Feeling the frost

I’m in Cornwall. Two days ago I swam in the sea, lay on the beach, got a little burned. Then, almost overnight the families in the houses alongside us began to pack up their sandshoes, their wetsuits, their body boards and cram back into the sandy family cars.  The village shop emptied enough to actually get to the till. The cars left, the mist came down, the lighthouse began to boom across the bay.

I noticed that the blackberries on the walls were ripe, the grass yellow, the air was damp, smelling of autumn.

My own daughter packed up her stuff, donned her school shoes and went home to do all the work she was supposed to have done all summer.

Autumn is here, I thought.

Winter is nearly with us.

And Nosy Crow posted this – perfect timing….

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Thinking about Agatha…

Today I took my mum and her best friend, Vicky to to visit Agatha Christie’s holiday home, Greenway, on the banks of the river Dart.

It was overly hot and overly full and Mum struggled with the stairs, but it was stuffed with stuff, much of it collected by Agatha and her children, some by her various husbands.  It was all fascinating and little fragments of Poirot or Miss Marple sprang to mind as we wandered around the various rooms gazing at objects that showed insight into Agatha Christie’s thinking- kind of like an author’s slideshow, but in 3d.

In one room, they had this:

Agatha Christie

I stared from the window, recognising exactly what she meant, and applying it to my own writing – just downstairs I had seen a typewriter and written it into a plot – I know it wasn’t Agatha Christie’s, but it might have been.  The house was beautiful, the trees falling away to the river breathtaking, the distant glimmer of water stunning.

All of it was marvellous, inspirational,

She wrote so much,

So many stories, so many hours bent over that typewriter.

I really needed to be more disciplined, use every scrap of the day.

Then it occurred to me, she never had to do the washing up.

 

 

 

 

Writing from the heart…

busstopsignJust about a year ago, when the world seemed a more innocent place than it does now, I had a conversation with my editor at Piccadilly Press, Tilda Johnson.  It wasn’t the first conversation we’d had.  In fact it was probably the last in six months of conversations by phone and email that had been circling around what kind of book I would write next.

Before Tilda, I’d been having that conversation with Sara O’Connor, about the same book.

It had been going on for the best part of a year and it felt like the third wish. The last book in a contract, what was is going to be? It needed to be good, heartfelt, emotionally true, compelling, funny in parts, sad in parts.  I needed to believe in it, Tilda needed to believe in it.

The date was 16th July, and I started, once again to put down an idea on paper. But this idea was different, it came from somewhere else, definitely not my head. It came too fast to ram into a synopsis, it was running out of me like sand and I felt the need to tell Tilda really quickly before it disappeared.

I spewed out Amy’s story, Zelda’s story, the book’s story – and Tilda listened.  At the end there was a silence and she said: “I sense that you really want to write this?”

I realised that I was going to write it anyway, whether or not she liked it.

“Yes,” I said. “I really do.”

It had to go to various channels, editorial meetings, sales chats in which an incomplete synopsis and a hasty first chapter stood their ground. It was called Phone Box Baby.

By 29th July it had a new title. Bus Stop Baby.

I promised it would be written by the end of September – ” Hurrah!” replied Tilda, “I knew this was special as soon as you started pitching it on the phone – it feels very real already somehow.”

I began writing on 3rd of August and by the 19th August, there was a first draft.

Even for me that’s fast.

It wasn’t the end of drafting – that went on for months, and backwards and forwards it went, some parts getting bigger, others smaller, but a remarkable amount of it went through just as it was written – straight from the heart.

Bus Stop Baby is published today.  £5.99 Piccadilly Press.

 

 

Finding the Foundling.

busstopbabycover

Foundlings have always fascinated me.  I think, as a small child, I confused them with Changelings, and thought that they had something to do with the fairies.  Children who arrived on doorsteps from nowhere.  Often at night, often only found by the sound of their cry. I thought it was romantic.

I was much older when I realized that the word hid a world of sadness.  That to be “found” you had to be abandoned.  That the story of Moses in the bullrushes had been cleaned up and sanitized for us at school. That the Importance of Being Earnest was more than just a comedy.

