Blog Post Revisited: Using Life’s What Ifs

My Three Darlings

My Three Darlings

I finally sent a complete draft of Class Act to my fabulous Beta Reader yesterday, and found myself at a loose end. I know it needs more work but, quite frankly, I’m sick of the sight of it and am starting to doubt whether it even works as a story. Time for a change.

I want to start something new, rather than working on one of the three or four half-finished manuscripts I have on my laptop, courtesy of years of NaNoWriMo. But I’m a bit all chick-litted out, after Two-Hundred Steps Home and working on Class Act. So I got to thinking about other ideas I’ve had, and I remembered the Middle Grade Novel idea I had nearly a year ago. This is a bit on how it started.

A few days after writing that post, I wrote the one below. A little insight into where some of my writing ideas come from.

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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.

Close Siblings

Close Siblings

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 a trend to premature babies could easily continue.

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 my son to have a play mate when my daughter 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 my eldest 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.

Advice For Writing and Life

This is what I want to do today

This is what I want to do today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right. Back to bed.

A Curious Novel

My latest read

My latest read

I finished reading The curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon last night and I really want to capture my thoughts on this interesting novel. I began reading it with no expectations. I’d heard of it, that’s all, when I saw it in the library. I had no notion of what it was about, or the author, or anything (including the fact that the title comes from a Sherlock Holmes quotation.) I merely selected it as part of my aim, this year, to read more and select a wider range of books.

I’m glad I did. It is a strange novel, about a fifteen-year-old boy with Aspergers Syndrome. I feel privileged to have read it. Yes, that’s my overwhelming impression. It wasn’t a rip-roaring read, a heart-warming romance, or an unputdownable thriller, but still it dragged me through to the end with little effort (which is a big ask of a book these days because I’m very quick to give up on something that doesn’t keep me awake!)

It is funny, quirky and endearing, but mostly it’s a clever book. Written in the first person, from inside the mind of an autistic teenager, it presents the world in a new way. It also gave me a new respect and understanding for autistic children and their parents. But not in a way that demanded sympathy or forced ideas on me.

Instead, through an evolving set of anecdotes and an unravelling mystery story, it revealed immense detail about the character, his family, his life and his interpretation of the world. Some of the apparently peripheral discussions, for example about God, or time, or the universe, were both enlightening and profound.

As a writer, the book is a master class in RUE (resist the urge to explain). The reader is left to put the pieces of the jigsaw together in a way that the main character often isn’t able to. And, despite it being written in the first person, an entire world is unveiled surrounding the main character. I can’t begin to explain how so much was revealed with so little being said (certainly not without giving away spoliers.)

I think the enjoyment came from this, though. The reason the novel kept me awake was because I was actively involved in constructing the text, fleshing out the story, connecting the dots. The same was true of The Raven Boys, now I come to think about it. I’m starting to think of it as the art of secrets. Not glaringly obvious secrets, of the kind I might clumsily put in a novel – like Josh’s big secret in Two-Hundred Steps Home, or why Claire broke up with Michael. But more a subtle revelation of the bigger picture, like panning out in a movie and seeing the full context.

It is a goal I intend to aim for in my own novels, although I know I’ve got years of practice ahead of me before I get there. I don’t think it’s something that can be taught, but something that has to be learned through hard effort. I suspect it will also require me to become more a planner than a pantser. My natural writing style is to reveal everything as soon as it occurs to me (I’d make a rotten poker player). Instead I need to play it more like chess. Think fifteen moves ahead, prepared to change my plans if necessary, but keeping the moves secret for the reader to discover at the best moment.

I feel like my daughter; only just learning to read but wanting to be able to read adult books. I’m only just learning to write and I want to be able to write like that. Now! Now! Now! *Pouts*. Time to read a few craft books, consume a stack of fantastic novels, dip into a load more blogs and, more importantly, practice, practice, practice. I can feel (another) rewrite of Class Act coming. Bring it on.

Self-Sabotage: 2013 365 Challenge #348

Origami Trees became giant snowflakes

Origami Trees became giant snowflakes

Why are Humans prone to self-sabotage? Or is it just me (and my husband!)? You know what I mean: picking at that dry skin on the edge of your nail, even though it’s going to hurt like anything and you KNOW it’s going to hurt.

Or being unable to sleep the night before an important meeting or exam, and staring at the ceiling stressing. Or (as was me this morning) waking up at 3.45am with a head buzzing with stuff and just not being able to get back to sleep. Even though both kids slept past 6am for the first time in weeks.

It always happens when I get anxious or overwhelmed and my brain is running at a hundred miles an hour in ten different directions. Christmas, Claire and now my car (which appears to be suffering from a terminal illness) are all taking up headspace. Little things like decorating a Christmas jumper for my daughter, or writing Christmas cards before the last posting date, run round in my head like escaped guinea pigs: irritating and hard to catch and cage.

