Reading, Writing, and Always being Kind…

(My July contribution to the ‘Authors Electric’ blog, reproduced here) “Be kind” 

A few weeks before lockdown, a well-known celebrity took her own life, leaving a note advising others to “be kind”. This may or may not have been the source of advice which circulated, as we began to live shut away from crowds, and thus places of business and pleasure, that we should now do “Small acts of kindness” to neighbours. An effort to create some coping mechanism, some feeling of community, and hope, and to take us out of ourselves.

Well-meaning but in danger, as the words became a meme, of joining with those BBC News tropes of “unprecedented”, “uncharted waters” and “strange times” which, while describing something, also managed to describe nothing. How, exactly, do we perform “little acts of kindness” when all are separated and not to get together? Of course, we do find ways… What I’m saying is, stand back and think — is it worrying that we need to be told? Is it sobering that normally we don’t do these?

Lockdown has become a meme – a subject overdone – yet lockdown is different for everyone, and has provided the chance for reflection to a society which doesn’t reflect very much. On to the next thing, and let’s hope for excitement — as was said of Millennials, “they don’t want material goods like their parents do — they want experiences”.

A Change of Reading

One small change I found myself led into was reading matter. As an avid fiction fan, my habitual reading has being in the area of long, moderately challenging novels.

Not the popular Hilary Mantel ones (though many began lockdown with reading her latest). My taste has been a tour of novels by non-British, non-white writers whose cultures I don’t know with the histories and religious bases which formed them. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Leila Aboulela’s Bird Summons. I returned to reading Barbara Kingsolver, her latest two novels, (Unsheltered and Flight Behaviour) exploring in fictional form the effects of climate change. My lockdown change was a desire to turn to lighter novels, and to actually enjoy a “cosy mystery” set on a Greek island, (Murder your Darlings) and a diary-style account of teaching in a secondary school, tragi-comic and firmly set in today’s Middle England (Miss, What does Incomprehensible Mean?) . Challenged by having the time, I watched TV’s adaptation of Normal People, and the sociologist in me kicked in to consider its meaning. Another contemporary romance, Mix Tape, had also caught my attention, and I thought that these two stories, both published as books in the past five years, demonstrate the truth of the “plus ça change” nature of human beings and what they expect from a romance novel…, and this between couples from opposed cultures, although all Western and all-white.

A Challenge on Content

Interestingly, in both stories attraction is strong and physical, taking place initially at school, cultural differences are of class, both “girls” have difficult abusive homes, both “boys” loving and nurturing ones. Both girls “escape” to a new life where they blossom. Both boys have not known the extent of the abuse the girls had suffered. Both couples keep their relationship a secret from the abusive home. Are these the present day memes of romance novels, I wondered? Mix Tape — taking place in the late 1970s — ends with reuniting the couple, whereas Normal People, a millennial tale, ends with parting for career reasons.

But then, I read the book. Memes they may be, but Sally Rooney’s story tells more than can be conveyed by the dimly-lit, meaningful looks of the TV adaptation convey. The inner lives of her protagonists, troubled by doubt around issues of identity and worth, weave in and out of this on-off relationship and give, albeit in unrelenting flat prose, what is not there in the dialogue. The tragedy of the romance between two school misfits is that each has been unknowingly the other’s tutor in adolescent development. And the ending, a disappointment to many reviewers, is indicated (though not overtly stated): as adults they — or certainly Marianne has — achieved the ability to do without the other.  Whereas in Mix Tape (set in the late 20th century) the protagonists are all set, at the end, to elope together, leaving marriage partners and grown children behind.

An indication that the meme has moved on from romance to a reality where the individual’s own career trumps caring about a person close to themselves, and self dominates over all human relationships? Or have they merely matured, rather than “using each other”? A point to consider for my review, on my website.

Reading romance novels, albeit serious ones, makes me wonder about how much the romance genre meme is an indicator of the health, or not, of a society. And put my own work under the spotlight: does my work (novels Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year) fall into “unshelvable” due to a low ratio of sex to other issues of the couples’ daily lives?

