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

Lessons to be Learned

Lessons to be Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bollocks. Everyone has a choice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Panning for Gold: 2013 365 Challenge #112

Panning for Gold in New Zealand

Panning for Gold in New Zealand

We’ve had a great family Sunday today, taking the kids for a proper pub meal out in the sunshine before going to buy play sand at a DIY store. That’s what Sunday’s are all about.

I also spent a chunk of time in bed reading The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett because I’m still wiped. When I wasn’t reading I was sifting through my brain to locate ideas for my new novel.

I tried to explain the process to my husband and I decided it’s a bit like panning for gold. I throw a load of ideas, some mine, some influenced by books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, into a big pan in my mind. Then I sift and sift until something sparkles. I know it’s a nugget because my heart starts to beat a bit quicker and I feel super awake, no matter how tired I am.

The thing I find hardest, however, is sifting out the real gold from the stuff that has been planted there. When we did Gold Panning in New Zealand on our honeymoon there was a vague chance of real gold, but the tour guides also put a tiny nugget in for us to find too. When I’m tilting and tipping for ideas sometimes the nuggets I find have come from another author.

There's gold in them there hills

There’s gold in them there hills

I never plagiarise deliberately, but I read a lot and I read within the genres I like to write. So ideas come that I think are mine, and as I look at them from all sides I realise they seem familiar. My question then is always, how much can you borrow before it becomes plagiarism? There are no new ideas in writing: there’s only so much you can do with 26 letters after all.

Today’s nugget involved my protagonist using books written by his father to investigate a strange place (I don’t want to give too much away as I haven’t actually written anything down yet!). Seemed like a new idea until I remembered Shadow Forest, where the children use a book to negotiate the monsters hidden in the forest. Now, is that close enough that I’ve stolen the idea from Matt Haig? Or is it far enough away that I can use it in my story?

When I wrote academic papers during my degrees I would cite references for everything because I was terrified of plagiarism. If only you could do that for novels: I didn’t mean to steal this idea but it was just SO good it sunk into my subconscious and came out as I wrote. Worst still is what happened to me in my dissertation: you write the whole thing and then you read a paper that has all the same arguments. I read a novel after writing Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes that had a very similar beginning. It looks like I’ve stolen my entire first chapter, even though I wrote mine first.

Does anyone else ever worry about inadvertently stealing stuff from other authors? How do you tackle it?


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:


“Hey Claire, how’s tricks?”

“Kim! You read my mind. I’ve been meaning to call.” Claire tucked her feet under the duvet and curled up round the phone, prepared to enjoy a good gossip with her best friend.

“I should think so, you old trout. I haven’t heard from you in a month. I have to read your blog to find out more about your Aussie fella and getting mugged. What happened to ringing your mate?”

Claire flushed hot and glanced down to where Sky lay sleeping next to her on the bed, glad her niece couldn’t witness her embarrassment. “I’m so sorry. I feel like I’m living in a bubble. It’s easy to forget there’s a real world going on away from these infernal hostels.”

“So, you’re not really enjoying your challenge? The blog’s great. I’d love to meet your Aussie friend. He sounds yummy.”

“You’d have to go a long way to do that. He’s flying home with his wife and kids any day now.” Claire swallowed hard and hoped Kim wouldn’t detect the wobble in her voice.

“Oh dear. You fell for a married man, didn’t you?” Kim’s voice was a perfect blend of sympathy and censure.

“I didn’t know he was married when I met him.” Claire spoke without thinking, before realising her hot words amounted to an admission of guilt. Not wanting to analyse the emotions pumping through her chest, Claire sought to change the subject.

“I’ve got my niece with me at the minute.” Sky stirred beneath the covers and Claire lowered her voice, not wanting to wake her. “I’m looking after her for the Easter holidays.”

“Oh.” There was silence.

“What is it Kim?” Silence was not a normal state of affairs when Kim was on the phone. Normally the challenge was squeezing a word in sideways.

“Jeff and I were thinking of coming to see you, that’s all. From the blog we gather you’re in East Anglia still. Be nice to have a day or two away. The rehearsals are fun, but a girl can only be Puck for so long.”

Her voice was light, but Claire could tell her friend was unhappy. “When’s opening night? I hope I’ll be able to come and see you perform.”

“Oh, not for a few weeks. Yes, do come.” There was still a chill. Part of Claire felt irritated. It’s not like Kim and I are the kind of friends who call every week. She wondered if there was another reason for her friend’s call, but a day spent with Sky had left her drained of all energy and emotion and she didn’t have the strength to delve behind Kim’s words.

“So, when are you and Jeff thinking of coming? We’re in Wells at the moment but we’ll be in Hunstanton for the weekend.”

“Sunny Hunny. Lovely. Why don’t we come and stay there? If we can’t get into the hostel we’ll book a B&B.”

“Are you sure you and Jeff are up to socialising with a six-year-old?” Claire realised how ungrateful that sounded. “Not that I won’t be delighted to see you both. It’s just she’s, well, quite full on.”

Another silence drenched the line. Claire’s tired brain tried to pick through the possibilities; for once her radar concerning her friend felt way off beam.

“That’s fine. Jeff likes kids.” Kim’s voice sounded strained. Claire wondered if her friend had guessed the cause of her own break up with Michael. That must be it. She doesn’t want to talk about kids and relationships because she knows it broke mine.

“Okay then, hun. Send me an email or text once you know what your plans are. If Jeff loves kids he can entertain Sky while we have a proper natter.”

“Thanks. I’d like that.”

As she hung up the phone Claire couldn’t shake the feeling that Kim was holding back. I’m probably imagining it. I’m so tired nothing makes sense anymore and I’m jumping at shadows. Nothing bothers Kim; she’s indestructible. She tried to think it through but her eyes refused to stay open. Even though the iPad cheerfully informed her it was only 9pm she ignored it, glad none of her erstwhile colleagues could see her hitting the sack when they were probably only just leaving the office and heading for the bar.

I’d take twelve hours of Boardroom bullying and office shenanigans over keeping up with a six-year-old any day.