So, on a day when I really needed to be productive, to write tomorrow’s post (we have hair cuts and birthday parties to fill our Saturday) I was utterly spaced, having finally crept downstairs at half five (desperately trying not to wake my daughter because I’d never live that down!) I tried to clear other irritants – messy house, buying final gifts – and hope that there would be time in the morning to get back to Claire and Conor, Kim and Helena.

My origami tree

My origami tree

But, again this morning, I was awake at 3.30am. Husband too. He went down to sleep on the sofa (although he didn’t sleep) and I lay in bed, with my brain like a toddler in a toy shop, running this way and that. Instead of trying to think through my next Claire post, my brain did this:

“I’d like some different lights in the garden this year. But I don’t want coloured lights as they won’t really go with our current white lights. A polar bear on the lawn would be fantastic. But they’re so expensive and I’ve already blown the budget this year. Oh yes, my step-dad’s brother made one out of willow. I could make one. I wonder where I could get some willow from.”

And before you know it, instead of writing posts or wrapping presents, I’m trying to work out how to make a bloomin’ polar bear. It happened with the Elf on the Shelf (after scouring the shops for two hours, instead of writing, and not finding an elf I thankfully gave up on that idea.)

And again, with my daughter’s Christmas party this week. I had agreed to print out some colouring sheets to keep the kids occupied. So, being the master of overkill, I had the bright idea of taking a craft activity for the older ones as well. A quick search of Pinterest revealed origami trees and before you could say “self-sabotage queen” I found myself spending an hour making trees, while my son watched TV, instead of doing something useful like cleaning. When we got to the party the trees were too hard to do, and they all became giant green snowflakes.

Production line making twelve trees

Production line making twelve trees

I’m like this all the time, particularly with writing projects. Signing up for a Children’s Book writing course, starting yet another NaNoWriMo novel, illustrating a book for my son, wanting to enter the Mslexia Chidlren’s Novel competition.

The daily blog has thankfully made most of these other ideas unworkable, but I dread to think what I’ll be like next year without it. There are just so many creative things I want to do, and tedious boring humdrum life gets in the way. To compensate, my brain seems to list all the possibilities and tell me they’re all doable. Now.

But, just like the toddler in the toy shop, more toys doesn’t mean more fun. There’s exponentially more pleasure to be had with one favourite toy, loved and cherished, than a room full of tat. (Which also puts pressure on my beleaguered brain to make sure my children get the perfect toys at Christmas, but that’s a whole other level of self-sabotage!) Just as there is exponentially more satisfaction (and use) in one finished project rather than fifty half done.

I don’t know what the answer is. If I had a boss it would be simple: I’d make them prioritise my to-do list and try to be good. Being my own boss? It comes down to a discipline I don’t have. And wanting to make polar bears. Sigh. Is it time for bed, yet?

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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 chewed her thumbnail and tried to concentrate on the screen in front of her. Attempting to write was proving futile, and she shut the laptop with a snap. Outside, the sun beamed down on the terrace and she let it lure her from the lounge. She felt fidgety and restless and longed to go down to the beach for a run.

After a blissful few days alone, wandering around the north coast of Devon, the weekend had finally arrived, bringing with it the anticipated arrival of her guests. Conor had texted to say he’d be there early evening. She hadn’t heard from Kim and her sister, but assumed they were due around the same time.

This is going to be a train wreck. What was I thinking? I should have gone to Kim’s house; at least I could have chatted with her mother or hidden in the garden. As their guest, I could do what I liked. Now they’re coming to see me, I’ll have to entertain them.

She leaned on the railing and looked out over Kipling Tor, shimmering blue in the hazy distance. If she left now, she could be walking up there in twenty minutes, enjoying the view of Lundy Island and the Bristol Channel. She’d done it at least once a day during her stay, and her feet could probably get there without her guidance.

Conor might just forgive me for not being here when he arrives, but somehow I doubt Kim will. She doesn’t seem to be in a forgiving mood these days.

Wishing she had a cool glass of gin and tonic in her hand, Claire perched on a seat and thought about her friendship with Kim. It wasn’t something she’d dwelt on before. It was a given, like having Ruth and Robert for siblings, or working at AJC. In the past few months all those things had shifted. Ruth and Robert weren’t the people she thought they were: her relationship with Ruth was much closer than it had been in years, while she wasn’t sure she’d cross the road to give Robert the time of day.

Where did that leave Kim? What did it mean to be friends, anyway, when you had known someone so long? Were they friends out of habit or to keep alive memories of childhood that only they shared. Until this year, they hadn’t been that close: catching up when Claire was in town, swapping stories of men and jobs while drinking a few bevvies.