Is this because it shows too much of how they carry out the scientific interests and work which holds them together as much as physical attraction, how they work on a mystery together, and raises ethical and religious questions?It had seemed at the time of writing these weregiving the reader some stronger food than simply the sugar of the sex drive. And it was all part of the learning curve of my two young protagonists. Or, is my story-telling simply outdated as we move onwards?

A Chance of a Future

Well that is what I’ve learned, and shall we keep up the “little acts of kindness”? Many of us have learned, as the roads quietened and there was nowhere to go except our own gardens and the nearest walkable park or common, to slow down and appreciate the natural world. My hope is that we’ll continue to and live with an eye on the survival of more birds in our gardens, more wildflowers on the verges, and more insects to pollinate them. And of course the range of readers, like the range of books, is infinite, and the human psyche does actually often return to what’s easiest. Maybe I’ll write the action next, and leave out the romance?

And so, shall we all continue to be kind?

(…and by the way, what am I reading now? Another ‘cosy, light’ book, Stranger at St Brides, by my friend Debbie Young, and  Sally Rooney’s first, Conversations with Friends... plus ca change…)

Crashing out – is our language reflecting a more violent and impatient world?

Language is definitely a living, lively thing. But living and lively suggest the dance of words and meanings across the centuries, gathering as they go, changes of usage, suitability, and popularity, and welcoming and including immigrant words from our near neighbours and from across the globe. What is shaping English in the 21st century though? It’s a society which desperately needs to slow down, breathe deeply, and consider opening its heart and mind to seeing the good in others rather than the excitement of indulging prejudice and extremes. But instead violent catch-all metaphorical phrases have barged in, replacing relatively informative, longer, adjectival phrases.

photo by  vanveenjf-mS2ngGq6VO4-unsplash

As a writer, I don’t welcome this trend. Excuse me if I’m over-reacting, but don’t  these over-used examples demonstrate the genre, masculine, clearly the stuff of male-directed fiction? Turbocharged, a car crash, skyrocketing, spiralling out of control, crashing out of Europe.  And the latest, horribly shocking, and abhorant, as I heard on the radio recently, used like this: ‘we can’t throw Ireland under a bus’.

Based in technology, these phrases recall the sound of clashing metal, the stench of spilling petrol and burning oil, an attack on our fragile human bodies, total destruction. It’s all about large machines destroying things, and is often, even usually, applied inappropriately. For example, we might call Boris Johnson “Turbocharged”, or the economy “Spiralling out of control” but these phrases tell us nothing about the real character of the person who has become our Prime Minister, or about a situation except that it is urgent, exciting, and destructive. As for a car crash, is  this really necessary to  describe, for example, a teenager’s GCSE results? Or losing that house you so wanted to buy? And it is surely devastating to those who have experienced the real thing to use such a terrible scene of injury and suffering as a mere metaphor to bump up the drama of a business disaster?  As for crashing out of the EU, isn’t there perhaps something  frivolous in using ‘crashing out’ to describe what should (if it happens) be a serious, world-changing, political move?

Nouns have recently begun to replace phrases: physicality, positivity, viscerality, musicality. Yes, you can make one word do here – just add ‘ality’. But much more pleasant to keep physical, visceral, and musical, and place them in a phrase or sentence which harmonises (has harmonality?) with your description of the writing which you are describing? There’s a noun we use now, commonality, meaning that two (or more) things have something in common. One word is easily missed by anyone who has a problem with hearing.  Conflating a short adjectival phrase, (here “have in common”),  into a single noun could even be understood as a form of discrimination.

I wonder if these language changes have happened because we want to hurry up and get the talking over? We can’t be bothered to put together a longer sentence, it’s easier to seize upon a noun. This new 21st-century style is widespread, used verbally by broadcasters and written in newspapers and other journalism. I’m happy with the historic and inevitable shifting of language and ways in which we express things, and am no “grammar Nazi,” but I’m sad that the combination of these violent metaphors and the new adjective-to-noun formation is adding hurry and thoughtlessness to a society which already can’t even sit down to drink its coffee, but must carry a hot drink in a paper cup as it rushes towards the office, careering towards marketing more goods, growing the economy, and meanwhile destroying the planet.

