Blank

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All the gear, no idea

For the first time in a very very long time I have (shhh) writer’s block.

Writer’s block doesn’t really exist: if you write every day, even if it’s rubbish, the ideas keep flowing and eventually a good story comes.

But I haven’t been writing every day. In fact I haven’t written something new since I penned a story for my niece back in April. I’ve either been editing existing works or doing other stuff. Knitting, gardening, moving all the downstairs furniture to make room for the decorators coming next Tuesday.

But it’s November. It’s Nanowrimo time. My audio-typing work is done, the children are back at school. I should be able to bang out a 50,000 word manuscript in four weeks. I’ve done nearly that much in four days before.

But the blank page is defeating me. Dog walking isn’t generating ideas like it should. My brain seems semi-comatose. I can’t even get the kids to give me ideas. My son wants a story about Ninjas or Minions, or he wants to write it with me (!), and my daughter isn’t interested in stories at all.

I even embraced technology, instead of giving in to my technophobia, and purchased a bluetooth keyboard to use with my super-duper new phone. That way I don’t even have to worry if the laptop has charge. But nope. Still nothing.

November is four days old already. Nano is happening all around me. I get the Cambridge Nano Facebook updates and people are hitting 10,000 words already. I haven’t done Nanowrimo for years, but I’ve not forgotten that it’s what got me writing novels in the first place.

But sometimes life conspires.

Actually I think partly what’s triggered it is the feedback I got from Mslexia after failing to make the longlist with Dragon Wraiths this time (it made it a few years ago). Their view was that too many stories start in predictable places: school, home. All my children’s books start in one of those two places. It’s hard to think of something else without plagiarising the fabulous books I’ve read or am reading.

Maybe I’m just trying too hard. When I started my first novel all those years ago, I proper-pantsed it. I had no idea, no character, nothing, just a free-write from a bunch of items on a table at college. Now, though, I know the hot mess I get into pantsing. I need to at least know my character, setting and end-goal.

At the moment I can’t even come up with one out of three! Nothing, zilch, nada.

I refuse to believe in Writer’s Block, but perhaps I can accept that everything has a season, and my season now is home-maker and knitter-extraordinaire.

That blank page still hurts though.

My Mini NaNoWriMo

Latest incarnation of Alfie

Latest incarnation of Alfie

I wasn’t going to do NaNoWriMo this year. I am desperately trying to get an entry together for the Chicken House/Times Children’s Fiction competition, so I’m all about the red pen, not the free-flowing first draft.

Except.

I gave the latest version of my Alfie Stanton manuscript to my husband, waiting for applause, or at least constructive feedback and got … Nothing.

The story is doomed. I started it two years ago, with a character called George. Resurrected it for Chicken House last year, but had the first chapter trashed by a children’s editor so shelved it and entered Dragon Wraiths instead. In fact, after being told by the editor that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be an author if I wouldn’t break my manuscript down to the smallest part, I nearly quit writing for good.

I don’t do ‘edit to death’. I find my work tends to get worse rather than better if I overthink it and let ‘analyst’ brain take the wheel. But anybody who’s anybody in the writing world will tell you to edit, edit, then edit some more. Even last year’s Chicken House winner gave that as her main piece of advice.

So this time I thought it was time to grow up and do it properly. I broke my manuscript down, looked at characters and themes, description, language, conflict. But mostly I got in a huge muddle and came to hate the story and everyone in it. The harder I tried, the flatter and duller my writing became.

It wasn’t a great surprise, then, when husband’s silence screamed, “this is shit!” although I thought it was just the first draft of anything that was meant to be that.

And do you know what, I think he’s probably right. By trying to be literary and funny and to incorporate all of Barry Cunningham’s advice, I broke my story.

What would once have killed me made me stronger. Seven days ago, I came up with a brand new character – Esmerelda Smudge. Six days ago I started writing, and two days ago I sent a 20,000-word lightly-edited brand new story to my (new) editor. 20k words in just over 4 days. That knocks the spots off NaNo.

Rough Cover

Rough Cover

Is it good enough to enter in the Chicken House competition? I’m not sure. I still think Alfie, for all his flaws, is more what they’re looking for, which is probably why I can’t quite get him right. My style has always been more mainstream than award-winning. But Esmerelda has a great story. I gave the first 14k words to hubbie to read, and he polished them off in an hour. Not that he’s the best judge, but at least he’s honest.

Maybe, instead of trying to follow all the advice, to force myself into a mold and mode of working that doesn’t fit, I should continue on my own deluded way. After all I wrote Two Hundred Steps Home that way and it’s proved popular. Dickens wrote in serial form – he can’t have analysed his story arc to death on every book.

And I do put in the work. When I’m drafting, my brain buzzes and sleep is scarce. I carry the story arc, character profiles, the motivation, the continuity and conflict and comedy, all around in my head and pour it into each chapter. But it’s written fast, with no time for fear. And, for me, it works.

Most of all, it produces books that I would choose to read. That at least is one piece of writing advice that I can follow!

