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.

***

Difficult Decisions: 2013 365 Challenge #313

A plethora of school options

A plethora of school options

I’ve been awake since 5.30am, thinking.

It happens sometimes (especially after the clocks have gone back, and the children’s body clocks are still adjusting). Today, though, I’ve been worrying about schools again. This is a frequent topic on this blog, as regular followers will know.

We are in the (possibly) fortunate position that there are over fifty good schools in a twenty mile radius of our house, all offering different things. We thought long and hard before choosing the school our daughter goes to, and mostly we’ve been happy with our choice.

Our problem, though, is that she isn’t happy. The friendships we thought made the school an obvious choice are proving to be a double-edged sword. Previous relationships are making it hard for her to forge new friendships and people she’s known all her life are behaving differently in the new environment. She’ll be fine, but it is a worry when she complains she’s ill and doesn’t want to go to school. No parent wants that.

My anxiety has been exacerbated by having the first preschool parent evening for my son last night. It wasn’t bad, but it was a completely different experience to the ones we used to get with our daughter. I think that’s actually part of the problem. Our son’s preschool teacher kept comparing him to his sister: saying that, unlike her, he is easily led into trouble and needs a firm hand to keep him behaving.

Green spaces essential

Green spaces essential

Some of that is boys vs girls, I guess. Some of it is because he’s a second child and is used to following the stronger person (usually his sister) into doing things. I can mostly trust her not to lead him into things he shouldn’t do, but unfortunately a pack of three-year-old boys don’t have the same discretion.

Even though our son doesn’t start school for two years, I can already envision the walk of shame, when the Reception teacher walks out to the parent at home time to ‘have a chat’. I’ve seen it happen to others and I don’t want it to be me.

I understand more and more why my sister moved her family to America so she could send her children to a specific school there whose ethos she completely buys in to. I don’t have such strong views, unfortunately. I want a good education for my children, but I also want them to have the freedom to be children: to get mucky and run around screaming and play sports and have new experiences. My son is also complaining about being bored at preschool. In the winter they spend most of the day indoors in a small room, with an equal mix of boys and girls. I know without seeing that he spends the whole day being told to stop running, calm down, behave (I know because I say the same at home).

What’s the answer? Right now I feel I’d have to start my own school to get anything close to the balance I want: the right mix of learning and lessons and free-flow play. My school would have a giant atrium in the middle of the school with leaves and trees and places to curl up with a book. There would be a trampoline for boys to go and work out their energy when they’re antsy. There would be plentiful healthy food and an outdoor classroom and loads of switched-on teachers (male and female) completely enthusiastic about their subject, but fewer tests and worries about passing exams. Ah, utopia how we dream of 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 tapped her foot and tried not to swear in irritation. The queue inched forward as young children ran around between the legs of grumpy grownups, yelling and screaming. Next to Claire a harassed mother tried to keep her twins in line, while balancing a baby on her hip. As the time ticked by, Claire felt her sympathy going out to the woman as the baby began to grizzle and the twins threatened to knock the waiting tourists over like skittles.

“This is ridiculous,” she muttered eventually, unable to contain her frustration. “It’s not even the weekend.”

“You should see it in the school holidays!”

Claire turned and saw a rueful pair of brown eyes smiling at her. She smiled back at the grey haired lady standing behind her, holding the hand of a bored-looking child. “I came with all the grandchildren, once, because they put on extra activities at half term. But, oh my goodness that was a trial. We were in the queue for over an hour: the little ones were ready to burst by the time we got in.”

“What’s causing the delay?” Claire peered over the heads of the milling crowd but couldn’t see the hold-up.

“Gift Aid,” the woman sighed. “If you’re a tax payer they can claim gift aid, but they have to get your address details from you. Even those with pre-bought tickets don’t get in any quicker. It’s a farce.”

Claire’s irritation evaporated as she realised she’d been handed something concrete to put into her report. She’d done the gift aid thing before, when she’d visited attractions with Sky earlier in the year, and she remembered it did take ages. Surely there could be a better way to claim the money back. Maybe some kind of national gift aid scheme, where you got a card from the government that could be scanned.

The time passed quickly as Claire followed the shuffling feet, her brain whirring with ideas. At last it was her turn and she monitored the procedure carefully, itching to make notes about it as soon as she could find a quiet corner to write into her phone.

All work ideas evaporated as Claire entered the site. She hadn’t really known what to expect. Although she knew the project was about education – about showing the world the importance of plants – she hadn’t appreciated just how big the place was, or that half of it was outside.

A little blue train trundled past and Claire went to get on board. It seemed the easiest way to get a feel for the place, as well as giving her a chance to take some notes. After a short time, however, she got off. The alien domes called to her and she couldn’t wait to get indoors and see what the fuss was about.

Claire entered the Mediterranean biome and her heart sank. Craning her neck, she gazed up at the sunlit hexagons snaking overhead. The structure was impressive, but all she could hear were the noises of the busy pizza restaurant in the centre.

She wandered along the walkways, where endless beds of vibrant flowers filled the air with clashing scents and painted the floor with rows of bright colour. Dotted among the plants were sculptures and displays, like a living museum, while all around there were people chattering and calling to each other.

With her critical head on, Claire couldn’t see much evidence of education. There didn’t seem to be that many signs or displays, although she decided that might have been because they would detract from the view of the plants.

After a while she decided to head for the rainforest biome instead. It was the one everyone thought of when they planned a visit, and she hoped maybe the magic was hiding there.

The heat and humidity hit her as she entered. Despite its size it was still a greenhouse. She could see mist rising above the trees, almost like real clouds indoors. The sound of rushing water pulled at her, until she reached a waterfall stretching high above her. Making an effort to block out the busy tourist sounds, Claire could almost imagine herself back in the New Zealand bush. It was breath-taking.

*

The wooden walkway curled through the trees high above the people. Claire had retreated up to escape the bustle. She’d contemplated climbing up to the roof platform, despite the height, and was a little disappointed to discover it was closed due to the heat.

Probably just as well. Knowing my luck I would have got dizzy and fallen down the steps, knocking out half the visitors at the same time.

Claire stood leaning on the rail, taking in the beauty beneath her. It was hard to believe the place used to be an old clay pit. It was amazing what could be created with some vision and a lot of effort.

What a shame the experience is spoiled by the shambolic entrance and the tourist traps every five minutes. Do they really need stalls and restaurants and an ice rink? What does that teach the children about the world? That there’s commercialism everywhere? That trees alone aren’t entertainment enough?

Her mind full of profound thoughts, Claire stood and let the view sink in.

***