Then Kim had got pregnant and everything had changed. Claire wondered if it was the first time Kim realised she didn’t have any close friends: only Jeff, and her fellow thespians.

A bit like me, really, discovering my work colleagues were more enemies than mates, and that Michael wanted some romanticised version of me.

She thought about the people she’d met during her travels: Josh, Maggie, Bethan. People she had little in common with, except the urge to be on the move. In her heart they felt more like friends than Kim did. The realisation hit her like a cold wave, and she gasped for air.

Her mouth felt dry as she realised she didn’t really want to be friends with Kim anymore. It felt like all give and no get. Kim needed her, she understood that. She’d had the most awful year; the ruckus at the wedding that Claire had inadvertently caused, losing the baby, depression and attempted suicide. Claire couldn’t leave her now but she didn’t know how to be the kind of friend Kim needed.

And what about me? I can’t talk about Conor; Kim sees it as some office fling. Maybe it is, but what if it isn’t. We’re not eighteen anymore. Claire rested her head against the railing and closed her eyes.

She started awake as something brushed her face. With hammering heart she opened her eyes, and saw Conor crouched next to her chair.

“Hello, sleepy head.” The smile he gave her made her catch her breath. She grinned back.

“Sorry, I must have nodded off. Have you been there long?”

He looked guilty. “A few minutes. You look adorable asleep, snuffling like a kitten.”

Blood rushed to Claire’s face and she covered her cheeks with her hands. “I was snoring? Really? God, I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay. I already know you snore.” He grinned and she took a playful swipe at his arm.

“I do not snore. Not like you do.”

They fell still, suddenly, and Conor leant forwards to kiss her. She let herself sink into the embrace and, for a moment, the hurried voices in her head fell mute.

“Aw, look at the lovers. Why don’t you guys get a room?” Kim’s voice cut through their embrace. Claire pulled away and Conor rose languidly to his feet.

“Hello, Kim, nice to see you again. You’re looking well.” Conor was at his urbane best, holding his hand out for Kim to shake. Claire was looking at Kim’s face and caught a flicker of a frown cross her features before she flashed her teeth and shook the outstretched hand.

“You’ve been busy since I met you last,” she said archly. Claire winced at the confrontational tone, wondering what Kim’s problem was. With a sick feeling in her stomach, she wondered if it was too late to run away.

“I don’t think you’ve met my sister, Helena,” Kim was saying. She turned and gestured for her sister to come forward.

Claire hadn’t seen Kim’s older sister in a long time, but she hadn’t changed. She was still tall and willowy, with long straight golden hair. The only difference was the round stomach stretching her designer top. With a demure smile and glowing skin, she looked like a model in a maternity magazine.

Poor Kim.

Claire’s irritation vanished as she realised how hard it must be for her friend. She’d always competed with her sister, who was the more financially successful and, some argued, the more attractive of the two. Now she was also the one who could carry a child, when Kim couldn’t.

While Conor chatted to Helena about Hong Kong and the journey down from her parents’ house, Claire sidled up to Kim and put her arm around her.

“How are you holding up?” she whispered.

“I haven’t murdered her in her sleep, if that’s what you mean.” Kim’s voice was somewhere between angry and rueful. Claire caught a glimmer of her old friend, the one she used to have fun with, before life became complicated.

“Look at it this way: she’ll have saggy boobs and stretch marks, and will look fifty by the time she’s thirty five.”

Kim giggled and put her arm around Claire, pulling her close. “Thanks, I needed that.”

***

Write Now, Write Naked: 2013 365 Challenge #330

The Inconvenient Urge

The Inconvenient Urge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thought Catalog Article

Thought Catalog Article

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

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

and

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

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

Write Naked

Write Naked

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

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

In the article, Sophie Novak says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

“You boys taking your Mum fishing?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

Bringing Scenes to Life: 2013 365 Challenge #325

Satellite view of St Mawes Castle

Satellite view of St Mawes Castle

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

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

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

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

A house Claire could buy in Cornwall

A house Claire could buy in Cornwall

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

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

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

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

Reviews on Tripadvisor

Reviews on Tripadvisor

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

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

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

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

Streetview of St Mawes car park

Streetview of St Mawes car park

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

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

Hostel Claire's in currently

Hostel Claire’s in currently

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the other one?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you checking up on me?”

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Damn him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, love’s sweet torment.”

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

Just what game is he playing?

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

***

Autumn Sun: 2013 365 Challenge #310

Sunlit walk

Sunlit walk

Back in the summer I did a freewrite on the season and had a vague idea of compiling a seasons thesaurus. Add it to the list of projects. Still, it doesn’t hurt to take some notice as the weather changes. Here are my thoughts on a sunny autumn day.

The wind chills my cheeks as I walk, but it’s refreshing after weeks spent indoors watching the rain. I feel like I’ve been breathing the same air for too long and my skin feels clogged.