 

Rather Prosaic Life Update

My submission pack

My submission pack

One of my regular blog followers/commenters, Hollis (thank you, Hollis!) suggested recently that my blog silence might be due to my being busy with the children or maybe even volunteering. I felt guilty, because my absence is due to nothing so altruistic.

I have been head-down this month, it’s true, but with the purely selfish motive of getting Dragon Wraiths ready for The Times/Chicken House children’s novel competition. The deadline is the end of October but, as it’s half term next week, I wisely posted my manuscript on Monday.

There’s nothing like printing off 265 pages of manuscript to make you realise you are a real author. Unfortunately I still struggle with cover letters and writing a synopsis. But it’s done. All I can do now is hope. My dream is to make top twenty. Fingers crossed.

Mohair Brooches

Mohair Brooches

It shows the cyclical nature of writing and trying to get published, as it was almost exactly two years ago that Dragon Wraiths (in it’s original format) was longlisted for the Mslexia competition and I was polishing final edits before posting the manuscript. Let’s hope it’s second time lucky.

I have also been knitting like a demon. I want to have enough things to run a stall at the children’s Christmas Fair, with little things at pocket money prices. So I’ve put cats, monkeys and dogs on hold, and I’m making mohair brooches with the gorgeous wool my mum gave me on my birthday. Great fun, if not great for the hands.

It’s been a creative month, all in all. I have taken up piano again, in an effort to get the children interested in music, and work is progressing on Finding Lucy. I solved my writer’s block by adding in two extra points of view, for the two lead males. I’m enjoying getting inside different heads.

I made the blue one!

I made the blue one!

It was also my daughter’s first Learning Conversation (parents’ evening) since starting school proper in September. She’s nicely middle of the road although I did have to confess to her teacher how hard I find it to not correct her spelling (they let them spell phonetically)!

And, of course, as November approaches, I have the annual NaNoWriMo dilemma. Finding Lucy started life in my first NaNoWriMo attempt, six years ago. But the only child I had then was growing in my tummy, not demanding my twenty-four hour attention.

Now November means half-term, early starts after the clocks go back and the terrors start getting up at 5am, and pitch-black school pick ups. Not really conducive to creativity for me.

So I think I’ll plod on with my WIP and let others with more energy sprint for the 50,000 word finish line! If you’re NaNoing this year, good luck!

My NaNo top tips are here.

Not NaNoing: 2013 365 Challenge #318

My bargain book! :)

My bargain book! 🙂

I decided, finally, not to do NaNoWriMo this year. Despite all my protestations that I had no intention of doing it, I think I secretly thought in the back of my mind that, if I could get a bit ahead with Two-Hundred Steps Home, I might try and tap out 20,000 words of something new.

I have so many ideas for projects – a sequel to Dragon Wraiths, maybe a sequel to Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes, definitely a follow-up to Two-Hundred Steps Home – that I wanted to get stuck in to one of them. I’m advertising that Class Act will be out next year, and a Dragon Wraiths sequel really would need to be too, and yet one is half done and the other not even started.

Now, though, at 14th November, I have to accept that it isn’t likely to happen. And I’m okay with that. I’m not even reading all the NaNo motivational emails, as I would normally do, because I spend my spare time (such as it is!) reading the brilliant blogs I follow. Or at least as many of them as I can get to.

Why not visit Miss Fanny P?

Why not visit Miss Fanny P?

I’m particularly enjoying Miss Fanny P. Actually, enjoying isn’t the word, because she had some sad news: I think maybe supporting is closer. She feels like a Blogsphere friend and I want to support her. The dozen or so blogs I read and comment on regularly all feel like friends that I make a point of visiting as often as I can, just as I would if they were real friends. It’s important.

So, I’m not really missing NaNo. I mostly have the ‘thrill’ of hitting deadlines and churning out words by keeping up with the daily blog and Two-Hundred Steps Home. Although THSH is usually only around 22,000 words a month, the daily blog probably adds another 10,000 to that, so I’m two thirds to a NaNo total every month already. (Today’s combined post, for example, is only around 100 words shy of the 1,667 daily NaNo target.)

About the only thing I’ve done to celebrate NaNoWriMo this year is drop the price of my books. Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes was written as a first draft during 2011 NaNoWriMo, so it feels right to promote it during November. It’s currently a steal, because Amazon have picked up on my Smashwords price drop and are offering it for the bargain price of 75p (or $1.20 in the US)! You can’t buy a newspaper for that. So, if you haven’t read it and fancy a bargain read, do grab a copy. If Amazon stop price-matching, go over to Smashwords. As it isn’t in KDP, it will never be free, so this is the best deal. Who knows, I might even get a review or two if the offer takes off! 🙂 It all helps motivate me to keep writing. Bring on NaNo 2014….

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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 swore as she found herself in the one way system for the third time. Yanking the steering wheel round, she crossed a lane of traffic amidst blaring horns, and swore again.

