Being authentic, Writing about Christmas …

It’s snowing … when it snows here in the UK, we all get very excited … all morning, couples, groups, and families passed our front windows, hurrying towards the nearest green space (it’s fairly near), big smiles on their faces, and pom-pom hats on their heads … It’s kind of sweet and funny … All too soon the snow will melt into a brown slush, the slush will freeze to treacherous ice … but until then, it’s winter wonderland, all set for Christmas.P1060646.JPG

In my novel, The Labyrinth Year, I wrote two Christmas scenes: a magical carol service, and an up-beat celebration in a church, where the Vicar wore reindeer antlers … At the end of the service, as they leave,  Max, (the Dad) remarks how the congregation’s emotions were played on by the music … Although Mum Jenny accuses him of cynicism, he has a point …Christmas, St Margaret's

Christmas is a difficult time …A couple of weeks back, a Facebook friend and fellow writer posted that she ‘loathes’ Christmas … and she’s right, though loathing is a pretty strong word, it’s good to make us face up to this: Christmas is an utterly problematic time. I mean, it’s silly: in the middle of a dark, cold, depressing, season, everyone is required to shop till they drop, give and attend parties, perform plays, sing carols, travel across country (maybe continents) to be with family members, to send cards, give presents, be happy, and generally expend extra energy. And catch each other’s seasonal illnesses. Street decorations vie with one another for splendiferousness, and multiple decorated trees appear in the stores and on the pavements. Those vast tins of mixed biscuits appear in the supermarkets …IMG_2354

I want to cover my ears and my eyes: I want to escape …

Do you love it all? Or do you feel it makes a mockery of the (various) religious, and even secular, bases for this, by being a time of spend spend spend when people can run up debts, and when the really desperately poor and the homeless are thoughtlessly given the message that they are left out of all this ‘by circumstances’. It’s really (possibly unintentionally?) hammered home. Even if there is a tad more shelter, and with a Christmas lunch at Crisis, it’s not … well … it’s just not.

We are planning a very plain Christmas with moderate ‘feasting’, trying to be happy and friendly without the BIG stuff which obscures the bottom line reason why Christmas is there. Why indeed is it? In a secular society, the reasoning behind the gift-giving has lost its edge, the causes for celebration obscured. Not that we shouldn’t give and celebrate – but, let’s be honest, it’s come adrift from the story in those carols, hasn’t it?Crib scene knitted

Did you know that the ‘old fashioned Christmas’ was not a big festival as it is today? In Samuel Pepys’ day, 25 December wasn’t a public holiday. And even not so long ago, people (for example my grandfather) worked up to the end of Christmas Eve, or even worked a half day on Christmas Day itself. Families didn’t necessarily give big presents and a Tree wasn’t assumed to be bought every year.  A mid-winter festival is a chance for fun, but I truly believe this is not necessarily a time for every school to produce a play, and a carol concert, or for evangelising the population, or  to entice people into church with carols, candles, and mince pies… or for getting into debtP1120758

I remain a believer in the Christ who taught compassion, healing, wholeness, inclusiveness, justice for the poor, etc. – and if he was really born into poverty and greeted by angels and shepherds, that is wonderful. But, I feel a lot of empathy with everyone who ‘loathes’ what Christmas has become, and with those who look around and take offence at its public face … This is not a ‘Christian country’ (could such a country ever exist?  Faith isn’t about political boundaries – and if it’s about family, and friends, it’s about caring and sharing.xmas choc cake

Whether or not you attend the Carols by Candlelight, the Panto, the parties, the Midnight Mass, and watch the Queen’s Speech … whether or not you eat turkey and drink Prosecco, wearing a funny hat … whether or not it snows…

To read about Christmas, New Year, and a whole 1996-7 family experience, go to our website to find more about The Labyrinth Year … and the prequel, Baby, BabyBB & TLY covers photo

 

The Fun of Writing a Series

Mullins family saga mindful painting

The fun of writing a series – my fellow author and member of Alliance of Independent Authors Francis Guenette’s blog post a few weeks ago inspired me to write about fun of writing a series. Francis had asked whether we as readers were ‘fans of serialised fiction’ – did we enjoy reading or watching a series or prefer one-off, ‘stand-alone’, stories? My response was that I love reading a series and I am enjoying writing one, (the Mullins Family Saga – if I’d known it was to become a series, though, I would have given Max Mullins a more noble, memorable, surname perhaps! Dashwood? Or Mac-something?)

Examining the subject, it is fun, but it also creates its own drawbacks.

For example, November is Nano-month: many writers will use ‘NaNoWriMo’  ( National Novel Writing Month) to scribble down the basics of a novel, in the form of chunks of unedited script, on a daily basis throughout November. Why November? Well in the northern hemisphere November can be the dreariest of all months. After the beauty of October days, with bright sunshine and the trees in their autumn colours, November brings the true end of the year in our gardens and countryside, shorter days, long dark nights, increasing cold. And it is not yet Christmas, so, how to keep going? For writers, hunker down with storytelling.