The sun paints long shadows across the fields, as it drops to the horizon despite it only being mid-afternoon. Beneath my feet, soggy leaves lay scattered in a random pattern of yellow and brown. Those on the trees look tattered. Hanging on against the odds.

When the wind drops the sun brings warm memories of summer and hope for a swift return although autumn is only just here. Across the endless azure sky tufts of cloud are hurried like so many sheep before the biting wind. The wind whistles in my ears like the sound of rushing blood or an angry sea. It drags tears from my eyes and makes my nose run.

Autumn sun

Autumn sun

My shadow marches at my side, long and dark against the bare hedges. Muddy puddles make a playground for the dog and tractor wheels have dug deep furrows in the road.

The fields dance with short stems of green as a winter crop pokes optimistically about the earth. Seagulls searching for wormy treats swoop and dive over the green landlocked sea of soil.

As I walk beneath the trees the wind stops and I hear the bird song, adding welcome decoration to the endless green, blue and brown. The sun sparks a fire in my heart – so precious after weeks of rain and grey skies. I walk slowly to savour the warmth on my skin, feeling too hot and bundled in my thick coat.

Despite the cold cheeks and wind-battered face I am reluctant to return home. The house feels like a dark cave, gloomy and dead, with stale air and artificial light. Somewhere to hibernate like a hedgehog.

The dog brings me a muddy stick, and throws it playfully at my feet. She runs with glee through the mud as it squishes between her claws. My house won’t be clean again until spring

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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 gripped the rail with two hands as the spray from the sea glistened on the wood and made it slippery beneath her fingers. Her thighs burned from climbing the steep steps, but she refused to stop for a breather. If she looked around she might notice the steep drop down to the rocks below, visible beneath the white froth of the crashing waves.

Trust me to come on a windy day. I should have waited until it was calmer.

The manager at the hostel had said a visit to Tintagel castle would be all the more impressive against the backdrop of the rough sea. She’d failed to mention the perilous climb or the narrow stairway.

Claire pulled into the side to make way for an elderly couple, holding hands and giggling as they skipped down the steps like teenagers. Claire wondered what they found so funny.

At last she reached the castle, perched on the cliff top overlooking the sea.

How on earth did they build this, all the way up here? In the dark ages, with no equipment? Crazy.

With the wind threatening to drag her from the cliffs, Claire wandered around the ruined castle, trying to imagine what it must have been like when it was complete. The views stretched for miles, even on a blustery day, with the scudding clouds chasing each other across the sky.

Turning to see how far she had come, Claire held her breath at the sight of the castle walls, looking like piles of balanced stones or sand castles, climbing the steep rock face, with the tiny archway leading through to the endless steps back to the mainland. Overhead, seagulls screamed their defiance to the wind, swooping and diving in an endless dance.

With effort, Claire blocked out the sounds of the tourists, the giggling children, the frantic mothers, the bored teenagers up to mischief. She focussed on the cry of the birds and the howl of the wind and felt herself transported to another time.

Who knew all this beauty was here? So much history crammed into one place and I would never have come if it weren’t for this project.

For a moment all the fear and doubt seemed worthwhile. It seemed a shame to come back to the present and take notes for her report.

I have to remember I’m being paid to be here, I’m not on holiday.

With a sigh that was instantly whipped away from her mouth by the playful wind, Claire began her exploration of the site, taking notes of all the things people seemed to enjoy.

I wonder if the castle in Dorset is this impressive. What’s it called? Cough castle or something like that. I’d better look it up.

*

It was getting dark by the time Claire finished her tour of the island. She’d covered every element – from the gun house to Merlin’s Cave – and her legs throbbed while her mind swirled with the history and mythical stories she’d consumed.

Looking up at the castle from the café, it wasn’t hard to imagine Arthur and Guinevere standing in an open window holding hands, or cosying down on a rug in front of a roaring fire, while Lancelot stormed across the cliff tops in a jealous rage.

Blimey this place does bring out the romantic. What tosh.

She smiled at the thoughts, ignoring the prosaic part of her mind that told her it was all just legend anyway.

What difference does it make? Real historical figures are only as real as the representations of them, passed down through the centuries. Arthur and his missus are as real as any European king. Probably more so, seeing as we know more about him.

Trying to drag her mind back to her work, she wondered if there were any legendary characters lurking around Conor’s stomping ground that could be used to good effect in her report. It wouldn’t hurt to look like she’d done her homework.

Claire cupped her hands around her mug of coffee and let her mind drift, until the images of Arthur ravishing his queen morphed into Conor’s boyish face; his hair windswept and his green eyes full of love. With a quick shake of her head she dispelled the image.

He wouldn’t spend five minutes in a remote place like this. Not enough people.

She drained the last of her drink and headed back to the car.

***