What possessed me to take the SatNav out of the car? If I’d still had the iPad I wouldn’t have needed to use the SatNav to plan today’s activities. Why is it everything I do makes my life more difficult.

She shook her head at her own stupidity, peering out the window at the sign posts as she drove around the town.

Come on, Claire, it’s a castle! How hard can it be to find? And where are all the signs? Normally you can’t get within five miles of a tourist attraction without a plethora of brown rectangles telling you which way to go.

Mentally adding ‘sign posts’ to her report topics for successful tourism, Claire took a deep breath and tried to get her temper under control. At last she spotted a sign up ahead pointing to the castle, and then there it was, about a hundred yards from the sign.

Better late than never, I suppose.

Claire parked the car and grimaced at the long walk up to the castle entrance, wondering if the maritime museum would have been a better choice. Even with the sun warming her skin and the cool sea breeze caressing her face she couldn’t seem to shake the grumpy mood hanging around like a bad smell.

Her frame of mind didn’t improve when she arrived at the castle and an eager gentlemen tried to convince her that £1050 for a lifetime membership of the English Heritage was good value for money.

Look, if I can’t afford a few hundred quid to replace my treasured tablet, I don’t think I’ll be splashing out that much on a stupid membership and, funnily enough, I can’t see Conor signing that one off on my expenses.

She looked around at some of the other people also being pushed into taking membership.

And if I was over sixty and you were still trying to charge me £750 for lifetime membership I might ask if that constituted a sound investment? Although most pensioners I know have more money than I do. Which, to be fair, isn’t hard.

Trying to quash her surliness, Claire smiled sweetly, declined the membership offer and paid the entrance fee. She baulked slightly at the cost of the guidebook, wondering why it couldn’t be included in the ticket price, and decided to go on the free tour instead.

She walked into the castle behind a group of giggling children whose parents were also muttering about the price of membership and the slightly aggressive sales pitch. Claire made a note to review membership deals as part of her report, then tried to approach the venue as a tourist.

The views were spectacular, every way she looked. It wasn’t hard to see why they’d built the castle there in the first place. There would be no sneaking up the coast to invade. Claire wandered through the exhibits, enjoying the waxwork people and booming sound effects that brought the castle to life.

The boys would love this, all the noise and guns. Maybe I’ll take them to the one on the other side of the estuary; clambering all over a place like this for a few hours might wear them out.

Thinking of things to do with her nephews lessened the fear a tiny bit and made her feel like she might cope during their two-week stay.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t rain. I wouldn’t want to be here in a downpour: there isn’t much cover between the buildings. I must remind Robert to pack waterproofs.

Then she remembered they would be leaving in the morning to catch their flight, and pulled her phone out to send a quick text message. There was an unopened text that must have arrived while she was inside the castle, surrounded by firing guns. It was from Conor.

No problem with the nephews, although your family and friends do seem to take you for granted. Lunch tomorrow then? I’ll find somewhere suitable. Conor

She stood staring at the message, trying to understand the tone. It sounded much friendlier than his recent emails, but it was hard to tell in such a short note. She frowned and went to drop her phone back in her bag, before remembering the message she needed to send her brother.

Robert, make sure the kids have clothing for a British summer – shorts and waterproofs, you know the deal. I have a lunchtime meeting with my boss, so will catch up with you after that. Are you staying the night? I’ll be in St Austell for lunch or at the Boswinger hostel after that. I’ve booked beds for the boys. Let me know, Claire.

She hit send, put her phone away, then headed to the roof to take some photographs for the blog and to clear her head.

As she stood on the roof, enjoying the panoramic view and trying not to get too close to the edge, Claire overheard a couple behind her in heated conversation.

“I tell you, it’s perfect. What better place to get married than in a real castle.” The girl sounded close to tears. “Just look at it, it will be amazing.”

“I know, darling, but we can’t afford it. Do you want to be broke and living at your parents’ house for years, just for one day?”

“Oh, you don’t understand.”

Claire heard running footsteps, followed by a loud sigh. She smiled wryly. It reminded her of a TV show she saw once, where someone explained to a perplexed groom that girls plan their ideal wedding day all their lives and it’s the groom’s job to catch up with the dream and run with it.

Not me. I don’t remember ever pretending to be a bride. Actually, I don’t remember what I wanted to be when I grew up, or what dreams I had.

The thought made her sad for some reason. Feeling as if clouds had swept over the brilliant sun, Claire turned away from the wall and headed back into the gloom of the castle.

***

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.

***

Tips for NaNoWriMo: 2013 365 Challenge #285

My NaNoWriMo Baby

My NaNoWriMo Baby

Okay, confession time: I’m going to steal most of today’s post, from myself!

With my sister and her family over at the moment, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to write my Claire installment and find something to say for this top part (unless you want to hear how totally cute my niece and nephew are!)

So, today’s thoughts originally appeared back in October 2012 in this post.

NaNoWriMo Thoughts

It’s almost that time of year again when people kiss goodbye to their families, put the takeaway numbers on speed dial, stock up on coffee and chocolate, and launch themselves into NaNoWriMo.