Perhaps we could make the move to slow down by using language more gently and thoughtfully, and actually turning daily verbal and written interactions into a more pleasant read. Who else would join me in cutting out the petrol, and reducing the CO2 emissions in our speech?

For a quieter, more thoughtful, entertaining read, try my poetry… Available from my website: https://hodgepublishing.co.uk/

 

Are you still writing??

Beginning to settle on the storytelling for the next book, my idea for the opening page is a girl on a train…

“Are you still writing?” Friends – especially the long lost who reappear, visiting – sometimes ask. The answer– yes – looks untrustworthy, since the third book in the Mullins family saga series, hasn’t yet appeared, and number two, The Labyrinth Year was published in 2014.

‘So – are you?’

My “Mullins Family – book 3″ hasn’t yet appeared for unavoidable reasons: health, computer problems, politics. I’m picking up from there, publishing a selection of poems, ironically perhaps relating to those years 1997-2007. and redesigning (with a designer) the Hodge website. Some writers, either by contract or by their own choice, must aim to turn out a book a year. Their readers expect it. Are these always a good read?  Maybe. Or maybe not. Even within a genre, (and genres which follow must-have elements and expectations, such as ChickLit, fast paced thrillers, cosy crime, police procedurals), there’s variation. It takes committed, well informed, professional writers, often with a background in journalism and no “day job” to do a really good job on a yearly basis. My kind of thought provoking books will always take longer, involving research, time to mull this over, and integrate it into a plot with a story arc and satisfying conclusion.

So, I’d thought, ten fictional years forward for each novel. Book two is set in 1997, that’s then a leap forward – to 2007.  Enormous social and political change took place in those ten years. Pre-millennium, governed by Tony Blair’s New Labour, life was very different. We were on the edge of the financial crash but most of us didn’t know.

Pre 2000, we were warned to fear the “millennium bug” which could potentially ruin computer systems. Thanks to hard work from techie people this didn’t happen. But instead, terrorism struck in 2001 –  9/11 shocked and rocked the world. And catapulted the world into a different era. Followed by, in 2016, the idea that we should leave the EU in a process called “Brexit”.

Pre-2000… post Brexit…????

Quite how life in 2007 would speak to us today, when our minds are filled with wars, terrorism, paedophile scandals, Brexit negotiations and now knife crime, what would be exciting about the year before 2008?  Even post 9/11 and the London bombs of 2005, it was still a time of innocence compared to today’s news. Even adding a dimly growing awareness of Climate Change … Book 3 is now set in 2017.

My heroine is a Millennial, Jenny and Max Mullins’s daughter born in 1992, a five year old in 1997. We find her, Alice aged 25, in tears as she travels by train, her mind full of memories… She has recently opened a box and found items she’d saved back in 2007, aged 15. What these memories are should unfold as the story moves along, and we learn of the personal tragic end to that year for Alice. The climax of the idea for 2007… but not the same book…

It’s going to stretch my imagination, and my research capability, to get inside Alice’s mind, but it is an exciting prospect. Have you a book within you, disrupted by political change?

Live… Lose… Learn… poetry by Mari Howard will be available later this year… look out for it soon on the new Mari Howard Hodge website…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The writer, the Sussex Chair, & Brexit

Maybe it is the time of year: after the solstice, a time of hope or after crazy Christmas, a time of space. For whatever reason, the collective spirit has lightened, even though the world still seems to be at war with itself. A friend who was in deep gloom over Christmas and New Year writes that her depression has lifted, another of that how being “stuck” in her writing, composing a silly poem about that has freed her up again, and I’m  being weirdly inspired by a chair.Version 2

The chair has always been in my family, it was in my room as I grew up. We inherited it from my grandparents, and it just looks like an ordinary upright chair with a rush seat. Apparently it came from artist’s studio, which kind of gave it a romantic feel when I was a teenager, and somehow it seems to have followed me around and is still in our house today. It’s in the room where I paint. A couple of years back, I put the chair in a painting of a child in a strop, an artistic child whose foster mother only understands pink and spangly girls, but this is a denim jeans, creative small girl who hates her pink bedroom. Although she isn’t me, I understand her. The girl is Daisy, known Daze, a character in my Mullins family series, currently two novels Baby Baby, and The Labyrinth Year.

