On the Road Again.

This week the sunshine came at last and promised to stay for a while: I spent the weekend sorting out the van, with the hope of getting back on the road soon. My year usually starts in early spring but there have been a few universal problems with getting out and about for a few months…

There was a lot to be done, too: there were masses of dead flies like spilled raisins all over the floor, lodged in every crevasse; the fridge was empty, holding a sour smell and a few splodges of something unappetizing, green mould blotching the yellowing white plastic interior. I washed all the stale bedlinen, fixed the drooping blinds and dusty curtains. The winter rain had seeped through the corner of the over-cab bed, leaving a green smudge that stank of old potatoes against the ceiling. Windows and doors were flung wide to encourage fresh air to fill spaces: everywhere was hoovered, including dusty rugs, crumpled cushions and seats, even the tiny shower cubicle.

Long-lost things were discovered again: books, a bottle of rosé wine, Marmite, knickers, a sock. My note pad and pen that I use to scribble down any bright ideas that might come my way while I’m travelling were stuffed in the cupboard alongside several tins of beans and a bag of rice: all needs must be catered for when I’m away, and that includes food and food for thought – which reminds me, I’ve bought a DAB radio and the next job will be to install it.

I have various trips lined up, many already planned to research locations for a new book. There will be a trip to Cornwall, one to South Wales, another to North Yorkshire. I want to go to Scotland again. I have clear ideas about what will happen in each place, and I know the characters that will be involved. All I need to do now is to stand on a beach somewhere and let all the thoughts come together, like a stirred pot.

June 21st is a landmark day. I’ll have had both vaccinations, so I could travel anywhere in England as long as I’m sensible. My first trip will be to get up at ridiculous o’clock and drive to somewhere that I can climb up a hill and watch the sun rise. Solstice is a time I usually make a big wish and this year I’ll go in the van, because I can. Then it has to be breakfast on a beach somewhere or, who knows, maybe even in a café. A year ago, who’d have imagined what a massive treat that would be – I haven’t had breakfast ‘out’ in more months than I can count on both hands.

The absence of travel has prompted me to think how important it is to make the most of each precious moment. Time is too busy to stand still. There are places to see, people to meet, fun to be had, memories to make. I won’t go abroad this year, although I’d love to. But there are so many beautiful places to visit in this country, some I’ve never been to, and other places where there are dear friends I haven’t seen in far too long. I’m even thinking of paying a visit to the small place where I was born and smile at how much or how little has changed – I haven’t been back for too long. Wherever I go, I will take happiness and laughter with me – that’s my only rule.

If it’s sunny, I’ll celebrate and if it rains then I’ll dance in puddles. The joy of it is all…

On Writing: why writing comedy can be so fascinating

Based on my radio interviews with SoundArt Radio and the wonderful Julie Mullen, here’s a blog post about writing comedy, whatever that might mean. I’ve been told that one genre I write might be termed ‘romantic comedy’, and so I’m always interested to talk about what makes people smile, what is uplifting, what is a laugh out loud moment and what, in fact, is one person’s idea of totally hilarious and not another’s. Comedy is such a diverse and fascinating subject, so here goes….

Recently, I watched a film at home on TV. It was called What Women Want, starring Mel Gibson, a romantic comedy in which Mel’s character is suddenly able to hear women’s private thoughts and respond by changing his behaviour, making him a much more attractive prospect. It wasn’t a film for me, although it’s very popular, but I didn’t find it funny at all. While others might have found it hilarious, I thought the main character wasn’t very engaging, but a little arrogant and disrespectful, and therefore I coldn’t invest in his relationships, even though he did become more empathic.

The same is true for other comedy films that have entertained millions: I didn’t enjoy Blazing Saddles, The Man with Two Brains, Porky’s, Bruno, The Forty Year Old Virgin. They are all popular and celebrated comedies, but I couldn’t raise a smile. Everyone’s idea of what is hilarious is not the same.

Then again, films that make me laugh include In Bruges, Withnail and I, Duck Soup, The Birdcage, The Dressmaker. I wouldn’t expect everyone else to find them as funny as I do: humour is a very personal thing. What one person finds warm, amusing or side-splitting, another person might not understand why it is comic.

It follows then that writing comedy for a novel is a very personal thing and not everyone will be similarly tickled by a particular character or a scene. My background in theatre taught me exactly that: Malvolio rushing on stage in yellow stockings or Widow Twankey rushing off stage in a blue wig and curlers will not make everyone smile. Some people won’t ‘get’ it; some may actively dislike it. What some find hilarious, others may find pointless, annoying or even offensive: just think of the Carry on… series as an example. Humour may be all about character, context, timing, language, but it’s also incredibly varied and personal: I recall one time trying to explain to ten mystified seventeen year old boys why Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard was considered a comedy and having to redefine what comedy means. Not anyone’s finest moment.