For those of you who have never heard of it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writers Month, and is about “Thirty days and nights of literary abandon” (or writing 50,000 words in the month of November, but that doesn’t sound as poetic or inspiring!)

Most of my novels started life in November. Two years ago, whilst also running my first solo art exhibition and looking after my two young children, I took part in my fourth NaNo and wrote the first fifty thousand words of what (eventually) became Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes.

There are thousands of posts written about NaNoWriMo every year (and chances are, if you’re not a writer or you’re not taking part, you’re a bit sick of hearing about NaNo already!) I’m not qualified to discuss how to plan your NaNoWriMo adventure so your first draft doesn’t become a hot mess. As a Pantser I don’t do much planning; although if I do find time to take part this year, I will definitely reread Jami’s post and take notes. It’s much easier to fix a first draft if it actually has a vague story or character arc to carry it through.

I guess everything to do with NaNoWriMo has been written about already, given what a phenomenon it is. However, for those that have no idea what NaNo is, or are contemplating trying it for the first time this year, I thought I would tap out my thoughts on how to get the most out of your thirty days.

My first NaNo novel (not yet finished)

My first NaNo novel (not yet finished)

My NaNoWriMo Top Tips:

1. Write something on Day One. Anything. Even if you’re a Pantser and your mind is blank, make up a character from five items in your work space and think of something awful that might be happening to them. The longer you leave it before getting words on the page the less likely you are to start at all.

2 Try and keep up with the word-count chart but don’t panic if you fall behind. Once you get some momentum you can do astounding things (I wrote something like 17k words in my last 36 hours last year.)

3. Do not re-read more than your last line (just to see where you got to) when you sit down to write. Even better, end your writing session with a couple of notes about what might happen next so you can start writing the minute you sit at your desk.

4. DO NOT EDIT. If you can handle it by all means leave spell check on and fix as you go. If that causes you to re-read, worry, and question the quality of your work, turn spell check off or – better still – write in Notepad or equivalent.

5. Engage with the community. Read some Facebook posts, follow on Twitter. If you can afford it, donate to NaNo and get all the motivational emails. They’re the reason I come back each year.

At the end of November you won’t have a finished novel. As most novels are nearer 100k than 50k you won’t even have a finished first draft. (If possible, carry on writing until you reach the end of your story, even if it means leaving out chunks to fill in later. If you don’t at least sketch out the ending while the NaNo momentum is carrying you, it’s much more likely to remain unfinished.).

Your fifty thousand words will represent an amazing achievement. Even if you bin half, or put the whole thing in a hidden folder on your computer, you will still have something to be proud of.

Before discovering NaNoWriMo I was convinced I couldn’t write a novel because I had no imagination. I was wrong. I may not have the sharpest literary mind in the world but I can spin a yarn. I’ve discovered I’m more Pantser than Plotter and my main weakness is generating conflict. I know I can write good dialogue and that I can churn out 50k words of reasonable first draft in 4 weeks, even when it isn’t November. Without my NaNo training I would never have survived so far in my daily novel-by-installments challenge this year. (Each monthly Two-Hundred Steps Home volume is a half-NaNo, and that doesn’t include the blog post words written each day).

I may not take part this year. Something has to give in my busy schedule. But I still want to hear about everyone else’s adventures, so please stop by and let me know how you’re getting on. If you’re still dithering about whether or not to sign up: do it. What have you got to lose? You never know what might happen. In a year or two you might be looking at your novel, there on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and get to say, “I wrote that.” It’s a great feeling.

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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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“So, ladies, where will you be off to in the morning?”

As Conor smiled at them, Claire noticed that the wary expression was beginning to leave his face when he looked at Kim. Since their first introduction, an hour or two before, he had acted as if her friend were a bomb about to explode.

Kim had said very little through dinner, although Claire was relieved to see her eat some of her food. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

She turned to Conor to answer his question. “I think we’ll aim for somewhere in Devon, tomorrow. The weather is meant to get better, and it would be a shame to spend too much time in the car. I thought we might head along the coast to Exeter: then I can get a feel for some of the local Dorset towns before we leave the county.”

Conor nodded, but Claire got the impression he wasn’t really listening. They hadn’t talked much about the job during dinner. It unnerved her. A job was meant to come with a contract and a start date and, most importantly, a sense of how much and when she would be paid.

As if reading her mind, Conor caught her eye. “As I said before, we can’t do much in the way of expenses, but you will be getting paid. As it’s on contract for six months, I can pay you weekly if that would help?”

Claire nodded, wondering if it was so obvious that she was completely skint. It was hard to read her new boss. Sometimes, such as during her travels when he texted her, he felt almost like a friend or a benevolent uncle. At other times, like this evening, he was every inch her boss; keeping his distance and maintaining a flow of polite, neutral conversation. It made her feel like an idiot.

Did I imagine the tone of friendship in his texts, or read more into them? And what about picking me up from the airport: what was that all about? What on earth is it going to be like, working for him every day?

