besides, if I start screaming like a fishwife across the car park, Sky might hear.

She stopped three feet away from him, arms folded. Let him start. I want to hear what the bastard has to say to excuse his behaviour. Silence stretched and Claire ached to fill it with hot words. Somehow she knew the quiet was hurting Chris more, so she maintained eye contact and waited for him to speak.

“I had no choice.” His words fell between them, as if he’d pushed them out with effort.

“Bollocks. Everyone has a choice.”

“I…” He stopped and ran his hand through his hair. Claire noticed it was thinner than it used to be. “I wanted it to work. With Ruth. And Sky. And I loved them both, really. But Ruth –”

Suddenly Claire didn’t want to hear it. She’d only ever heard Ruth’s side of the story; honesty compelled her to confess that might have been skewed. Her body language must have given her away because Chris reached out a hand, before letting it drop once more to his side.

“Don’t go. Hear me out, please. Maybe you can help Sky, a little. I saw the pain I caused her.”

“Then why did you reject her? Not stay in touch? Run off with her fucking ballet teacher.” It felt good to shout at this weak man standing before her. To swear with precision and relish and watch him flinch as the truth struck him like pellets of ice.

“Because I wanted to be a Dad more than anything!” The words came out in a rush. “And Ruth wouldn’t let me. Sky was her precious daughter. From the minute she was born it was her and Sky. There was no room for me. She wouldn’t let me do anything – feed her, bathe her – I was barely allowed to touch her. Then, when she started school, Ruth became paranoid something was going to happen to her. I don’t know what she thought would happen. She went almost crazy with it.”

He stopped. Whether because he had run out of words, or because he realised telling Claire her sister was crazy was not perhaps the best move, wasn’t clear.

“Then I met Bryony. She understood. She taught Sky, knew how clingy Ruth was. I asked her for advice, initially. Then we got talking and, well. You know the rest. We have a little girl of our own now, and she’s mine.

“Sky’s still your daughter.” Claire didn’t know what else to say. She didn’t want to feel sympathy for this man. She didn’t want him to have a reason that made sense. She just wanted him to hurt and be sorry.

“Ruth didn’t want me to stay in touch. She said it would be better just the two of them. I send Sky birthday cards and Christmas cards but I don’t know if they get to her.” He inhaled deeply and wiped his hand across his face as if rubbing away the pain. “She’s looking well. I’m glad to see you taking her out in the world. Ruth keeps her too close. Sky doesn’t need me.”

Claire tried to think before speaking, to decide what to do, to interpret how she felt. Despite her best efforts, she could relate to what Chris had said. It wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to see Ruth in that role. Their own parents had been so distant and uncaring, it seemed highly plausible that Ruth wouldn’t want to let Sky out of her sight. She turned and looked back at the car, but couldn’t see inside.

“I have to go, Sky will wonder where I am. Try again, Chris. Try harder. Ruth…” She inhaled, then made a decision. “Ruth’s sick. Real sick. Sky might have need of you. Don’t make her an orphan if it comes to that.”

She watched as all the blood drained from Chris’s face, much as it had from Sky’s earlier, and felt a certain satisfaction. Digging into her purse, Claire retrieved a business card and held it out to Sky’s father. He looked into her eyes as if trying to understand her actions, then took the card and held it without looking at it.

“If you need to reach me, or want to speak to Sky – at least for the next week – you have my number. We’re staying in Hunstanton for the weekend.”

Before he could say anything, find an excuse or backtrack, Claire turned and strode back to the car, her heartbeat hammering loudly in her ears.

***

 

Using Life’s What Ifs: 2013 365 Challenge #113

My Three Darlings

My Three Darlings

Writing out some of the background for my new novel today I realised I was inadvertently writing a ‘what if’ about my own life, or one tiny aspect of my life.

I think sometimes that’s what writers do. They use their words, their imaginations to explore different lives they might have lived. Mine is a little thing that might have been huge.

I was late for my period this month: second month in a row. Now, we’re careful. We have two beautiful children and I’m in my late thirties. My first child was born at 37 weeks, the second at 35 weeks. My pediatrician friend said that trend to premature babies could easily continue.

I love my Big Sister

I love my Big Sister

So, even if we wanted more children (which we don’t – only when I get occasionally broody) the risks are far too high. And I KNEW I wasn’t pregnant. I’m more likely to be menopausal, as early menopause runs in the family. But, still, you start putting two and two together and making five. I was tired, grumpy, teary and, above all, late.