In June 2016 we went on holiday to our favourite place in Cornwall, and the sun shone as we picnicked, on 23rd, with crowds of others at a picturesque typical Cornish cove… When we came home, the painting wasn’t working. I simplified painting the chair, leaving out the essence of the design. I was also really stuck with the third novel, had problems with my computer, had a nasty illness, decided the website needed a make-over, submitted to gloom and pessimism.

And here’s the thing: today I discovered this is actually a ”Sussex Chair”. The spools on the back are central to a design otherwise characterised by simplicity and practicality. It’s a well known William Morris ‘arts and crafts’ design (though ours is a version without the arms). The story – that it came from an artist’s studio – fits with the period it was made.

Strangely that lifted the gloom: knowing I have to make a proper drawing of the chair, do the  intricate and worthy task, a work that takes time and care. It’s a kick-start to getting the novel writing going, and it’s come alongside finally having the website and computer problems solved.

Odd how a chair can call you back to creativity.

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Writing my series in Winter

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The large pond at our local Nature Reserve, a photo of the resting and waiting which sums up winter. I’m so glad Christmas and New Year are gone now, and we begin looking up towards the longer days and the creeping up of  new shoots and signs of spring!

A few days ago, some writer friends were talking about writing for Christmas in the summer months – I am trying to write about summer as nature is lying low under frost (and hopefully not more snow!) and low cloud. It’s cold, damp, and horrible  here: the pond surrounded by thick, dark, mud, the trees bare except for the clinging ivy, the reeds broken, brown and collapsed.

Meanwhile, the volunteers who care for the reserve have (and are) running work parties to cut, prune, and plant … out there in warm clothing, hats, boots, gloves … And their work will encourage birds (already just beginning to practice their mating songs), butterflies (maybe there are crysalis/pupa hiding cosily amongst the apparently dead vegetation, or the piles of lopped-down logs), I know there are eggs of a particular butterfly somewhere in there, safely waiting … It’s all poised, even as we hurry by, nipped by a north wind and frozen by the incredible damp of living between several rivers …

Yesterday afternoon I walked through the sticky mud, under the low, grey sky, along a waterside path … and yes, this swan couple are back to dating, having driven away last year’s teenage brood … signs of spring, fertility, and the return of warmth to the sun, and colour to life!

So glad I am writing about my characters in summer … the long, damp summer of 2007 … when there is mystery, distress, and growing up to be done …

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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, creativity, and cliché

Writers and readers: how often have you read or even written something like this: ‘Where a divan bed (substitute tea pot, table, pile of books …etc) served as sofa (dormouse’s house, desk, support for a pot plant …etc)’? Or given your protagonist, male of female, a ‘stiff white shirt’?

Cliché abounds in the world of writing …

How about the inevitable ‘procrastinating …’ which all writers must admit to?  How about ‘and should I have heard of you?’ as the (dreary, hopefully positive) response to admitting you actually write to earn your daily crust? (Or not, as the case may be – because you procrastinate?) (And the turning away …) Do you spend your life in pyjamas, no time to dress properly , the Muse awaits … You surely don’t wear that stiff white shirt – how does one move the arms when wearing one of those? Won’t it crackle when the hero embraces the heroine (in her stiff white shirt)?

To be serious,

this is meant to be about that first cliché – the divan/teapot/table/pile of books which serve … Never mind it’s cliché (a thing can’t serve – can’t it?)  The thing was being used as whether it chose or not. Let’s get creative: what other ways to say that someone hadn’t a sofa/dormouse’s house/desk/pot plant stand, and grabbed the only substitute to hand …

Meanwhile – I guess when someone is needed to do something, ‘will you serve as …’ is more reasonable. We serve on committees, we serve (if in the military) our country, we serve (if a shop worker) our customers. We can serve a meal …

Now, here’s the thing:

writing in the SH
Writing and gardening: creative stuff!

serving relies on, well, reliability. As a ‘creative’, as a person who writes, I know that I am not reliable. In a fallow phase, I may serve (in a toddler group, for example, or making cakes to sell at a fete) but, in full flight with a deadline, writing a novel, I can’t promise to serve reliably. Or should I? Which takes precedence: the writing or the service to others?