She shivered. For the first time she felt a sense of apprehension. In some ways it was easier to manage a boss like Carl, who made it his mission to keep her on her toes. What did you do with someone who seemed like your friend one minute and your master the next?

Claire glanced at Kim, hoping to be able to pick her brains later, to see what she made of Conor. Kim had her hands wrapped around her mug of hot chocolate and was staring into the dark liquid as if it held the secrets of the future.

If only.

Noticing the darkening bags beneath her friend’s eyes, Claire decided it was time to head back to the B&B. She had hoped finally sitting down with Conor to discuss work would leave her feeling more settled and sure that she had made the right decision. Instead it felt similar to waiting in the aircraft, trying to anticipate when the man strapped to her back was going to jump out and drag her with him.

Maybe I shouldn’t have burned my bridges quite so emphatically with Carl. Perhaps they’re right when they say better the devil you know.

She looked up and caught Conor staring at her, his eyes glittering in the low light of the restaurant. Her mouth felt dry. Reaching for her drink, she nearly knocked it flying across the table. Glad for an excuse to look away, Claire tried to ignore the hot flush rising up her cheeks.

***

NaNoWriMo and The Stalking Muse: 2013 365 Challenge #277

To NaNo or not NaNo?

To NaNo or not NaNo?

Earlier in the week I wrote about the importance of writing even when your Muse is missing in action. Well, my darling muse seems to have come back from her spa break invigorated and enthused and is now stalking me, mostly in my dreams.

Twice this week I’ve woken out of an exhausting dream with a full-length story in my head. That has only happened once in my life before and resulted in me writing Dragon Wraiths. I’m grateful for the input but, really Muse, I don’t have the time to start two brand new novels just now. I think maybe my Muse knows NaNoWriMo, which I hadn’t intended to do this year, is just around the corner.

The first dream story was in the chick lit strain and all a bit predictable, to do with cheating fiances and manipulative best friends. I think there was even a gay friend: how many chick lit tropes can you get in one plot? Easy NaNo fodder, but likely to result in a lot of hard work to make it original.

Last night’s story, possibly as a result of being woken by my pumpkin son every hour, was a spectacular science fiction drama with explosions, space ships and more action than I could understand or describe this morning. I don’t have any intention of writing a science fiction novel – I struggled enough with the fantasy world building for Dragon Wraiths – but at 7am, if I could have done a ‘print screen’ on my mind, it would have been easy. Maybe reading Rinelle Grey’s blog, over on Coffee Time Romance, about writing scifi romance has rubbed off.

So, who is up for some NaNo this year? I have no idea how I will fit it in – I’m barely keeping up with the daily blog as it is. Not to mention how hard it would be to write two stories simultaneously. But I will have an extra few hours’ childcare, as our extra day comes into play at half term (the kids do more childcare in the winter to stop us all getting cabin fever) so it might just vaguely be possible. If only to keep my stalking muse quiet!

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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! What are you doing here?”

“Hi, Mum. Lovely to see you, too.” Claire dropped her bag at her feet and ignored the look of barely veiled horror on her mum’s face.

“And who is this?”

Her mother’s tone, a mixture of suspicion and approval, made Claire wince.

“This is Conor, he’s my new boss. He gave me a lift home from the airport.” She didn’t want to explain; to talk about Kim or her own dire finances or anything. She wanted to crawl into her own bed and sleep.

Raising weary eyes to her mother’s face, she released a sigh. “Can I stay? I know I haven’t given you notice. If you’ve got people visiting, I’ll sleep under the stairs. Or in the bath. I don’t really care. I can’t afford a hotel.”

Her mother looked over her head, presumably at Conor, and flushed. “Of course you can stay. You are always welcome. And does your friend want to stay too?”

Claire snorted at the blatant matchmaking, then flushed, worried that Conor would take it seriously.

“It’s grand of you to offer, Mrs Carleton, but I must be getting back. It’s a long journey I’ve got ahead of me.” He seemed to take it as his signal to leave. Walking forward, he turned to face Claire. “I’ll call you tomorrow, to discuss when you’ll be free to start work.”

Holding his hand out towards her mother, he said, “It was nice meeting you, Mrs Carleton. Bye Claire.” Nodding at them both, he turned and walked back down the path towards his car.

Claire felt as if a protective force had been taken away from her. Once he was in his car and driving down the street, her mother’s forced grin dropped from her face.

“What on Earth is going on? I don’t hear from you for weeks. Some men come and take away that rusty heap you left outside and now you’ve turned up out of the blue looking like death.”

“Can I come in, Mum? It’s a long story.”

Her mother stepped back to let Claire into the hallway, before closing the door behind her with a bang.  “And why did your boss pick you up from the airport? Are you sleeping with him? What happened to Michael?”

“Enough, already!” Claire’s voice came out louder than she intended and she heard her mother suck air in between her teeth.