Talking recently to several writers in my writers’ group about comedy recently made for a very interesting discussion. We started to discuss books that made us smile and why. I adore novels by Roddy Doyle and Jonathan Safran Foer: they keep me entertained in very different ways, although with both writers, the humour comes from character, language and context. There seem to be less funny women writers, if you don’t count novels by comediennes and actors.

For me there are several lines I don’t want to cross when writing amusing scenes: I don’t like mocking a character or making them appear foolish; I don’t like humour that is schadenfreude, that enjoys others’ downfalls or problems. Bawdy humour doesn’t always raise a laugh for me and needs to be used sparingly. After that, I’m happy to embrace most techniques to make writing amusing.

Perhaps comic writing starts with tone: humour can be gentle and tentative, raising a smile, or it can be in-your-face situation comedy. Both can work well in the same novel, as variety is quite important. Laughing out loud is great at times when a novel offers mischief or a really comic moment – think Bridget Jones at her most wildly ridiculous – or when Dilly pulls down the instructor’s salopettes (Heading over the Hill), or when Bisto bares all for Barbara at the fête (The Old Girls’ Network).

Not all humour has to be racy. I like poignant, gentle comedy: think of Notting Hill or Cher’s Moonlight. Warm humour doesn’t have to be raucous: when Evie first meets Jean Luc and they banter and share a drink in his vineyard (A Grand Old Time), or when Rose goes on stage to perform with Greta Manchester in Paris, (Five French Hens) it may simply raise a smile. I like humour that comes from language, such as Nanny Basham’s malapropisms (The Age of Misadventure), or from ludicrous farcical situations, such as Barbara’s bedroom strip, (The Old Girls’ Network), or Molly dressing as a fish, (Chasing the Sun).

Humour works best for me when there’s contrast in the rest of the novel – it can be hard work, non-stop laughing. I like to balance comic moments with moments of pathos, wisdom, contemplation or realisation. My novels are generally about older characters’ journeys, about self-discovery, the importance of fun and adventure, the capacity to grow and the opportunity for new chances. It is logical then that there will be amusing moments and moments that aren’t funny at all. It’s a balance I enjoy in novels I read – even in the saddest stories, there can be a moment that makes us smile. 

In The Color Purple, a powerful novel that deals with racism and domestic violence, there is a moment of pure joy when Celie gleefully says of Old Mister, ‘Next time he come I’ll put a little Shug Avery pee in his glass’ (of lemonade). Humour takes many forms and can be hugely cathartic. In this instance, it hints at Celie’s strength, resilience and ability to stand up for herself against misogyny.

For me humour can be effective in many forms and it’s best when it feels natural and relevant to the character or the situation, and when it’s kind. I’ve never liked programmes like You’ve Been Framed, where people’s accidents or misfortunes create comedy. I like to write comic scenes where it’s part of a bigger picture, part of a character’s warmth or their dilemmas, their flaws or their emotional journey. Yes, there may be a bit of slapstick, perhaps the occasional racy moment, but there shouldn’t be anything that will threaten the kindness or positive philosophy that I hope will be the basis of the story. 

Of course, I am learning all the time, reading books, watching films, analysing what seems to work for me and for others, and what doesn’t. I try to expand horizons and discover new ideas. I won’t always get it right and I won’t always please everybody, but that’s in the nature of humour: it has a different appeal to different people.

I’m always warmed by the wonderful comments I have from readers, people who like my novels’ humour and who enjoy being entertained while also immersing themselves in a book about someone who is flawed, humanly vulnerable and who is chasing something important: the chance to start again, to change, to rediscover themselves. 

And if I can write something that is uplifting, feel-good and gently humorous, if I can create characters that entertain but are also, as one reader so kindly put it, ‘like dear friends,’ then that’s what I want to do more than anything.

On Writing: What the editing process is like for a writer?

Based on my radio interview on CakEhole last week with the wonderful Julie Mullen, I decided to write a blog post about editing. We discussed it on her show, as so often writers think it must be an awful process. The belief is: you’ve written it, so it must hurt to change it, right? Not at all. It’s about creating the best novel you can and a careful process and expert help is the best way to achieve it.

I really enjoy editing: I edit my work as soon as I start writing a novel, and during my writing, as I go through every chapter and check, revising and upgrading. I try to improve the novel as I go, and again after I’ve finished. There are even more improvements when an edit for the completed book comes back to me from the publisher. The later editing process can be a light task or sometimes I’m asked to look again at something more specific, like doing a little more work on a character. But editing is a mental exercise I absolutely love.

One of the questions I’m often asked by other writers in writing groups is about how authors react to being asked to edit their work. Some people seem to think that having an editor make suggestions for improvements is somehow a criticism or an invasion of the creative process, that an outsider is interfering with some precious finished piece of art. That’s not at all the case: writing 90,000 words of a novel means that it won’t come out perfect the first or second time of checking through and all writers want to make a story as good as they can for their readers.

