Sticky June: 2013 365 Challenge #173

Summer skies

Summer skies

Trying to write my Claire post today, it was hard to remember what the weather was like back in April.

It’s hot and humid here, with a promise of summer storms. I thought; What I need is a seasons dictionary, like the emotion thesaurus. So today’s post is dedicated to a freewrite on June in all its sticky glory. It is the summer equinox after all.

By the way, I reserve my copyright to the idea of a seasons dictionary, if it doesn’t exist already! Ha ha.

Seasons. June

Sticky with life, the hedgerows spill over with nettles and cow parsley, messy and exuberant. Yellow oil seed rape paints every field in luminous colour. The sky, high and hot, is the hue of murky water after a watercolour is finished. Clouds promise rain. Bees buzz in a range of pitches, their busy sound adding to the heat and exhaustion. Trees heavy with leaves, their glory days of spring colour over.

A sense of waiting. Waiting for the storm, humidity rising. Sticky sweat trickling down into the bra and between the shoulder blades. Children hot and cranky or laughing too loudly as they run through the fountains or play in the water.

Dog pants, running slow and heavy-footed. Pheasants call their two-noted cry in the distance while, nearby, the intermittent song of the sparrow, blackbird and thrush fills the silence. The brash beep beep of a reversing tractor cuts through the peace, a reminder that, somewhere, despite the heat, people are working hard. Flies swim and swoop in the heavy air, irritating the skin and blocking the way.

The ground is hard beneath my boots, waiting for the rain. My steps startle a bird and it flies abruptly from the undergrowth, the wing-beats quick and loud in the air. Sheep sit motionless, even their short shorn locks too hot for comfort.

Trees heavy with leaves

Trees heavy with leaves

Everywhere abundant life, busy and quiet, eager and waiting, living, growing. Winter a distant memory, but an ever present threat. Grow, now, while there’s sunlight, warmth and water. Grow and keep growing.

The pods hang on the oil seed rape plants. Soon the flowers will blacken and die. The plants will die and yield their crop. The corn is still green. Farmers hope for a better harvest. One not drowned by relentless rain. Thinking the words seems to bring the promised downpour. Heavy drops splat into dry soil & sizzle on hot skin. One drop, two.

Footsteps quicken, heading for home and shelter. The dog wants to stay in the river, in the cool. Home now. Your coat is waterproof, mine is not. That smell of rain, wet dust and the scent of flowers as the drops release their fragrance. A breeze comes with the rain, cooling sticky skin. The rain is fresh. Footsteps slow. Let it rain.

Remember the washing on the line and speed up again.

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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 drove past the sign and smiled. “At last, I’ve left the country! What a shame it’s only the border from England to Wales, rather than, say, France into Spain.”

The small sign with the red dragon was the only way Claire knew she had crossed into Wales. The road wound on ahead of her, just the same as she had been driving on since leaving the hostel. Welsh countryside stretched around her in a myriad of green hues. Her destination was Brecon, the namesake town of the Brecon Beacons that nestled at their foot. Claire had skimmed through the town’s website before leaving Kington, and had decided it would be the perfect place for lunch.

Before long, Claire could see the spire of the Norman Cathedral heralding her approach into town. She checked her phone: There was just time for a wander before her appointment at the Llangorse Activity Centre.

Claire experimented with the unfamiliar Welsh word, putting her tongue to the roof of her mouth in an attempt to repeat the clu of the Ll sound. After three or four attempts she decided to make sure there was no need to ask for directions.

Gazing around her at the pretty shop fronts and historic buildings that made up Brecon, Claire realised she was trying not to dwell on her afternoon activity.

Come on, Claire, don’t be such a baby. You’ve done this a few times now. It keeps the lovely Jules off your back and provides plenty for the blog in the way of high-adrenalin activity.

She shivered and felt an ache in her tummy, a sensation she realised brought with it a memory of Josh.

*

Claire closed her eyes, clenched her jaw, and stepped forwards.

“That’s it, Claire. Well done. Try opening your eyes, the view is amazing.” The deep voice ended in a chuckle, as Claire’s face remained scrunched up.

Wind whistled past her face, brushing tendrils of hair away from her sweaty brow. Prising open one eyelid a fraction, Claire looked ahead. Some way beneath her, approaching fast, was a wooden platform with several people standing on it. Behind it she could see the blur of blue that indicated the presence of the lake, and two more wires zagging off to the right and down the hill.

Blood pumped in her ears, blocking out the whoosh of the wind and the cheers of encouragement from below. Despite her closed lids, perhaps through a change in the air, Claire sensed something looming up ahead. Before she could open her eyes, tree branches surrounded her face and she slid to a halt. Hands reached out to unclip her from the wire, before leading her forwards to clip her onto the next one.

Not again. Claire had done one zip wire before, as part of the Tree Trek. One was a challenge, for someone terrified of heights.

“How many have I got left to do?” Claire could hear the wobble in her voice. Get a grip, girl.

“You’re on your third, so you’ve still got a dozen left. Awesome, right?” Claire felt the enthusiasm emanating from the guide in waves, and resisted the urge to push him off the platform to the ground 20 feet below.

Swallowing the metallic taste in her mouth, Claire nodded feebly and managed one more nod when the guide gave the signal to ask if she was ready to go again.

Yes, go on, get it over with.

Scrunching her eyes shut once more, Claire felt the platform fall away behind her, and let gravity do the rest.

***

Using the Senses: 2013 365 Challenge #143

The fields of oil seed rape

The fields of oil seed rape

Good writing is all about recreating a sensation for the reader: an emotion, an experience, a place. To do this we are taught to use all the senses; to show rather than tell. It’s probably one of the hardest parts of writing to do well. I know it’s not one of my strengths.