“Sorry. I’m tired. I’ve been travelling for weeks, I haven’t slept for two days and I need a shower and some clean clothes. I’m sorry for not calling you first but I had– ” she hesitated, “–other things to deal with. I’ll explain it all tomorrow, okay?”

Without waiting for an answer, Claire picked up her rucksack and forced one foot in front of the other, along the hall and up the stairs. She reached her old room and paused in the doorway as she saw the suitcase by the bed, the perfume and make-up on the dressing table.

Claire walked numbly down the corridor to the spare room. With an in-held breath she pushed the door open, but the tiny room showed no evidence of being in use. Claire dropped her rucksack by the door, kicked off her shoes and crawled under the covers.

***

Not an Aspiring Writer: 2013 365 Challenge #234

Staycation chez Martin

Staycation chez Martin

One of the challenges I’ve discovered with being a self-published author, or I suppose a writer of any kind, is expecting others to see it as a real job. After all it doesn’t pay well (or at all), you have no one imposing deadlines but yourself, and you spend all day dividing your time between gazing out the window, researching random things (skydiving in New Zealand anyone?), designing the odd front cover or giveaway bookmark, and playing on social media.

It’s all work, it’s done with purpose, but compared to a teacher, doctor, project manager or business director, it’s all a bit nebulous.

A friend recently asked my husband, while they were at a kids party together, if I get paid for doing the blog. Tee hee wouldn’t that be nice? I think it was because I couldn’t join my baby group one day in the café as I was racing to get my post live by my 10am deadline (which I’m going to miss today, unfortunately, due to a bout of insomnia). I probably should have missed my post that day and joined them for coffee. But, to me, the self-imposed deadlines, the deliverables, the targets, are all very important. I need to feel like I have a job, a career, or the sacrifices I ask my family to make would not be worth it.

No, I’m not getting paid, but my friend did seven years of university training to be a doctor without getting paid. This is my post-grad creative writing degree taken at the university of life. I’ve never been more serious about a career before or enjoyed one as much.

My creative daughter

My creative daughter

I often read posts on Kristen Lamb’s blog about the importance of not calling yourself an aspiring writer, (her latest is Are You a “Real” Writer? Is This Even the Correct Question?) . I am a writer; a published author. My sales are no fewer than the vast majority of even traditionally published books, which apparently rarely exceed 100, and I don’t think I’ve sold any to friends and family, so they are all genuine sales. (In 2004 c.80% of books sold fewer than 100 copies: The Ugly Truth about Getting Your Book Published. These figures might be out of date but I have read a similar figure recently, just couldn’t find the source!)

In a week or two my second novel will officially go live, in print and e-book format. Then I’ll start on revising my third novel, Class Act. Maybe I will rough draft the sequel to Dragon Wraiths during November’s NaNoWriMo if there’s a scrap of spare capacity. I’ll churn out my 1500 words of blog post and Claire instalment every day, with a couple of pictures, and I’ll answer every comment. I’ll squeeze in some social media and read a dozen posts from my online community sometime during the week. It’s a 40-hour week that drains me and leaves me exhausted.

Despite all of this, I’m never asked about my ‘job’ as a writer by people I know. It’s not taken seriously as a career. Thankfully my husband believes in me, as do my online friends. That’s why I love my blog. The daily challenge is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. Every ‘like’, every ‘been there’ comment tells me I’m not crazy, tells me I belong somewhere, tells me I’m on the right path. I believe I’ll make an income one day, when I’ve written enough words, published enough books. I just have to keep working. I am a writer.

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

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Claire climbed down from the bus and wandered a short way into the bush. After five minutes the pain was too great and she looked around for somewhere to hide with her book for a while. Every part of her body ached, as if she had spent the day before stretched on a rack rather than hiking through volcano country. When the bus driver had told them the morning schedule was for a two-hour walk to see the waterfalls, she’d nearly turned round and gone back to bed.

And as for river-rafting this afternoon, I think I might just opt for the horse riding or discover a love of golf.

It was a satisfying ache; the pain of a body pushed to its limits. But without a hot bath to sooth the muscles, she felt like a wooden puppet every time she tried to walk. At the hostel, some of the other travellers had gone to a natural spring in the river, and raved about the novelty of sitting outside in the autumn while soaking in hot water. It had almost tempted her to go herself, but the thought of the walk put her off.

I miss my car.

Pushing the thought aside, Claire searched for her place in the paperback she’d picked up at the last hostel, and allowed herself to be transported to a different world.

The trill of her phone wrenched her back to reality. Assuming it was either a nasty message from Carl, or a random text from Conor, Claire was tempted to ignore it. Only the vague hope that it might be from Kim made her put down her book and find her phone. The message wasn’t from a number she knew, and she frowned as she opened it.

Hi Claire, long time no speak. I caught up on the blog recently and saw that you’re in my neck of the woods. Are you planning a trip over to Oz while you’re here? It would be great to catch up. Josh.