For a first-time attempt at the long haul of a novel, Nano offers a solution to the question ‘how do I get the first 50,000 words down?’ But for the long-distance series writer, the attraction of ‘just keep going’ will never work. Once you have novel number one published, you have your characters in situ, and they must now develop in believable ways, following up the first story with what they really might do next.  You have family history, you have disputes to carry through or to resolve. You have consequences and memories.

And, that’s also the reason to move into a series. Exploration, and taking things further within established constraints. Seeing if they learn from experience, if they cope with new circumstances … That is the fun of it. And, therein lie the restraints.

After Baby, Baby, will Max and Jenny stay married, given the vast differences in their childhoods? And if so, how and why? How will their kids turn out? How do their careers and ambitions develop? What will crazy Daisy do next?

Even though I don’t subscribe to the rather romantic idea ‘the characters tell me what they will do next’, I have found, working on story number three, that there are some threads leading from past events into a future which I had not exactly planned, or planned at all. In The Labyrinth Year, two of the characters are growing closer as the book progresses, and now 10 years on from there, they are still in touch.

This was ‘never meant to happen’. It is enormously exciting to follow and see where it may go. And, it demands a whole lot of research …in unexpected areas.

On the other hand, they look to be making a bid for the centre stage, not where these two were planned to be in this story. Do some characters ‘come to life’ without the author’s orchestrations? Romantic whimsey, or psychologically predictable? What do you think?

Baby, Baby, and The Labyrinth Year (The Mullins Family Saga, books 1 and 2), published by Hodge Publishing, are available in paperback (or on Kindle). Find more about them on the Hodge website: http://hodgepublishing.co.uk/

Read Francis Guenette’s blogpost on being fans of serialised fiction here

Writing: Living in the Gaps in between … cats, blackberries, and pruning the jasmine … an overview …

blackberries
Distractions or necessary reality? 

One of those conversations appeared on Facebook today: the ones between writers where someone suggests (or puts up someone else’s blog suggesting) that we must ‘write something every day, in order to keep up/improve your writing skills.’   …’

Another version is ‘morning pages’: upon waking, or as soon as possible after (take the kids to school, feed the cat, walk the dog …etc, but do not forget you’re a writer) seize your notebook and write solidly for ten to twenty minutes. Not stopping, and even if what you write is rubbish. This will improve your skills, keep you writing …

There was some disagreement: is this helpful, or even wise? One person puts a new poem on her blog everyday. Another swears by deadlines, rather than daily practice. You get idea.

In practice, I don’t write every day, but I’m living in the gaps in between. Between my physical life and the life in my creative brain, where a scene can rest for days before there is space (between the realities) to write. And when that arrives, the scene may improve (vastly) on its sketchy beginnings.

The last scene I wrote, I’d only imagined in advance that Jenny (a research scientist and a mum two teenage girls) would at some point, at home, be discussing with her daughters what the family would all do at half term. When the scene arrived on the laptop, it brought along its own vivid details: (here’s an edited extract …)

‘How about,’ Zoe says, as she sidles into our study, bringing a tray with two mugs of mug of hot chocolate laced with vanilla, and the cinnamon biscuits she’s been making, ‘How about – it’s very boring for anyone who’s in a single parent family. When their Mum has to go to work. And they’ve just been told that if they bring a book along, they can read quietly in the St Hildie’s library…’

I shut down the rather peculiar e-mail I’ve been reading, and slide my arm around Zoe. ‘Zo-zo, this smells like heaven, darling. Have seat.’

‘Shall I move these?’

‘Careful. Can you dump those files on the window seat? I’ll need them tomorrow.’

… Then, head on one side, ‘Mummy, I thought, maybe we could ask Annalise to come with us to Granny’s house at Sennen?’

Mmm, I think. Daze will be there, with Rothko. Rothko, aged eight, is hardly a companion for a thirteen year old, slightly geeky, girl. Where would we all sleep? ‘I’ll think about it.’

‘For how long? Will you think?’

‘As long as it takes?’  We could, I realise, take a tent and pitch it in the garden. We have a family-sized tent, in the attic. Annalise and Stacey are, however, not really my kind of person. What is it with children, when they make friends with people you’d never hang out with? ……

  ……. ‘Mummy?’

‘Yes, Zo-zo.’ (She’s been reading one of the undergraduate scripts, something I shouldn’t let her do.) ‘Okay, … I’m wondering if Granny and Des would be okay with us pitching our tent in their garden, and some of us – maybe you and Annalise – could use it to sleep in? Because it’s hardly an elastic house, and Daze will be staying, with Rothko.’