I do try to include smells and sounds as naturally as possible but it tends to be an element added in a later draft rather than intrinsically there from the beginning. Which is odd because I do live in all my senses. I’m very sensitive to sounds and smells. A piece of music, bird song. Even the dog that’s been yapping at the vacuum cleaner next door all morning, these all create the mood of my day.

As I write this I’m walking through a field of oil seed rape, a plant that gives off a very strong smell. One with equally powerful memories for me. I am instantly transported to my childhood, around ten or eleven, when I would run through the fields with my two best friends at the time – both boys, not that it mattered at that age. We ran free and hid in the fields, racing along the tractor lines between the tall yellow plants.

Even though I smell the darn stuff every year, and have developed an allergy to it in later life so that it makes my eyes itch, the memory that sticks is that one from 25 years ago. Year after year, the smell of the crop reinforces that memory.

I guess the problem with trying to introduce that effect into my writing is that smells always seem to take me off on a tangent, to a memory that bears no relation to my current situation. Still, it would probably be good to dig out some of my old writing exercises on the senses and have a refresher. Find some better way to invoke the senses than endlessly writing about thudding hearts and the smell of aftershave.

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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 watched the sensuous lips moving, aware she had no idea what words were being spoken. With a mental shake she tuned back into the conversation.

“…wouldn’t stop coughing, right by the Number Three speaker. I had to ask Simon to offer the woman a throat sweet. I mean, what can you do? I couldn’t throw them out the cathedral for coughing, but it was live on Radio Three. A dreadful dilemma.”

Anthony turned a worried frown towards Claire, seeking reassurance that he had done the right thing offering the persistent cougher a Halls. Realising some response was required, Claire nodded, as if discussing the viral ailments of visitors to Lincoln Cathedral was everyday fare. “I’m sure you did the right thing. So very selfish, coming to a concert with a cough.”

She was rewarded with a grateful smile that caused forgotten regions of her body to flutter in a disturbing way. Cupping her hands around her giant, sadly empty, coffee mug, Claire dredged her mind for a new topic of conversation. Hopefully a more stimulating one.

You’d think being in charge of recording concerts for BBC Radio would be an interesting job. Turns out I was wrong. How disappointing that every job is dull when it’s your job.

“Where to next then, Anthony? What marvellous audio delights do you have to share with the nation?”

Anthony looked vaguely perplexed, as if Claire had spoken in a foreign tongue.

Come on, my accent isn’t so very different from yours, though not nearly so appealing. She gave a small shiver of pleasure. Claire found the Scottish brogue inexplicably sexy, particularly when she was able to understand the words being spoken. Anthony’s silence gave her an excuse to gaze at his attractive face without hiding a yawn.

At last he translated her words in his head, and his face fell, like a school boy discovering he’d got double Latin next instead of Games.

“Opera.” He shuddered, so comically that Claire had to stifle a laugh when she realised he was in earnest. “Britten. The Turn of the Screw.”

Never heard of it. I’m such a philistine.

“Not that I’ve ever heard of it,” Anthony added. “But Opera, eugh. At least it’s back in London, at the Barbican.” He glanced at his watch, as if only now realising he had to get from Lincoln to London in time to oversee set up.

“Christ, is that the time?” He pushed his chair back with a nerve-wrenching screech, and spilt the remainder of his half-drunk latte across the table. Claire stood up just as swiftly, to avoid coffee spilling into her lap. She looked up at Anthony’s soft, wavy hair, the kissable lips, the heavenly eyes framed by eyelashes that wouldn’t look out of place on a cow.

He would be a worthy replacement for Josh in my dreams. If he wasn’t such a boring idiot.

Claire held her hand out to the frazzled man, who took it with a weak grasp, leaning forwards to plant a kiss on her ear, before fleeing the coffee shop.

“Bye,” Claire said to the empty space in front of her. Then she collapsed back onto her chair and gave in to the storm of laughter swirling in her breast.

***

Calming Coffee Shops: 2013 365 Challenge #133

Starting the Day with a Latte, like Claire

Starting the Day with a Latte, like Claire

I love sitting in coffee shops to write. They are relaxing places: there is no housework, or staring dog begging for a walk. Sometimes I don’t get much writing done though, because I’m too busy eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.

This carries on from yesterday’s post on ‘Stealing memories’. Is it bad to eavesdrop on other people’s discussions and then steal some of their dialogue or mannerisms, filing them away for later?

I’ve been known to transcribe a conversation almost verbatim, so I could get a feel for the rhythm of the dialogue. I feel like a spy!

This morning I am meant to be writing my Claire post, having not had the energy to go near it last night, after a weekend of Farm visits and Children’s Parties.

Oundle town centre

Oundle town centre

In fact I went to bed at 9.30pm aiming for a good night’s sleep to try and staunch the endless tears of tiredness, which would have worked well if Hubbie hadn’t come to bed at 1am, Amber crawled into bed with us at 3am then woke again at 4am! So, I need to write about Claire, but I’m too rung out and tired and easily distracted. I’ve come to a different coffee shop to my usual one, because I knew this one would be quiet and more conducive to writing. Unfortunately it’s too quiet and the chatter is harder to tune out.

Instead of working, therefore, I am listening.

Directly opposite me, as I sit on the leather sofa with my laptop on my knee, there are two women, one with a small child in a pushchair. The women are talking about artificial flavourings in food and how they teach children to expect strong-flavours and not appreciate real food.