When I had my own children, I started to collect the stories. I visited the Foundling Museum, I read Kate Adie’s book, Nobody’s child.  I reread Tom Jones with a new attention to detail.

I remembered that a man I knew claimed to have been found on the doorstep of the village policeman on Christmas day.  The policeman and his wife went on to bring him up.  I have no idea if it was true, but it captured my imagination.

I cut out the moving story of a baby found in a phone box, that was published in The Guardian, again, at Christmas. (read it here)

More recently, my eye was caught by the increase in the numbers of babies abandoned across central Europe as the refugee crisis grew.

I became a bit of an expert on the awful statistics surrounding abandoned infant mortality.

What I noticed was that with the exception of the Lewes story, the foundlings themselves, tended to have the voice.  They were pictured with their cardboard boxes or the hand knitted cardigan they’d been left with. They’d mostly be seeking information about their origins.   Sometimes, there were happy stories about being re-united, but often not.

But just occasionally, there’d be a picture of the person that found the baby.  Usually looking bemused, with very little information to offer, but they universally expressed a sort of almost parental love for the grown up baby.

And it occured to me that the story I was reaching for was not the tale of the foundling, but instead, it would be about the person who found the foundling.

And so Amy came along.

Bus Stop Baby is published July 28th by Piccadilly Press

 

 

Crossing the line.

treesLast night we went to an outdoor performance of The Tempest.  It was in gardens surrounded by fields and trees, a kind of parkland.

Being cheapskates, we had booked “groundling” tickets.  A snip at £5 – but no seat, and no cover if it rains.  We sat in front of the stand, coats and cushions under our bums, a couple of feet from the actors and with a 180 degree view of the action.  The best, but the most uncomfortable seats in the house.

We watched the first half, totally absorbed. Catching every nuance, every raised eyebrow.  Fully aware of the lighting that gradually changed the giant oak, centre stage, from green to pink.  It was thrilling. Caliban addressed us. Ariel’s skirts brushed us. We could see the goosepimples and hear the sighs.

But at the interval, our daughter said that we should sit in the empty seats at the top of the stand. She felt too vulnerable at the front. We agreed, our bums ached, it was getting chilly, and surely it would be just as good.

Well it was, but it wasn’t.

We couldn’t see so much, we couldn’t hear so much, and we weren’t part of it.

It occurred to me, as I sat at the back of the stand, that it was the difference between a book that is “close up” to its characters, and a book that isn’t.  I realise that I both choose to write, and choose to read books in which the characters are speaking to ME. And probably only me. So that some bridge of intimacy is formed in the first few pages and which I am loathe to break.

It’s the whole Point of View thing.  I remember learning about it at Bath Spa and I’d never even thought about it before, but I’m beginning to think it’s the most important part of starting any new story – who is going to tell it, and how?

As I have the memory of a goldfish when it comes to plots, all I can ever remember about a book that I’ve read is the sound of the character in my ear.  Where I’ve been sitting inside the action, rather than lying back, away, ever so slightly removed from the story.

So here’s a short list of books where for me the voice has sucked me in:

Liar and Spy – Rebecca Stead

Sky Hawk   – Gill Lewis

Artichoke Hearts – Sita Bramachari

A Greyhound of a Girl.   Roddy Doyle

The Year of the Rat – Clare Furniss

The Last Leaves Falling –  Fox Sarah Benwell

The Book Thief  – Marcus Zusak

I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith

Restoration – Rose Tremain

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – Barbara Comyns

 

And next time I go to outdoor theatre, I’ll take a thicker cushion and stay on the ground.

 

 

 

 

 

Being a writer is fun…

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Being a writer is fun.

Being a writer is spending all day in your imagination,

Flying over mountains,

Swimming deep in oceans,

Foiling criminals,

Demonizing someone,

Making someone a saint,

Falling in love, again, again, again,

Sometimes a wedding,

Sometimes a funeral,

Building dens,

Saving wild animals,

Seeing it from everyone’s point of view, and no-one’s.