The protagonist in Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes gets pregnant against the odds. These things happen. I worried.I read up about menopause at 2am on my phone. And, being me, I re-planned my future with a third child in it. I needed to be prepared, just in case. I worked out the age gap, when the third would start school. I decided it would be nice for Aaron to have a play mate when Amber starts school in September. I tried to decide whether I’d prefer a boy or a girl. I’m a writer: I wove stories.

Drove hubbie nuts.

Then I decided I ought to actually get a test and part of me was actually a bit excited (damn you, breeding hormones). I didn’t need the test, as it turned out. As if just buying it was enough, I knew before I got home that it was no longer required. In a tiny way I felt as if I’d lost a baby, even though no baby existed. Because I had made the scary future so plausible.

I wasn’t going to talk about it on the blog – it seems to come under the ‘too much information’ category. Until I started writing out my character list for the new book this morning:

George: 11. Two siblings, Ben (14) and Susie (16). George suspects he wasn’t planned. His sister tells him their mother used to say ‘I’ve only got two hands’ or ‘one of each, job done’. George feels unwanted and an outsider. Susie is academic, Ben is musical. They’re close. George likes football and computer games and being lazy.

My Little Bean

My Little Bean

I realised, half way through writing it, that George is my imaginary third child. The things I worried about at 2am were all there: that any other children born into our family would feel left out because my two are so close in age; that Amber would remember me saying ‘one of each, job done’; that a third child would feel alienated, like my Uncle and my Mum – both the last of three kids.

The loss of my imaginary child, that hurt for a day, doesn’t hurt so much now. When I see the kids needing another play mate I do wish I had started my family earlier, so more children was a possibility. But now I can write them in to existence instead. So much cheaper and no need for cots, bottles, stretch marks, swollen ankles and endless dirty nappies. Hurrah.

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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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Rain hammered at the window as if it, too, wanted to come in and watch TV. Claire reached for the remote and turned up the volume; the dulcet tones of Rapunzel drowning out the drumming beat. She looked around the abandoned lounge, thankful that they were the only occupants.

Next to her, head propped up on one hand, Sky gazed at the TV as though it were entirely responsible for the rotten weather preventing their trip to the beach. She sighed and the noise cut through thrumming rain and Disney’s finest. Claire smiled at the grown up sound. I wonder if she’s learned that from me or Ruth?

“Do you want to watch something else?” Claire had suggested Tangled because she thought she could work with it on in the background. Lack of attention had left her blog drifting with diminishing views and comments and she knew some serious effort was required to breathe life back into it.

The last thing I need right now is Carl on a crusade to have me do another challenge. The Doctor’s Note isn’t going to hold out much longer. I don’t think surviving the school holidays without committing murder is the kind of thing Coca Cola or the YHA would want associated with their brands, however much it must be a reality for millions of parents.

Another sigh cut through her thoughts and she put down the iPad, searching for patience and a smile. Hitching it in place she turned to Sky and said in as lively a voice as she could muster after a night of bad dreams and no sleep, “What shall we do then? Coffee and cake? More homework? We could go exploring: There are lots of places other than the beach to visit.”

“But I wanted to go to the beach!” Out came the bottom lip. Claire pushed away the irritation and searched her mind for alternatives.

“I think there’s a games room here, shall we go and have a look?”

A glimmer of interest flicked across Sky’s face. I’ll take it. Claire got up and held out her hand. After a beat of hesitation, Sky took it and let herself be led from the room.

 

“I win, I win!” Sky hopped around gleefully as she connected four yellow discs in a row, once more cutting off her Auntie from her own straight run. Claire smiled at the elation, feeling only slightly guilty at her own cheating. Surely it’s only bad when you cheat to win? Cheating to lose – to make a child smile – that’s normal, right?

Her idle brain ran on with the idea. I wonder if I should win now and then, just so she gets used to losing? Surely losing has to happen at some point in a child’s life? Somewhere in her mind she remembered Ruth telling her about the trials of children’s parties, where everyone had to win at pass the parcel or musical statues. I don’t remember it being like that when we were growing up? Losing, crying about it, getting over it, was all part of being a kid. She looked over at Sky’s beaming grin and compared it with what she knew the alternative would be if she beat her niece. Maybe that particular lesson can wait.

“Well done, Sky. Two out of three?”

***