The women are German. I’m interested to learn that children don’t go to school until six in Germany, and that their children had never before had baked beans or jacket potatoes (I hadn’t realised they were such British things). I love details like that.

At a table in the window sit a couple of ‘old boys’ who have been to the market and are enjoying a drink together watching the world go by. The distinctive blue carrier bags used by the veg stall cluster round their feet. ‘Old boys’ make me a bit sad because they remind me of my dad. He never really got to be ‘old’, as he died before he reached sixty.

Sometimes, though, I see men and want to adopt them. Like the man who has just cycled into town to do his shopping at the market and discovered he’s forgotten his wallet. I want to drive him home to collect it.

View from the coffee shop

View from the coffee shop

I saw a man in a wheelchair at the Farm last week that made me think that’s what Dad would have looked like at eighty. He was having such a blast feeding the goats from his wheelchair, I felt a stab of nostalgia, although I wonder if I would have had the time and energy to push him round while caring for my young children. I did keep grinning at him, though. He probably thought I was nuts.

Outside the window the sun is casting shadows of dancing leaves against the pale yellow sandstone brick of the school buildings. Coffee shops can be such peaceful places. A little patch of calm and a microcosm of the world around, or certainly my tiny part in it. Part of me looks forward to the day when I can come to a coffee shop and just sit rather than busily typing away with my head down and my back to the world.

Right now, I’m trying not to listen to the German women talking about kids and food. I know my kids don’t have the best of diets – they spent the weekend eating rubbish for various reasons – but I’m just about okay with it. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel guilty listening to how hard other mothers try to get vegetables in their little ones! Sometimes eavesdropping isn’t a great idea. Let’s get on with Claire!

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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 sensed trouble the moment she entered Ruth’s room. A whole day without Sky spilling the beans was apparently more than fate thought she deserved. Pushing aside the argument she’d just had with Julia, about booking a week’s holiday from work, Claire took a deep breath and entered the arena.

“There you are, Claire. Sky’s just been telling me all about her baby sister. Would you care to elaborate? At what point were you going to share this element of your expedition?”

Oh crap she’s gone all school teacher on me. Ruth’s school-ma’m manner usually irritated Claire but it was such a relief to see her sister back to her normal self she smiled. It was a mistake.

“You think it’s amusing, do you? Cavorting with my Ex and that…” She grasped for a PG-rated word. “That harpy.”

Great insult, Claire applauded internally. Sometimes she forgot how smart Ruth was and that she’d also studied the Arts. It was too easy to remember the big sister who mucked about and got into trouble.

“I wasn’t smiling at that, just glad to see you with some fight in you. And I don’t think she’s a harpy.”

Claire realised the idiocy of her words as she watched Ruth’s face lose any hint of ashen pallor and turn a dangerous hue of red. She struggled against years of habit and forced herself not to fight back. Instead she perched on the bed, prepared to be conciliating.

“Sorry.” She reached a hand towards Ruth, and dropped it again at the expression on her face. “All I meant was perhaps now isn’t the time to discuss the merits of the woman.”

Claire looked meaningfully over at Sky and almost laughed again at the mixture of shock and glee on the girl’s face. Her Mum and Auntie scrapping like school kids was high entertainment.

“The truth is I didn’t tell you because I knew this would be your reaction and I wanted to tell you when you were better. The meeting was accidental,” The first one at least, Claire thought guiltily, “And I gave Chris both barrels, I promise you. Then he produced the child. Sky should know her sister, particularly –” She stopped, unable to continue. Ruth’s face resumed the colour of milk and her eyes dilated in horror.

Claire felt sick. Oh God, that’s going to finish her off. The idea of Sky living with her Ex, the woman that betrayed her and their new baby is not something Ruth is strong enough to handle. Then another thought drifted into Claire’s mind. The kind of horrible thought that couldn’t be undone. Maybe this will give her what she needs to fight the illness. The knowledge that, if she dies, Sky will go to them.

Similar ideas appeared to fill her sister’s brain. Her face contorted as she processed too many unwelcome images. Pressing her lips into a tight line, Ruth glanced at her daughter then back to Claire.

“We can talk about it later.”

Claire had enough sense to recognise the finality in her sister’s voice and dropped the discussion. Sky didn’t.

“Does that mean I can see Daddy and the baby again, Mummy? Please. I won’t talk to the harpy.”

Claire stifled a snigger. She’s sharp that child. Either that or she’s vicious.

Cornered, Ruth just shrugged. “As long as I don’t have to bear witness.”

Claire wasn’t sure if that was a concession or a way of saying over my dead body. It was no longer a phrase to be thrown around lightly. Let’s hope it never comes to that.

***

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.

***

Using Life’s What Ifs: 2013 365 Challenge #113

My Three Darlings

My Three Darlings

Writing out some of the background for my new novel today I realised I was inadvertently writing a ‘what if’ about my own life, or one tiny aspect of my life.

I think sometimes that’s what writers do. They use their words, their imaginations to explore different lives they might have lived. Mine is a little thing that might have been huge.

I was late for my period this month: second month in a row. Now, we’re careful. We have two beautiful children and I’m in my late thirties. My first child was born at 37 weeks, the second at 35 weeks. My pediatrician friend said that trend to premature babies could easily continue.

I love my Big Sister

I love my Big Sister

So, even if we wanted more children (which we don’t – only when I get occasionally broody) the risks are far too high. And I KNEW I wasn’t pregnant. I’m more likely to be menopausal, as early menopause runs in the family. But, still, you start putting two and two together and making five. I was tired, grumpy, teary and, above all, late.

