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.

Time Slipping Away: 2013 365 Challenge #356

Cobh Cathedral West Side by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Cobh Cathedral West Side by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

I must apologise to regular Claire followers if this month’s installments are a bit jumpy and disjointed (and longer than usual!) I’ve never been much good at writing to a word count, and my darling characters do have a habit of wandering off on their own.

I always knew it couldn’t be a month of real time writing, with only a day covered by each installment, because I needed Claire to get to the end of her three month assignment by the end of book twelve. Having only covered four or five months since the beginning of the year, it was always going to be a tricky ask.

Then Claire had so much fun with her nephews in volume eleven that not enough time passed, and now I’m having to dip in on the story to make sure it doesn’t all drag on into the New Year. It’s only meant to be a 365 day challenge, not 400. Still, there are so many things I want to write about. The B&B she stays in with Conor in Ireland. The hotel in Plymouth. Her adventures with the Brownies in Exmoor. I still know everything she’s doing, most of the places she is going to. Does it feel rushed? If so, I’m really sorry.

I’ve caught myself out a couple of times, too, by speeding through – for example moving Claire on to meet Maggie before Conor had a chance to invite her to the christening – and it’s frustrating not to be able to change it. But I’ve always had a rule that, aside from typos, I won’t go back and edit a post once it’s live. What you read is what gets published every month.

I’m trying to pace it, to keep it authentic, to tie up all the loose ends. Ah but it’s hard! Especially as I’m full of cold and writing anything is taking twice as long as normal. I can barely remember my kids’ names, never mind how many siblings I might have given Conor earlier in the story. Ploughing back through 275k words, even with a search function, is time consuming to say the least.

So this is an apology. To Jane and Angela and anyone else reading along as I furiously scribble out an ending amidst wrapping paper and snotty tissues. If it isn’t the ending you hoped for, and deserve, I’m sorry. I hope there will be a sequel. This is only the start of a new life for Claire. And maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll find time to turn Claire’s story into what I believe it has the potential to 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 felt the ground shift beneath her feet as Conor led her towards the church.

No, not church; cathedral. Nothing that big can be called a church.

She looked up at the spire stretching towards the clear blue sky, with the water and hills as a backdrop behind it. Painted buildings lined the streets, their colours vibrant in the afternoon sunshine. All around them, people in suits and smart dresses streamed towards the building. Claire looked down at the outfit she’d found in a charity shop the day before, and grimaced.

What is the point of the boxes of gorgeous clothes I’ve got sitting in storage, if they’re not accessible when I need them?

She’d thought about driving home to find a suitable outfit, but part of her didn’t want Conor to think she was making too much effort, and part of her didn’t want to give her mother another excuse for an ear-bashing.

The flight over to Ireland with Conor had been short and uneventful. The last time she’d flown with anyone, it had been to go skiing with Michael, and the memories jarred in her mind. Conor was the opposite of Michael. He seemed to enjoy the flight; looking out the window, paying attention to the safety demonstration, chatting to the people sitting around them. He had none of the air of jaded traveller that Michael had. She guessed Conor hadn’t been around the world much, although he didn’t talk about life before moving to Swanage.

The inside of the cathedral was equally overwhelming. Claire stared up at the ceiling that seemed to reach the heavens, then down at the Celtic patterns dancing across the floor. All around, the soft Irish lilt of a hundred voices filled the air like the sound of waves on a pebbly shore.

She leaned in to Conor and whispered, “These aren’t all family are they?”

“Oh no, would you imagine? No there’ll be three or four babies getting their heads wet today, plus the normal mass service.” Conor laughed as she pulled a face. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you from snoring. Come and meet my brothers and sisters.”

As he led her deep into the building he added, “And don’t let them wind you up. They’re full of stories; most of which aren’t true.”

Something in his tone made her shiver. She pulled her shawl around her shoulders and trotted after him.

*

Time moved like treacle as Claire tried to follow the service. When Conor stood to take his part as Godparent it felt like someone had opened a door and let in an icy draft.

One of his numerous relations gave her an encouraging smile but it only served to remind her she still had the ordeal of the party afterwards to endure.

At last they were back out in the sunshine with kisses and laughter, greetings and photographs. They walked en-masse to a nearby hall that was laid out with buffet and dance floor. It was clear the party was intended to last well into the evening. Conor stood with his fingers laced through hers, as he responded to hails and answered questions in a broad Irish brogue she hadn’t heard since he’d tried to charm her mother.