Good question. Some people would say, ‘You must be faithful to yourself, and achieve your goals’.

Personally, I’m not sure about that one. It feels isolationist … and a bit self-important. Solipsistic, in fact.

However, as ‘a creative’, I know I am not reliable. I know my novel, and my paintings,

Daze 11 /04
Even a creative kid has the problem! 

are important, they are who I am … They will die without my help to bring them to birth …When there’s a call to serve – on the charity stall, the committee, putting out chairs for the concert, counting the traffic so we residents can complain to the council … Or, in more serious, long-term ways, Is that a good excuse? Can creatives make good volunteers?

Over to you …

‘Reading and writing: what do writers do all day?’

Good question. From a series, asking ‘What do Artists do all day?

In my writing – well, what do I do all day? 

Is it ‘writing’?  Actually, unwinding the story thread onto the page/screen? In reality: it’s housework, on-line-admin (dreary but dreary!), keep the fridge stocked, keep the garden from becoming a wilderness, keep in touch on-line to maintain a ‘platform’ (!), research for writing, planning for writing, thinking for writing, actual writing …

Trying to reach the point where you can enter the zone and work … without interruptions from real life, on-line life, or the cats … While lots of writing happens in my head, where it queues for the opportunity to hit the keys …

Reading is absolutely essential for writing.

Writers don’t only write reviews of other writers’ books,  and whiter about sales, marketing, and the Amazon algorithms (we do all of that): they exchange gossipy stuff like ‘what are you reading?’ (we’re hoping the others will respond ‘Your book, of course!’)

Today I found this note (to one of my on-line groups), sitting on my desktop:

“You asked the group what we’re reading. I’m reading Jessica Bell’s memoir ‘I Didn’t Mean to be a Rebel’ and Jodi Picoult’s ‘Great Small Things’. In tandem. Alternately. Together. And when I have time! Both insightful and both recommended. I’ve just finished Francis Guenette’s ‘No Compass to Right’ and am writing up a review of this lovely compassionate character-driven fourth novel in her Crater Lake series. (Yes, it’s all the heavy brigade story-wise: thoughtful, thought-provoking, and somewhat sociological … but never ever boring …) Well, you did ask …!”

Reading, like writing, is time-consuming.

But is the way you learn to write. (I happen to think it is one of the very best ways, and am grateful after nearly 50 years (gosh, it really is!) that we read Dickens at school. I never thought I’d be a writer … but looking back, reading Dickens wasn’t a waste of time in a past era where people thought differently, but a wonderful example of how to create and keep up dramatic tension! (Yes, I’d read them straight through, to find out what happened, not chapter by chapter as homework…)

books read June-August 2017
Books I’ve read over the summer …

Have you, reading this, read any of these?

(You can find reviews of some the books I’ve recently read, here on the Hodgepublishing website … shall be adding more reviews, including of the Picoult and Jessica Bell’s, soon… You can also read about, or purchase my books Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year, on the website …)

Hearing or seeing

Do you hear or see words on a page? Does it make a difference to your reading? In my family, the creative arts are represented by music and visual arts: people don’t write, or at least, they don’t write for a living, or write fiction. Very interesting. I realise that I hear what I read, and when I write, I see it like a movie, and I hear the words as the file out onto the page. There’s the musical ear, then. Despite I don’t play an instrument or sing.

As a writer, it’s almost impossible not to read ‘critically’, studying the style without really wanting to. Cliches can’t not jump out, and slow passages beg to be edited. Authors divide into two groups: let’s call them ‘raconteurs’] and ‘experiencers’. Raconteurs take the reader to a cafe, and having ordered two coffees (let’s say), and palate of delicious cakes, proceed to tell the tale. Or maybe it’s the pub, a pint, and sandwich.