The protagonist in Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes gets pregnant against the odds. These things happen. I worried.I read up about menopause at 2am on my phone. And, being me, I re-planned my future with a third child in it. I needed to be prepared, just in case. I worked out the age gap, when the third would start school. I decided it would be nice for Aaron to have a play mate when Amber starts school in September. I tried to decide whether I’d prefer a boy or a girl. I’m a writer: I wove stories.

Drove hubbie nuts.

Then I decided I ought to actually get a test and part of me was actually a bit excited (damn you, breeding hormones). I didn’t need the test, as it turned out. As if just buying it was enough, I knew before I got home that it was no longer required. In a tiny way I felt as if I’d lost a baby, even though no baby existed. Because I had made the scary future so plausible.

I wasn’t going to talk about it on the blog – it seems to come under the ‘too much information’ category. Until I started writing out my character list for the new book this morning:

George: 11. Two siblings, Ben (14) and Susie (16). George suspects he wasn’t planned. His sister tells him their mother used to say ‘I’ve only got two hands’ or ‘one of each, job done’. George feels unwanted and an outsider. Susie is academic, Ben is musical. They’re close. George likes football and computer games and being lazy.

My Little Bean

My Little Bean

I realised, half way through writing it, that George is my imaginary third child. The things I worried about at 2am were all there: that any other children born into our family would feel left out because my two are so close in age; that Amber would remember me saying ‘one of each, job done’; that a third child would feel alienated, like my Uncle and my Mum – both the last of three kids.

The loss of my imaginary child, that hurt for a day, doesn’t hurt so much now. When I see the kids needing another play mate I do wish I had started my family earlier, so more children was a possibility. But now I can write them in to existence instead. So much cheaper and no need for cots, bottles, stretch marks, swollen ankles and endless dirty nappies. Hurrah.

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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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Rain hammered at the window as if it, too, wanted to come in and watch TV. Claire reached for the remote and turned up the volume; the dulcet tones of Rapunzel drowning out the drumming beat. She looked around the abandoned lounge, thankful that they were the only occupants.

Next to her, head propped up on one hand, Sky gazed at the TV as though it were entirely responsible for the rotten weather preventing their trip to the beach. She sighed and the noise cut through thrumming rain and Disney’s finest. Claire smiled at the grown up sound. I wonder if she’s learned that from me or Ruth?

“Do you want to watch something else?” Claire had suggested Tangled because she thought she could work with it on in the background. Lack of attention had left her blog drifting with diminishing views and comments and she knew some serious effort was required to breathe life back into it.

The last thing I need right now is Carl on a crusade to have me do another challenge. The Doctor’s Note isn’t going to hold out much longer. I don’t think surviving the school holidays without committing murder is the kind of thing Coca Cola or the YHA would want associated with their brands, however much it must be a reality for millions of parents.

Another sigh cut through her thoughts and she put down the iPad, searching for patience and a smile. Hitching it in place she turned to Sky and said in as lively a voice as she could muster after a night of bad dreams and no sleep, “What shall we do then? Coffee and cake? More homework? We could go exploring: There are lots of places other than the beach to visit.”

“But I wanted to go to the beach!” Out came the bottom lip. Claire pushed away the irritation and searched her mind for alternatives.

“I think there’s a games room here, shall we go and have a look?”

A glimmer of interest flicked across Sky’s face. I’ll take it. Claire got up and held out her hand. After a beat of hesitation, Sky took it and let herself be led from the room.

 

“I win, I win!” Sky hopped around gleefully as she connected four yellow discs in a row, once more cutting off her Auntie from her own straight run. Claire smiled at the elation, feeling only slightly guilty at her own cheating. Surely it’s only bad when you cheat to win? Cheating to lose – to make a child smile – that’s normal, right?

Her idle brain ran on with the idea. I wonder if I should win now and then, just so she gets used to losing? Surely losing has to happen at some point in a child’s life? Somewhere in her mind she remembered Ruth telling her about the trials of children’s parties, where everyone had to win at pass the parcel or musical statues. I don’t remember it being like that when we were growing up? Losing, crying about it, getting over it, was all part of being a kid. She looked over at Sky’s beaming grin and compared it with what she knew the alternative would be if she beat her niece. Maybe that particular lesson can wait.

“Well done, Sky. Two out of three?”

***

Baking Cookies and a Snowy Day #23

My little darling chefs

My little darling chefs

Today was the first day in months that I had the kids all day without husband around to lend a hand (he had a job interview, hurrah!).

It was nice although the children missed daddy a lot.

“Mummy I love Daddy more betterer than you” my daughter said in the car on the way back from coffee morning.

A statement that was later changed to, “I didn’t want you to tell Daddy that. I love you both most of all.”

Makes all the tough stuff worthwhile.

Playdough snowman. The only kind of snowman my kids wanted to build today!

Playdough snowman. The only kind of snowman my kids wanted to build today!

We had fun today, getting my son’s hair cut finally (he has a double crown and had started to look like he had feathers in his hair like some tribal headdress). We baked chocolate cookies, built things with playdough, played with puzzles and cars and now they’re “wrapping” everything in the playroom and bringing it to me, singing “happy birthday to you”.

I love my kids.

My "Birthday Gifts" from the children. I think the iron was Daddy's idea.

My “Birthday Gifts” from the children. I think the iron was Daddy’s idea.

Thankfully husband appeared at five o’clock, allowing me to walk the dog and make a start on Claire’s exploits for today, tapping away into my phone while walking in the snowy dark. It was beautiful outside with the moon lighting up the snow (it makes it much easier to walk the dog after dark. There has to be one good thing about the snow.)