‘Yes!’ Zoe punches the air. ‘And that’ll keep Rothko out of our things. I’ll take a padlock, zip up the tent and padlock it: during the day of course.’

‘I hope that’s just an idea, not something you’re planning?’

‘Rothko can be a pain…Shall I phone Annalise?’

Hot choc with vanilla, cinnamon biscuits, undergraduate examination papers, and Zoe’s sudden request to bring a particular friend whom Jenny isn’t keen on … that all arrived  and the scene came alive – and did I add,it takes place in a twilight room with Jenny;s desk illuminated by just a small lamp? I  had better …

Today a further scene forms in my mind: they have arrived at Jenny’s old home in West Cornwall, the holiday venue. Jenny’s partner (Max, a GP) is putting up the tent in the garden for Zoe and Annalise to sleep in. Possibly, it is raining or there is a sea mist: I don’t yet know which will arrive. Or, maybe, a wonderful golden Cornish seascape sunset… Max hears Jenny and stepsister Daze arguing inside the house… Where and when will he ask Daze to ‘lay off Jenny, she’s got a lot on her mind. A rather upsetting thing happened at work…’ and Daze counters with ‘You’re assuming I’ve got not problems in my life right now?’ (And will she, as she used to in a previous book, add a few choice bits of colourful language, or has she left that behind? Does she still smoke? Where are the kids? Who’s listening?)

It will reveal itself as I type – but the essence is stored already. It cooks gently in small gaps between the realities of the day.  Both cats had routine health checks. The jasmine (fastest growing fragrant shrub I know!) got pruned so the plants living its shade could see the sky. We went blackberry picking: the warmer drier weather earlier means fruits are ripening earlier. The bramble blushes were covered with more berries than I’ve ever seen, shiny black ripe ones, red ones coming on, a few still tightly green.

bee on thistle
Busy on its daily tasks …

There were rabbits bounding about, bees on the late thistle flowers, and a huge gorse bush covered in yellow blooms. A kestrel watching in the sky.

The berries (several kilos of them) will become jam.

Seems to me we fiction writers live two lives in tandem: words and events, words and events. Keeping the writing flowing along may not rely only on writing every day but on living creatively in the gaps in between.

Oh, but I did write yesterday, didn’t I? I hand wrote a long letter, to a friend I keep up with now she’s moved away… The pleasure to scribble away by hand, not typing a keyboard …

Why really do writers not write? Why?

study 1
Winter writing space …

We are told…

how to combat writers’ block (is it a myth? Or not?), to carve out time for ourselves and our writing, to spend 10 minutes writing, even if its nonsense, every day. We are told how to overcome procrastination. But in the real world of writing, what really screws up and halts creation?

 Stuff happens …

We’ve just had that thing happen, the thing which heralds winter more than the fog, switching on the central heating, or Hallowe’en.  When you go you upstairs in a lovely warm house, only to step into the bathroom, put on the light, and discover a small river now runs across from the radiator to the bath … That.

You seize the nearest bath towel to stem the river in its tracks. It is definitely not time to go to bed for a quiet read after a long day spent at the keyboard creating an imaginary world.. . Or to have a lovely hot shower where inspiration pours like water onto and into your head. It’s time to ring the emergency plumber … Not a situation to set the creative juices on their way, (unless you can incorporate the plumber of course, and throw together a bit of flash fiction (as my friend Debbie Young probably would!)

And of course there’s always stuff, happy things, (a first grandchild) and irritating things, (try to sell a house in today’s market …), re-designing a website, writing book reviews)

As we in the Northern Hemisphere plunge down into the season of cold, darkness, and bare leafless trees, we are living in dark times.

“Brexit”, the USA election prospects, the increasing violence in Syria, with destruction of cities, civilians, children, and classic artefacts, is enough to knock the idea of writing fiction out of anyone’s head. What use is fiction? What purpose does it serve?

As inside my own community, a microcosm of the world at war – discontent, destruction, disillusion are everywhere. Food Banks are common, and rough sleepers. Even the doctors go on strike over conditions of work, and are opposed by the government.

Writing feels like a cop-out, unless it changes something for the better.

The rebellion of the computer!

What a creature it is – moody and rebellious, its sensitivities rear up to block the rifles flow of words – and I do not mean by ’writer’s block’.

E-mails and messages straight from the beast itself demand attention: check your security, change your password! These could be genuine or they might be phishing. Better do as it says, change the privacy settings, but do not click on any of the addresses the email suggested.  Many of the computers complaints or demands take an hour or so of tripping between windows and websites, searching the net for forums to gain wisdom, creating new ways to access and protect your data, and even indulging in serious online chat.

My computer suffered major slowdown last spring, only solved after much trial and error, by fitting a new solid-state hard disk. The initial cause? Upgrading to EL Capitan!

Procrastination? Hardly. Unless you count avoiding beginning the work day, in order to give a stream of frustrations and interruptions.