Claire read the message several times, until the words no longer made sense. Of course she’d thought about him, but she had put all thought of seeing him to one side. Fiona wouldn’t like it, and some scars were best left to heal before they were put under any stress. Would he think it rude, though, if she fobbed him off?

Claire rested her head against the tree and closed her eyes, trying to analyse her emotions. It seemed that every time men became involved in her life it became uncomfortable and complicated. Easier to push on with her travels and concentrate on the blog. And yet …Yet what?

It’s not like I have so many friends I can afford to lose one. What harm a quick visit?

In the end she settled for a non-committal answer, carefully worded to leave her an escape route.

Hi Josh, lovely to hear from you. Yes, I’m touring NZ at the moment: it was meant to be for a job, but that fell through. Now I’m here, though, I thought it worth gathering things for the blog. I’m on a Kiwi bus for the next few weeks. Budget willing, I can fly home via Oz. Will let you know. Cx

She hit send and tried to pick up the thread of her book, but the words kept dancing on the page. With a sigh, Claire packed it away and walked back to the bus.

***

Pantser and Proud: 2013 365 Challenge #202

Riding on the mini train today

Riding on the mini train today

One of the blogs I follow – Write on the world – had a post today about structure in novels. The author, Mandy Webster, referred to another post called How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending.

I was seduced.

I don’t have a huge problem wrapping up my stories: it’s the flabby beginning – drowning in back story – and the soggy middle that I struggle with. By the time I get to my climax and happy ever after I’ve hit my writing stride. However I know I don’t put enough conflict in my writing so I’m always eager to read about how it’s done.

When I read the post, however, I didn’t come away with a plan to write a killer ending so much as a view that Pantsers (those of us who write by the seat of our pants, rather than plan and outline) only write that way because we’re too lazy or stubborn to do otherwise. That may be true. It may be true for me. Particularly as I’m about to make excuses for why I write that way.

Like a million and one other people, I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I tried, as a teenager, and again in my twenties. I couldn’t get past the first page. Not for want of trying but for want of ideas. No matter how hard I tried to come up with a story, it just wouldn’t happen. It was all boring and predictable.

Grooming Elsie the Shetland pony

Grooming Elsie the Shetland pony

Years of academia has taught me how to plan. I can write an essay outline blindfolded. Well, probably not now, but then, easily. Even in exams I would structure essays rather than just writing whatever came into my desperate brain. I’d been taught how to do it and I did it, and did it well.

With fiction, though, it wasn’t until I turned off that left brain thinking, put my editor in a box with some chocolate and told her to stay there for a while, that anything came. It was a freewrite during my OU creative writing class that sparked my first (and still my favourite) protagonist, Lucy. Nanowrimo came shortly after and Finding Lucy flew from my fingers. I couldn’t stop to think.

As a result I still don’t know how the novel ends. I’m looking forward to finding out, when I finally finish it. I genuinely don’t know which of the two male protagonists, if either, she’ll choose. I don’t entirely know the big secret her gran was hiding, though I have my suspicions. As a result, I don’t over explain or drop massive hints. No need to write RUE over this manuscript – even I don’t know what’s going on. But that’s what’s exciting. I write to find out. If I knew beforehand, I’d be bored and so would the reader.

My Pantser writing has come out most in Two-Hundred Steps Home. For example I don’t yet know what job Claire’s being interviewed for today. When I’ve figured it out you’ll be the first to know (hopefully by 10am!)

The problem, of course, as the author of How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending explains, is that:

“If you engage in story planning through a series of drafts, rather than an outline, you’ll need to write enough drafts to finally understand what Part 4 [the killer ending] should be. Same process, different tolerances for pain.

But there’s risk in that. If you are a drafter instead of a blueprinter (notice I didn’t say outliner—that’s a different process yet, one of several viable ways to plan a story), the likelihood of you settling for mediocrity is orders of magnitude greater. The prospect of rewriting the first 300 pages does that to a writer.”

Model boats at the farm

Model boats at the farm

So if you don’t write to a structure, one of two things happens. You have to do a LOT of rewriting or (more likely) you end up with a mediocre novel because, quite frankly, who wants to rewrite 300 pages. Not me. However, he goes on to say:

“Make no mistake, a rewrite is always a corrective measure. Nothing to brag about”

I’m not sure I agree with that. Redrafting is still writing. Not something to brag about, but something that is necessary for most of us.

As I suggested in my comment on the original blog (it’s probably as well I couldn’t comment on the killer ending one as I’d have embarrassed myself!) I hope that, one day, I’ll understand structure, conflict and stakes as well as I once understood writing a good essay. Maybe one day I will be able to outline without killing my muse, or maybe the blueprint for structure will be in my subconscious and will come out in my right brain first drafts. Either that or I’ll have to be able to afford a damn good editor!

Here’s hoping.

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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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“Do come in, Miss Carleton, sorry to have kept you waiting.”

Claire looked up at the careworn woman holding open the door and felt her palms prickle with sweat. Reaching for her bag, she headed towards the room, nearly tripping over a low table lurking unnoticed in front of the uncomfortable fake-leather sofa she had been perched on for forty minutes.