So, understandably, Claire’s post today features snow. Writing seasonal is always easier if it’s outside the window. That’s why I tend to start novels in the season I’m in. Write what you know.

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A soft glow shone through the window and across Claire’s face. Used to sleeping in the cave-like darkness of a room with blackout blinds Claire was pulled awake by the light. It took a while to work out where she was and why her blinds weren’t closed. Irritated as much by the memory of the last few days as by being woken, Claire rose on one elbow to figure out where the light was coming from. From her elevated position on the top bunk she could see through the gap in the curtains right down to the road.

Snow. Marvellous.

The moon illuminated the street below like studio lighting, making it difficult to tell what time it was. The room was silent. Claire blessed the Gods that the Scandinavian women didn’t snore. She fumbled under her pillow to locate her phone, although she could nearly tell the time on her watch by the eerie light seeping through from outside.

2am. Bollocks.

Claire felt wide awake. If she’d been at home she would have got up and done some work, knowing it was the quickest way to feel sleepy again. With two strangers in the room with her she felt she couldn’t turn on the light or even make too much noise in case she woke them.

This is what that damn Maglite is for then. Shame it’s in the bottom of my rucksack. Not much good there. I don’t even have headphones to listen to music. Idiot.

Claire lay in the dark trying to distinguish the sound of Ola and Francis breathing. She wondered whether she should check if they were still alive. What responsibility did you have for your bedfellows if they were also complete strangers?

Claire heard a noise that made her heart thump in her ears. Someone was fumbling outside their door, scratching, as if trying to insert a key. I’m glad it’s locked. Imagine someone trying to get in the wrong bunk in the middle of the night. She shivered at the idea of having to fend off some sweaty oik and felt glad she’d had the forethought to buy a nightie.

The room filled with the sound of Claire’s shallow breathing as she strained to hear if the noise had gone away. It hadn’t. Utterly awake now, she tensed ready to defend herself as she heard voices outside the door. What if someone’s trying to break in, to steal our stuff? Claire wondered if she should wake the girls.

I’m surprised they’re not awake already with that racket. Maybe this is normal. Maybe you have to learn to sleep surrounded by noise, like you do when flying. A stab of pain shot through Claire’s head as she contemplated weeks of broken sleep. I really don’t do well on less than six hours.

At last the fumbling stopped. Claire took a deep breath which stuck in her throat as the door opened and a light pierced the darkness, followed by another. Flashlight beams shone overhead like search lights as two very drunk girls staggered into the room. One of them tripped over and fell heavily against Claire’s bunk; the other pulled her friend upright with a snigger. They shushed each other and giggled as they headed into the en-suite. Claire could hear them talking in loud whispers that they obviously thought was them being quite. She couldn’t decide what was more annoying: Being woken up by a couple of drunks or being awake already and discovering she’d been trying hard to be silent and considerate in an empty room.

Where the hell have they been until this time anyway? Even with 24 hour licensing who wants to stay up late in this provincial backwater? And they say we Brits drink too much.

Claire lay in her bunk not speaking. She was tempted to admit to being awake but she couldn’t face a scene. Besides, what was there to say? Excuse me but some of us like to go to bed early? That was rubbish anyway. Back in Manchester her night would still be young at 2am.

What is happening to me? Oh my god, I’m turning into my mother. Next I’ll be admonishing people not to talk and eat or advising them that man-made fibres make you sweat in an unladylike fashion. Right, that’s it. I’m ringing Carl first thing in the morning. Roughing it is one thing but I’ll be damned if I’m going to become a boring old cow before I’m thirty.

Marriage Proposals and 2013 365 Challenge Day #14

Tangled - A proper modern fairytale

Tangled – A proper modern fairytale

I had a glorious three hours at home by myself today, as Daddy took the children to the local Farm. Normally it’s my favourite place to go, and it was a lovely sunny day today, but the children decided they wanted Daddy to themselves and I had to admit that it was probably time to do a bit of cleaning. Spending my spare time writing about Claire is having an impact on the house!

I did manage to hoover the bedrooms but what I spent most of my time doing was watching Tangled (I am still poorly!) We recorded it at Christmas for the kids but I hadn’t managed to see it and it was a delight to become absorbed in it without a dozen “what’s she doing?” every minute. I have always enjoyed Disney movies but this is the first princess one I’ve seen for a while. I must say, it isn’t my intention to analyse it here (though I could) but I thought it was very well done.

Generally I don’t mind my daughter watching Disney movies (not that she’s seen many – they are so expensive!) but I do have an Usborne fairytale book that I try not to read if possible for the simple reason that, at the end of every story, when the prince asks the girl to marry him she always replies “yes please”.

I mean, what?

Have a happy ending, that’s fine, I happen to be an advocate of marriage. But not “yes please“.

[Deep breath, avoid ranting.]

Phew. Anyway I liked Tangled because we see the man’s journey as well as the woman’s and at the end he jokes about her asking him to marry her. It’s nice to see the man have a character arc too instead of being a dummy in a suit.

Sorry, that was a total digression, but I thought I’d add it so I could put a nice picture from the movie as my page picture (taken from the television, Disney, before you try to sue!) and it was in my mind after reading the two articles I’ve listed below, from the Ubiquitous. Quotidiant. blog that I have recently discovered (worth a look).

It is slightly relevant to my story-writing as well because this novel is only from Claire’s POV (so far) whereas usually I like to write from the male and female protagonist’s perspectives. I haven’t decided yet whether there is going to be a significant male in this story but we may find one coming in later.