Happy writing!

p1220266-1
 Summer writing space (on a grey day!) 
spike on computer
On the computer, ready to help…

Writerly myths: ‘I’ll put you in my novel!’

I’ll put you in my novel!

It’s a classic myth: along with the writerly notebook carried at all times. Once you let it out, you’re a writer, the first question from family and close friends, ‘Oh, are you  going to put us in your novel?’ (Groan)

If you are a writer, the tease, ‘I’ll put you in my novel!’

working in the SHLet’s look at the myth…

So writers always carry notebooks, and have this habit of seizing the moment, and noting down anything which can later appear in their writing? Writers are people who sew patchwork quilts from scraps on real life…articles, novels , etc.? Maybe.

There is after all great skill in choosing colours, and maybe following the old American quilt designs. And in all those tiny, tiny stitches (unless you cheat and use your machine …)

But using lives …Is it kind, is it honourable, is it ethical, do we have the right?

Of course, we may’ve spread the word tongue in cheek

… hard to tell how far into cheek. Just a little bit sideways (like a crooked smile?) or tucked safely away, as if to avoid the dentist’s drill?   

It might seem a bit disingenuous, but, my reaction to the mythical ‘Will you be putting us in your novel?’ is a genuine No.

Not only because I’d so hate it myself. ‘Put’ into a novel, like a china ornament placed on a shelf? The outside of me: the way I dress; my (oh too loud, a friend said recently) voice, booming across a room; my love of cats; or my circumstances as the mum of twins, who though living in the midst of sophisticated intellectuals and academics, does not drink wine?  Not the essential me. And, how stupid would I feel if, had I ‘put’ a friend or family person into a novel, when they read it, were upset, disgusted, or never spoke to me again? They’d have the right: we can’t know the inner selves of others, and a novelist, in essence, deals not in outsides but inner selves. And selves that fit.

Jigsaw People

It’s like a jigsaw: does this piece go there?  Or are we forcing it in, to hurry up and get the picture done? ‘Putting’ a person (name disguised) into a novel, means fitting them into the plot. Each character has a shape contributing to the whole. No good trying to force Aunt Jane, with her lugubrious hats, her high-Tory opinions, her little Westie terrier, into your romance set in Cairo… though maybe your best friend, the academic historian with the banker husband, might fit your international crime story … but would your Australian cousin suit that cosy mystery set in Elsfield, Oxfordshire, in 1946?  Like all misplaced jigsaw pieces, your real person who had that funny incident in the cafe will protest, by bulging, wobbling, becoming stuck at an awkward angle.  Nothing else will go right until you take it out again…

Making a cake

Do you like to eat cake? If you’re putting me  in your novel, (please don’t), you need to know that I enjoy baking, and eating, cake.  

cake for mondfulnessThe creative process is like baking: the ingredients, the raw materials, are the real people we know and meet, the strangers on buses and trains, the acquaintances from the exercise class … then all this needs processing in our brains, maybe over years, decades. After mixing, the raw cake is subjected to terrific heat inside the oven. By the time it is cooked and ready  to eat, who can tell which bit is flour, sugar, fat, egg … baking powder, a teaspoon of vanilla, a sprinkle of cinnamon? Or where those characters, busy interacting and unfolding their story, began?

Every novel is a mystery

So, whether a novel is crime, romance, sci-fi, adventure, it is always also a mystery.

As is the idea that your writer friend will put you in her novel (indeed, why you?)

Don’t be disappointed to discover you are not there. Or delighted that you are.  Whatever has been ‘done’ to turn a gallimaufry of people into a set of characters was probably done unawares … and that one’s not you at all! Maybe all of us fancy a little adventure, a romance, or to solve a crime mystery? Are people maybe asking for a slot, when they act scared they’ll be put in a novel?

The key to how it’s done …

is observation. What goes in the notebook or sticks in the mind is observation of the how, not the what, of human beings as a species.

Just my point of view …

Two Writers whose observation of the species ‘human’ I admire: 

Debbie Young, (an ALLi indie writer, and founder of the independent, Cotswold village based, Hawkesbury LitFest) for her wonderful ‘flash fiction’ books on twenty-first century living – try Marry in Haste for a humorous look at dating, deciding, and tying the knot.

Joanna Trollope, (well-established mainstream published, ‘She likes to tackle the apparently easy, but really very difficult subjects – how parents get on with their children, and vice versa – which many a lesser writer prefers to avoid.’ (Guardian Books, 11/02/16)). Whatever you think of  her subject matter (upper-ish middle class …) admire her acute observations of  small but telling physical actions … for example, a husband is behind his  newspaper. The wife taps on the newspaper with a teaspoon to get his attention… not a ‘classic trope’ but a small action typical of that kind of couple.

(Photos: my copyright, please request permission before using)