All of the above.

And of course it’s fun – that’s why we do it. But it’s also very hard work.

A desk job that you can do at almost any desk or sofa.  That leaves you elated and exhausted in equal turns.

Full of doubts.

And that’s the dreamy creative, focussed outpouring bit.

But a massive part of it is editing, editing, editing.

And that’s really hard work. When it’s going well, it can be like stepping stones, wonderful paths that suddenly make sense and lead you on with silver promises of a story resolved. Other times it’s a dreadful slog. Sometimes boring, and sometimes challenging, and sometimes very nearly impossible.

It requires a totally different part of the brain.  The one that changes all the “ to ‘ except when it’s a ‘.

The part of the mind that spends half an hour thinking up an alternative phrase, trying every combination of words to keep the rhythm but improve the meaning.

The one that works out, to its horror, that the basic premise of the story is, in fact,  too far fetched. That the central character is unappealing.

And after rewriting and rewriting and rewriting,   (seven years of it)

The one that compares a manuscript to to its original, and finds that of 52,000 words, only 2500 remain.

That is being a writer.

 

 

Episodic story telling.

 

Like many other people across the country, and even across the world, I’m an Archers listener.

Recently I’ve become an addict, embroiled in the voyeuristic process of watching the loathsome Rob Titchener erode Helen Archer’s confidence – and everything else.

I’ve hung over the radio, listening to every second of the twelve minute episodes, craving more detail, more information, more time.  But the scriptwriters give us tiny jewels and we go away and tweet and wonder and read articles about it in the Guardian, coming back night after night to glean a little more of this awful story.

Now I’m not here to comment on the content, lots of people who know far more have said wiser things than I ever could, but I’m interested in the form.

What intrigues me is that we know these stories can have no end – they’re soap operas – like real life. Unless all the characters die in a freak accident their stories will go on into potential old age, so what’s in it for us?

Some might say, suspense.

I’d say, it was anxiety.

If the episodes were longer – and we had the whole thing in say, two and half hours, I suspect we might lose interest.  But the format builds anxiety.  It’s like cliffhanger chapters every twelve minutes. This way, we get hooked.  It’s a kind of worried buzz.  I’m sure I’m not the only person who failed to breathe throughout Sunday’s episode.

If, like me you’re a fan of crime drama, you may have spent this spring carrying episodes of Shetland, Luther, Hinterland, Happy Valley, Marcella, The Night Manager, Trapped and Undercover – all in your head.  You might even have tried to catch up on previous series at the same time, new Shetland, old Shetland overlapping.

It’s all very tense.  For an hour you’re caught up in it and then left clawing the TV for the next episode.  If, like me, you watch enough of it, and the Danish sea captain is the same as the victim’s father from a previous series, you can get quite muddled – which adds to the anxiety.

Curiously, these stories don’t have to follow the conventions of story arcs or resolutions, or character development.  They can actually be full of plot holes too.  But they leave you desperate for more and completely unable to satisfy it except by waiting or watching in binges. (Preferred method in this house)

And I’d argue that it may get ratings, but it’s not a natural or a robust way to tell a story.

I’d argue, that when we first gathered around fires in the dark and told stories – we were held in the storyteller’s circle for the whole narrative.   We sat absorbed, learning every scrap there was to know.  We probably asked questions, we probably heard the story more than once.  And it satisfied us.

That pattern has been followed by most of our literature over the centuries.  Our love of books comes from the ability  to read at your own pace, overnight if you have to, until you get to the finale.  A child’s reading can often take off when the story  or the character grabs them and they HAVE to get to the conclusion.  When we enter into a book, we seek something that heightens our anxiety, thrills us,  but lets it fall again at the end.  Something that explores and potentially resolves our fears.

Which is why I’ll be sticking to crime fiction from the stacks rather than the iplayer from now on –

Except – is it nearly 7 o clock – shall I just find out what’s happened to that loathsome Rob Titchener?