On to Claire….

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Claire parked around the corner from her parents’ house and turned to contemplate the rucksack on the back seat. Taking it in with her was going to raise questions, but leaving it in the Skoda was tantamount to putting a sign on it saying “Steal Me”. Even in this part of Cambridge there were bound to be people handy enough with a wire coat-hanger to break in.

She pulled the tiny silver handle to open the door. I could probably break in myself if the need arose. Maybe I should start carrying a piece of wire in my handbag. I’m bound to lock my keys in at some point.

She pushed down the lock and checked she was holding the keys before slamming the door shut. One of the quirks of this particular car was that it wouldn’t lock from the outside. I miss my beep-beep button already and it’s only been a day.

Claire opened the front door to her family home only after ringing the bell to see whether anyone was in. She wasn’t surprised to find the house empty. The journey had taken much longer than expected and her mother was probably already at her WI meeting. Her father was rarely in during the week. Despite taking retirement he kept himself busy during normal working hours, as if the groove made by fifty years of work was so deep he could do nothing but run along the same path.

She looked around the hallway and lounge, trying to tell if anything had changed. It was unlikely. If her father’s groove was created by time spent in a suit and tie her mother’s ran between her charities and the WI. Home decoration and interior design had never been her thing. Claire supposed a house of magnolia and pine was better than frills and flowers everywhere but it did make the place feel cold. When they were little there had been a few photographs of her and her siblings around the place, the odd painting tacked to the wall. Now the pictures were as bland as the furniture.

Claire shivered, cursing herself for forgetting to unpack a cashmere from the rucksack. The house was always several degrees colder than was comfortable. Another quick yell confirmed that the house was empty. Walking through to the kitchen, Claire headed for the kettle, hoping her mum had thought to put some semi-skimmed milk on the sign for the milkman. There was a note by the kettle. Mum does at least know me that well, Claire thought with a smile.

“I bumped into Kim at the supermarket and mentioned you were coming home for a few days. She said to call her if you fancied a drink.”

The note was written in beautiful curling handwriting on a piece of pink paper torn from a notebook. Claire stared at it, wondering if she was feeling strong enough for a night out with her oldest friend. Nothing cuts through your life to the core like an hour spent with someone who has known you since you were five.

Claire poured steaming water into a large mug and gave the teabag a prod, watching the rich red-brown colour spread out like spilt blood. She was conscious of a strong pulling sensation somewhere in her chest. It was the lure of the Maldives; of empty sandy beaches and no one having any idea where she was.

***

Related Articles:

How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disney Princesses: Ubiquitous. Quotidian (http://rmbenson.wordpress.com)

Fairytale Fact Check: Do Dreams Really Come True? Ubiquitous. Quotidian (http://rmbenson.wordpress.com)

Basil Fawlty, a Cameo and Bugs: 2013 Challenge Day #13

Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers. A Classic moment in TV History.

Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers. A Classic moment in TV History.

Still germ-infested here. I only made it out of bed yesterday because my son tripped over and fell into a door and the adrenalin kicked in as I went to retrieve Mr Bump from the fridge. Today it was husband’s turn for a lie-in so managed to drag myself out of bed to watch TV with the kids. We only survived the day by taking them to town and wandering round until they were tired enough to sleep!

This is quite a long post because it’s mostly narrative rather than dialogue. I am finding it a challenge to keep the instalments interesting when sometimes things just have to happen to build the story and move Claire around. Hopefully I’ll get better at it! It’s teaching me about ‘conflict in every scene’ if nothing else…

I’m trying to work out how to set up a Pinterest Board so my followers can pin to it if they want. If anyone knows how to do it, please let me know! I’m also open to suggestions as to what I can call my novel (currently just called the YHA Novel. My titles are usually pretty unimaginative, considering I used to work in marketing.)

See if you can guess who the (posthumous) cameo is based on my previous posts…. 😉

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“Just start, you stupid stinking heap of junk!” Claire smacked her hand against the steering wheel, then winced as pins and needles shot up her arm. It felt like the wheel was made of iron rather than the cushioned leather she was used to.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry.” Claire inhaled deeply and stared out of the chipped windscreen. She was still parked outside her flat. No one had towed the car away in the 24 hours since the Skoda had arrived to replace her company Audi and so she had no choice but to use it to drive to her parents before heading up to Berwick to start her assignment.

Claire dropped her head back against the seat, wincing again at the hardness of the headrest. She had never been in a car with fewer comforts. She tried to recall what the man in blue overalls had told her. The words manual choke floated into her head, although she had no idea what they meant. Claire fished out her iPad and typed the words into Google. She scanned through the information on ehow and began searching around the steering wheel for something that looked like a lever she could pull. She found it eventually near the handbrake and yanked it out. When she turned the key this time, the engine spluttered into life with a throaty roar more suited to a tractor than a tiny tin-pot car.

Claire looked out the window, hoping none of the neighbours were watching. Even though she wouldn’t be back to the street for a year she didn’t really want anyone to question why her shiny company car had been traded for this East European relic.

Claire managed to find first gear, after a quick tour of third and fifth. The gear stick was a giant baton, like a cheerleader might twirl, and the distance between the gears could be measured in inches. It had been months since Claire had driven a manual and that had been a hire car. Bunny-hopping down the street nearly gave her whiplash as she tried to find the bite on the spongy clutch.

Claire headed out of town to the motorway, weaving through morning rush-hour. What possessed me to leave this early? Idiot. The truth was Claire didn’t know any other way than to get up at 5am.