Experiencers take the reader by the hand, and draw them right inside the story. ‘Here we are, step into my book: we’ll share the lives of the characters, we’ll feel what they feel as they feel it, see what they see when they see it, run from it if it’s scary, be embraced by it if it’s friendly, scent it, taste it, live it …’ You are inside, not noticing the story arc, not stopping long enough for a character to ‘tell herself …’ anything, because she has thought it, in the instant it took:  ‘Courage! Take care! Trembling at the roaring of the dragon in the mouth of the cave, I seize my magic sword. Excalibur! I’m charging towards the beast, lungs painfully gulping breaths, legs shaking, as the sweat rolls down my back..’

I love those writers who draw you into the book. I learn from them. A good story, with a great plot, can always be a page-turner as it unfolds. But when are you inside one which gives you the all-round experience … you stop reading, to study how this works … It’s one of the things which writers do – work to improve our writing. Edit and re-write, edit and re-write…

For this of course it’s preferable to be a person who loves solitude, which I am not. To write, I must climb inside my own work in progress, meet my characters once again, and fully engage …

You can find a good article on the process of writing here: (I agree with a lot of it, but not all (for example, I definitely don’t go for the arse on your chair whatever bit (unhealthy, and battering the  brain when it’s empty and needs to relax a while doesn’t work for all of us!… but, it’s comprehensive, lively and entertaining …)

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 call it Pigs to Paintings when it’s about Writing?

pigs through seami st, Pendeenallotments
 Pigs in a sea mist, on the Pendeen Allotments

Today I happened to read a survey for writers. “How much time do you spend outdoors and not sitting down?” It asked. Interesting? Writing has in the past few years sent me back into the outdoors, to walk and observe the natural world. Writing also sent me back to painting a few years ago. Writing, engaging the brain while sitting at a computer, seems to almost demand that human beings return to the practical, the hands on, and use the old skills. The open air calls to be breathed. Many people who work in an office all day are taking up crafts such as knitting, baking, cake decorating as well as painting and drawing in order to satisfy the need to create in three dimensions, and to use their hands rather than simply their “digits” or fingers.

So why those pigs, huh?

We have been away recently to West Cornwall, the inspiration for my novel Baby Baby. Cornwall is a county of contrasts – you wake to sea mist, then in a few hours there is a blue sky and the hot sunny day. See mists wraps the place in the chilly gloom making Midsummer look very much like November, (see photo above, taken 6th July this year!) Contrast the craggy cliffs and deep ” zawns” with the flat of the moors, or the poverty of tumbledown abandoned cottages and Pound Shops on the high Street with the sleek cars bringing surfers to the coast. Or the life of the Newlyn artists’ colony with the lives of their models, the fishing community, vulnerable to whatever the weather threw at them. The villages are dotted with chapels from revival times, a witness perhaps to reliance thrown upon God in an uncertain world.

Ah, the bit about writing … and the paintings …

This year’s holiday in Pendeen village, in far West Cornwall, was a timely reminder, as following on to The Labyrinth Year I am writing the third story in the Mullins family saga series. Part of the story will involve how Jenny and Daze face the possible end of Des and Caro’s marriage and selling of Chapel house, their childhood home. Will Jenny decide that she has grown away from her Cornish roots or will her return to confront her mother and stepfather reactivate the pull of memories and landscape? Meanwhile another more serious question hovers in the background of Jenny and Max’s life, as friends from their past reappear, but will they see what is coming? A tragedy involving Jenny’s workplace engages her mind as she tries to help Shaz through a difficult time. While Daze and her story escape notice.

All this is planned, and now the writer in me must reluctantly be seated at the computer, while the call of the wild remains as memories of time spent walking in the Cornish landscape, or at the beach.

Oh, and Pigs to Paintings was the day when we began by walking up onto the moorland, in the mist, and came upon the allotments and the pigs, and ended it by viewing Stanhope Forbes’s wonderful paintings at the Penlee Gallery, with sunshine, blue sky, and tea outdoors at the gallery cafe. Cornish holidays …

Sennen whitesands beach