With a wobbly smile in greeting, Claire followed the woman into the room. She let her gaze take in the full horror awaiting her, and had to mask a sharp intake of breath with a cough. A pungent cloud of aftershave caught at the back of her throat and the cough became genuine. It was several moments before she could stop.

“Would you like some water? I apologise for not bringing you tea or coffee while you were waiting; I’m afraid we’re a bit short staffed at the moment.”

Short staffed? There are enough people here to play doubles tennis and have an umpire.

Claire turned away from the row of blank-faced men and nodded at the woman who had ushered her in. She wondered if she was the secretary, then admonished herself for the sexist thought.

Sipping gratefully at the water, Claire allowed herself two or three deep breaths to calm her agitation.

Come on, it isn’t the first time you’ve had to present to a gaggle of stern suits who last smiled in 1962.

The words were no comfort. Yes, she’d given presentations before, but not in an interview about something she knew nothing about.

“Please take a seat.”

The low voice issued from the second man from the left. He gestured at a single plastic chair, facing the long desk and the seated men. It felt more like a court hearing than a job interview.

Forcing herself to walk slowly, Claire crossed the room and sat in the chair. There was a small table for her water but, as it was at elbow height, Claire viewed it suspiciously. Placing her glass as far away as possible, she retrieved her notes from her bag and rested them on her lap.

Eventually, hoping her make-up hid the worst of the panic, Claire raised her eyes to face her interrogators. No wonder the last interview over-ran. How can you learn anything with five people asking questions?

She glanced at the woman who had shown her in, hoping for some female support, and realised her first assumption about her role was the right one. So, five stiff suits and a secretary. And they want me to work for them? I don’t think so, somehow.

Except she didn’t have the luxury of walking back out, head held high. Not since resigning from her job at AJC. Stupid girl.

“Good afternoon, Miss Carleton. Thank you for joining us. I understand you are here for the role of marketing director?”

No, I’m your stripagram. Biting back the retort, Claire nodded.

The man addressing her was in the centre of the five, and she guessed he must be the boss. Grey streaks speckled his short black hair, and her first impression was that he was in his fifties. His face was unlined, however, and something about his demeanour suggested to Claire that he was ten or twenty years younger than that. He oozed presence.

With a shiver she dragged her eyes away from him and tried to differentiate the other men. It wasn’t easy. They all wore dark suits, some grey, some navy. The man second from the left, who had asked her to take a seat, wore a pink shirt.

He was the only one who looked under 35. Claire guessed he was her age, maybe even younger, although with men it was hard to tell. As she gazed at him, he flicked his eyelid in the merest hint of a wink, and Claire felt the warm flood of gratitude spread through her limbs.

An ally. Thank god.

“In your own time, please present to the group your vision of the future for Isle of Purbeck Tourism, and the unique elements you will bring to the role.”

Claire wrenched her gaze back to the man in the centre, who she was fast thinking of as Mr Mean. He hadn’t even introduced himself or his colleagues. How could she present to the faceless five, without knowing their roles in the organisation?

Fear ran through her limbs, until it met rage bubbling the other way. No. I won’t. I won’t sit here and be humiliated by yet another self-satisfied stuffed suit who thinks he can treat me like crap because I’m a woman.

Sitting up straighter in her chair, Claire fixed her gaze on the dark eyes four feet in front of her. “Of course, it will be my pleasure. I wonder if, first, I could know whom I am addressing? It is easier to present when one knows one’s audience, I find.”

Where did that posh plummy accent come from? Behind her mask, Claire quailed, waiting for annihilation. It didn’t come.

Flicking her gaze at the man she’d dubbed Mr Cheeky, she saw a twitch at the corner of his mouth. Realising he was trying hard not to laugh, Claire exhaled through her nose, releasing the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding. She felt her own lips twitch in response, and dragged her eyes away to gauge the reaction from the rest of the group.

The two men to the right of Mr Mean looked bored. Finance and maybe IT she decided, assuming a tourist company had an IT Department. Her expectation for the interview had been a quiet chat with some lovely harassed woman who needed an extra pair of hands. In her scariest nightmares she couldn’t have imagined that the people in charge of tourism could be so humourless.

The last person, to the left of Mr Cheeky, was taking notes, alongside the secretary. HR, definitely. Strange to have a bloke. HR personnel are usually women. What a boys club. Oh well, New Zealand it is then.

She heard Mr Mean clear his throat and was gratified to see a faint blush of embarrassment. Is he bothered because I’ve pulled him up for being rude, or because he just got outplayed by a woman? Honestly, guys, this is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth.

With the knowledge that she definitely wasn’t going to be given this job, Claire sat back in her seat and prepared to have some fun.

***

Stealing Memories: 2013 365 Challenge #132

Dad in Mount Vernon receiving chemo

Dad in Mount Vernon receiving chemo

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

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

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

My Dad how I like to remember him

My Dad how I like to remember him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***