Traffic ground to a halt as they approached a roundabout and Claire could hear the engine growling at her. Looking around helplessly she realised she hadn’t pushed the choke thing back in. She was sure ehow had said something about it only being needed for a few minutes and she’d been driving for twenty.

Damn this car.

She inched forward in the traffic wishing that she could get anything other than Commercial on the ancient radio. After the third advert for PPI Claims she turned it off and tried not to worry about the sounds coming from the engine behind her. She glanced in the rear mirror and saw something fogging her view even though the way was clear in front.

What…? Is that mist?

Claire turned to look over her shoulder. There was steam pouring from the boot. That can’t be good. She looked down at the dash and saw that the temperature needle was thrusting at the red. Bugger. Claire searched around to see if there was a way out to the hard shoulder, or better still a service station, but there was just stationary traffic all the way to the roundabout. Double Bugger.

Claire coaxed the car onto the roundabout and down to the motorway, praying they would make it to Knutsford services before it conked out entirely. The cars around her hemmed her in like a pack of lions surrounding a sickly calf. The horns started as she crept down the slip-road, not daring to go above twenty.

She was practically sobbing with relief by the time the Skoda crawled into the petrol station. Climbing out of the car Claire resisted the urge to kick it. If there had been a tree branch handy she could quite happily have bashed the bonnet like Basil Fawlty.

“Problem love?”

Claire looked up to see a kind face twinkling at her from beneath a motorbike visor. An elderly gentleman in a black leather jacket with a red scarf around his neck was just putting the petrol cap back on what looked like an old police bike. He pulled the disposable gloves off his hands and walked over to where she was slumped against the car.

“Overheated?” The man looked to where steam was still pouring out the back of the car.

“I guess.” Claire shrugged. “It’s not my car; I normally drive a 2011 Audi.”

“Ah, I imagine you’ve been having fun with this then.” She looked up to see if the man was being sarcastic but it seemed he genuinely meant it. Maybe if you ride a motorbike then even a Skoda seems comfortable. Claire never understood the appeal of being out in the cold and rain when you could be nestled in a heated leather seat.

“Did you turn the fan on?”

“The what?” Claire watched as the man reached into the driver’s seat and pulled a lever. The boot popped open and he went round to inspect the engine. His voice was muffled as he spoke from the depths of the car. “These old things often have a bodge for the fan. A manual switch under the dash.”

Claire walked closer so she could hear him better. She had learnt her lesson about paying attention. “You need to flick it on in traffic but remember to turn it off when you’re parked otherwise you’ll flatten your battery.”

He looked around the forecourt and located a bucket of water, then pulled on his large leather gloves and twisted off some part of the engine. A plume of steam whooshed out and the man leant away before turning back to pour some water into the hole.

“You’ll need to take it steady but I don’t think you busted anything. Are you a member of the AA?”

Claire looked puzzled. What did Alcoholics Anonymous have to do with her car overheating? Unless he was worried she might turn to drink in her anger and shame.

“The AA? Breakdown cover? I recommend it if you’re not used to driving an old car. Temperamental things. Need love and care.” He stood up and slammed the boot shut. “Bought my daughter one of these when she passed her test and she ended up taking the carburettor off when it broke.” He beamed with pride as if he could imagine nothing finer than a daughter who would get her hands dirty.

Claire looked down at her perfectly manicured nails and wondered if her father would be proud of her if she turned up at home covered in oil. Her mother would freak.

“How do I get AA?”

***

Driving down memory lane – 2013 365 Challenge #10

This is what my darling car looked like: Photo courtesy of GoldScotland71 on Flickr

This is what my darling car looked like: Photo courtesy of GoldScotland71 on Flickr

Had fun driving down memory lane today, quite literally, as I’ve cast my first car in the 365 novel (The novel really needs a name – suggestions welcome!).

My first car was a ‘Dove Grey’ Skoda Estelle. Dad bought it for me when I graduated and sold it to me with the information “It has five gears and five doors!” which, for a car of that age and budget, was pretty rare. I knew immediately it was a Skoda, my greatest fear. I worked in a bar and I guess I’ve heard every Skoda joke going.

Still, I loved that car despite having to undertake wacky things like removing the carburetor to take home in a carrier bag or having to bleed the clutch with a broom in a service station off the M6. Expect some of these experiences to appear in future Claire posts… I’m a firm believer in writing what you know.

This one’s for you, Dad:

P.S. Don’t forget to follow the blog if you want to hear more of Claire’s exploits!

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The buzzer echoed through the apartment, dragging Claire from a horrible dream. She had been standing alone in a room of twenty beds, her hair lank and unwashed, her clothes creased and dirty. Shaking away the awful image, Claire looked at the clock and swore.

9.30am? What the…?

Claire carefully sat upright, fighting against the spinning room, and realised she was already dressed. A thumping in her head reminded her of the empty champagne bottle sitting alone on the kitchen counter. The buzzer rang again, more urgently. Damn it, the removals guys aren’t meant to get here until 10am. She walked to the door without fully opening her eyes, then pushed her mane of chestnut hair away from her face so she could locate the intercom button.

“Yes?”

“Here to swap the car love, haven’t got all day, I’m parked on a yellow.”

Claire had forgotten Carl’s comment about her being provided with a more appropriate car. Oh well, best go and get it over with, see what they’ve decided is fitting. She grabbed her keys and let herself out of the apartment, determined not to be upset by this latest ploy of Carl’s to make her quit.

She shouldered open the heavy front door and was immediately faced with a man in blue overalls leaning against the lamppost outside her apartment.

“Miss Carleton?”

“That’s me.”