Conor seemed to be able to morph from role to role without conscious effort and she wondered if even he knew who the real man was underneath. Feeling like a child on her first day at school, she hovered behind his shoulder and aimed for invisible.

She found it hard to follow the conversations, as hurried words flew over her head like a flock of startled starlings, impossible to grasp. After a while she went to find a plate of food and a chair and took her phone out to take pictures. A young woman in a two-piece navy suit came to sit beside her and Claire searched her brain for a name.

The woman took pity on her. “Laura. I’m Conor’s youngest sister. It’s so lovely to meet you. We were all surprised when he said he was bringing a date. You know, after–”

She stopped and seemed to realise she’d been indiscreet by the look of bewilderment on Claire’s face.

“After what?” Claire prompted.

Hesitant, but encouraged by Claire’s nodding, Laura said, “Well, you know, after his wife left him and went to America.”

She seemed to take Claire’s wide-eyed expression as interest, as she continued to talk, learning in towards Claire. “Everyone said they married too young. Not that I remember; I was only a child. They said she was only interested in being a director’s wife so when he refused to join the Board she found someone new.”

The room span around Claire as if she were drunk. It was worse than some lurid romance. The questions tumbled one over another and her face felt numb. She saw Laura look up guiltily and followed her gaze. Conor stood in front of them, but he didn’t look angry.

Reading his expression, Claire realised it was the whole reason they were there. Unable to tell her about his past himself, he’d let his baby sister do it. With her cheeks flaming and her hands in fists she stalked past him and left the room.

*

Claire sat in the dark hotel bar with her head in her hands. The ringing in her ears muffled all sound. In her mind she pictured a young Conor, hand in hand with a faceless beauty, wandering happily down the streets of Cobh. She found if she focussed on it, she couldn’t feel him sitting next to her, trying to explain: couldn’t hear his cherished voice trying to find justification where there wasn’t any.

“I’m sorry,” she heard him say for the fifth time, and ignored it with all the rest.

“It was stupid of me.”

When she didn’t respond he said in a louder voice, “Please, Claire, at least talk to me. Yes I was married, but it’s not important, it’s ancient history

“Then why not tell me yourself?” she hissed, conscious of the other people in twos and threes around them. The double gin she’d downed on arrival slurred her words and she regretted the need to drink it. It was hard enough figuring through the mess without muddled senses.

“What is it with you blokes and your secrets?” She spat, running her hands through her hair.

“Claire, I’m not a saint, I have a past, just as you do.”

“I’ve never been married.”

“What if you had? Would that change you as a person? There were no children.” He stopped and Claire wondered if that was a lie. She gave him a penetrating stare and he ducked his head. His words were mumbled but she heard them as if they’d been yelled.

“She said she was pregnant when she left, but that she lost the baby. We were divorced inside a year of signing the register.”

A baby, too.

The world lurched sideways. She tried to hold on to something. “You loved her,” she said, hearing the truth in his voice. “Laura pretty much said you’d been pining ever since.”

“Yes I loved her.” He emphasised the past tense. “And, no, I didn’t find anyone I liked half as much, or anyone I dared trust, until I met you.”

Claire thought of her doubts, of Maggie’s job proposal, and realised she had her own secrets. It wasn’t a comfortable thought. Now wasn’t the time to discuss it, but it did make her recall something else Laura had said. “And the Company? That you didn’t want to be a Director for?”

“The family business. Mum and Dad always hoped I’d take it on but it’s not my thing. I prefer something on a more personal level. A bit like you decided, when you turned down the counter proposal from AJC.”

“How did you know about that?” Claire glared at him, feeling wrong-footed by the revelation.

“Carl put something snide in the email when he sent your reference.” He looked at her as if to say, we all have secrets.

“That hardly compares,” she said, turning away from his green eyes.

“I didn’t say it did.” He sighed. “Please don’t be mad. I’m sorry; I made a mistake in not telling you myself. I just didn’t want anything to come up later that might break us. I couldn’t go through that again.”

She looked into his eyes, shining turquoise in the gloom, and felt the sincerity in his words. Reaching a decision, she took his hand. No more secrets.

“I might have a job in Cornwall after I finish your assignment. Nothing certain, but as we’re being honest, you probably should know.”

The pain welled in his eyes, turning green to black.

***

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

Can't beat the 80s rock vibe

Can’t beat the 80s rock vibe

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

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

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

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

Writing to an 80s groove with Ashes to Ashes

Writing to an 80s groove with Ashes to Ashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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.

***