“Here to collect your company car and drop you a replacement.” The man looked around, trying to work out which car was hers.

Reluctantly Claire gestured at her charcoal-grey Audi, parked several cars down from her front door. The man whistled when he saw it and pushed himself away from the lamppost, revealing a tatty old car behind him.

“Blimey love whose front porch did you piss on? That’s a spanking motor to be swapping for this heap of crap. Think you’ll find this baby handles a bit differently. It’s got gears for a start, and a manual choke.”

Claire looked at the rusty box on the road in front of her and wondered what she had done to make Carl hate her so much. The courier’s words washed over her as phrases like “brake horse power” and “pisses out oil” made no sense and were therefore dismissed. The phrase “alloy wheels” permeated the fog of her hangover and she turned to face the man, a spark of interest in her eyes.

“Alloy wheels? That’s good right? My Audi has alloy wheels.” She looked again at the car parked outside her flat, as if hoping to discover it had transformed into something she might be seen dead in.

The man gave her the kind of smile he’d give an eager toddler. “Yes, love, generally alloys are nice to have. Not great on a Skoda though, especially one this old. Just makes the tyres leak. You’ll spend a chunk of time and cash getting them resealed and refilled every time you get a flat.”

Hope died in Claire’s heart. She wouldn’t even know where to take a car to have the tyres sealed and filled, whatever that meant. If something went wrong with the company car she told Julia and a man collected it, leaving her an equivalent courtesy car.

Claire watched mutely as the man walked to the rear of the car and gestured that he wanted to show her something in the boot. Puzzled, Claire went to stand by him and saw what she guessed was the engine. Thank god he showed me that, I’d have looked like an idiot trying to put my bag in there. She tried to follow the rest of what the man was saying as it seemed important but, as she’d always had her cars serviced, Claire had no idea why she would need to know where the oil and water went or what a dipstick was. It sounded rude in any case.

At last the man was gone, driving away in her beloved Audi and leaving her with – Claire consulted the piece of paper hanging from her nerveless hand – a Dove Grey Manual 5-gear Skoda Estelle. Looks like a poo-coloured box on wheels to me. Claire fought the urge to sob as she crumpled the piece of paper and stalked back into her flat. With any luck someone would notice it was parked on a yellow and tow it away.

A sudden desire to open her laptop and search for flights to the Maldives was interrupted by the shrill call of the buzzer. Damn thing’s rung more this morning than it has since New Year Claire thought as she pressed the intercom.

“Did you make a mistake, are you taking that pile of shit away?” Claire’s voice rang like struck steel.

“Well Miss, if that’s how you see your possessions it’s not for us to comment. Removals, Miss, come to collect your boxes.”

Claire leant her head against the cool of the front door and prayed for the day to be over.

***

Life, recycled

www.amanda-martin.co.ukBefore I decided to try my hand at writing, and discovered an overwhelming need to pen novels, I took various other paths to a creative future.

I worked in marketing, designing the horrible colourful mailing packs that arrive on your doormat, which you chuck in the bin. I worked in PR, writing the internal communications magazines and announcements that make you chuckle and shake your head in disbelief, when you get them from head office.

I went self-employed and tried to make money selling my abstract paintings. I took a study course with the Open University to improve my photography and tried to make that my next endeavour. I set up a small company, Daisy Chain Marketing, and built websites for small businesses.

Nothing really took off, mostly because they all required me to sell myself, and it turned out that was the one thing I was rubbish at.

When I found creative writing, and nanowrimo found me, my whole world changed. Writing was what I wanted to do. That self-selling part is still a sticking point, but in terms of time, I only have to worry about it at the end. I can write merrily for nine-months before I have to poke my head out my shell and worry about what to do with my work.

Having found writing, I then berated myself for not finding it sooner. All those years, pre-kids, when I was farting around trying to be an artist, a photographer, a marketer, I could have been writing novels.

What a waste.

Except it turns out not to have been a waste at all. Because I’m at the sticky end now: I am thinking about selling my first novel. And I am discovering that I can recycle all those old skills I learnt. Skills I didn’t know I had, or took for granted.

Need a book cover? Easy. Source an image online, using all the marketing sites from old. Need to put it in the right format? No worries. Use the adobe photoshop software from my photo-editing course. New website? A doddle. All that time building simple websites with Mr Site meant I could knock one up on a Saturday afternoon, while watching the kids build sandcastles in the garden. Need to send out a press release for the forthcoming publication of Pictures of Love? Not a problem. I have press release templates a-plenty.

Okay, so nothing looks quite as good as it would if I had paid a professional to do it. My front cover probably screams self-designed/self-published. My website is a bit sparse and basic (I don’t do html). The press release may well get consigned to the waste-paper basket. But it hasn’t cost me anything, and I have had a lot of fun.

And who knew those old redundant skills could be recycled so effectively?

Another by-product of my sporadic career is subject matter. In Pictures of Love, Helen wants to be a photographer. In The Real Gentleman, my leading lady has a painting exhibition. Sam, from In bonds of love, travels around New Zealand, and a chunk of Finding Lucy  is set at the kind of corporate events I used to help organise during my time in Internal Comms.

I guess write what you know is easier if what you know and what you’ve done covers a lot of ground. So, there you go, when I thought I was being flaky, I was actually building up a stock of experiences to write about later and a whole bunch of skills to promote it afterwards.

What skills from your former life have you found to be useful during your writing/publishing?

P.S. you can find my website at www.amanda-martin.co.uk. If it would be useful I would be happy to write a post about any or all of these ‘skills’, such as designing book covers or building easy websites.