Some writers use beta readers; they’ll ask trusted friends, family, or they’ll pay professionals to read their work and give them feedback. The first consideration is that the story, the characters, setting and the themes will work for a reader. Then the written style of the piece will need to be improved: all writers make mistakes. Repetition of words and phrases may occur, or important exposition details may be omitted and will need to be added in for clarity and the best effect. Then there are the sentences that don’t sound right: a better choice of word may make all the difference. That’s before we start on the typing errors and the flying commas.

Working towards deadlines can be stressful, and perhaps sometimes writers fear that their current book won’t be as exciting as their last, or that they’ll never be finished on time. But that’s what our editors are for – to keep us safe from getting things wrong. 

Editors are great people: I work with editors who are really better than great, who mix positivity with honesty so that I’m alerted to how I can make my story the best it can be. After all, the most important thing for any writer is that readers enjoy the finished story and can relate to the characters.

The writer does all of the work to think up an idea, a theme, characters, then shapes and creates the novel. I’ve had edits where I’ve hardly had to change a thing. A clean edit is wonderful as there only remains basic work to do, but a story and a style can always be improved. 

On occasions an editor might say ‘Have you considered…?’ Then there’s always a penny-dropping moment, the total realisation that two heads are better than one, a concern that has already been wriggling in the back of my mind comes to the front and it’s really clear that a small change is the big difference that will make a more satisfying outcome. 

I love the mental challenge of editing: it can be quite emotional though, as a writer has to immerse herself fully in the whole novel and it’s always hard work, reading the same chapters over and over and upgrading until it’s right. But it’s a pleasure, not a chore. More than that, it’s a chance to learn. Writers pick up on their own regular mistakes and therefore will make them less frequently; they pick up on habits and rethink them. And as my mum used to say, practise makes perfect or, in my case, it makes progress. I love the idea that I get to know myself better as a writer through the editing process, and that I can become a bit better at what I love; I can become sharper. 

An edit is to be embraced, not feared. It’s really very enjoyable and therapeutic, like spring cleaning the house but without all the boring cleaning. So, for all writers out there who are anxious about the editing process or think it may be onerous, please don’t worry. It’s our chance to shine brighter, to learn to hone our skills, and to work with gifted and experienced professionals whose one aim is to support our work, to enable the finished article to be even better. I believe editing is a blessing, not a bane, a lesson, not a chore.

Bring it on! It might even be fun.

On Writing: the importance of setting

Once a week, on a Wednesday, I appear on a community radio show, ‘CakEhole with Julie Mullen,’ and we talk about all things to do with novels and writing for fifteen minutes. It is one of the highlights of my week as Julie is so much fun to chat with. Based on our conversations, I thought I’d blog a little about the craft of writing.

I’ve belonged to several writing groups over the years and for me, it’s important to be part of a collaborative group that shares both the process and the end product of writing. During the MA, I realised how much better a writer I might become by working with other skilful, creative people. At that time, five years ago, I was lucky enough to know a group of writers that included performance poets and artists. I made great friends and was truly inspired at the same time. 

Then I moved house and sought out a new group to share ideas with. I fell on my feet when I discovered a local group, all keen, talented, and super-supportive. They write in a variety of styles and genres, which gives me much to think about and learn. They astound me every time I hear their work, helping me to consider the impact of my own writing and to constantly strive to make progress. At the moment we can’t meet regularly, but we post our writing on a Facebook page to each other once a month.

Recently I joined a Zoom writing group and that has been a really useful opportunity. Led by an experienced author, we share our work each week and we encourage each other to develop and learn. At the moment, we are discussing the importance of how writers use setting in novels and I’ve enjoyed listening to the many viewpoints. A book of our shared work will be published imminently.

One person in the group said she loved stories about locations she knew well: she found it satisfying to read about a familiar place, one that she’d visited herself. Someone else suggested that a completely new setting might be more interesting, dicovering a different place, a fresh experience. Then people considered fantasy settings, exotic settings and, of course, in this lockdown time, places where we dreamed of being.

Our discussion moved to how a setting can tell us something about the inhabitant, and we attempted the fun exercise of creating any setting we wished, then we would choose someone else’s location and create the character who might exist there. It was really interesting to read everyone’s ideas.

I selected another writer’s choice of a garden, where a hungry visitor had come to forage. It was, probably intended to be the home of an animal such as a fox or hedgehog, so I created a completely different character who was standing at the edge of this grassland, looking for food to feed her or his young.

Here is my response to the above stimulus:

He tugged the blanket around his shoulders as a blast of icy wind sliced through the thin fabric. The woollen hat warmed his scalp but his eyes watered and he still shivered. His skin was leathery now; the days in the camps, the exposure to wind and rain, then harsh sunlight, had made him tougher, leaner, and deprivation had brought a strange gleam to his eyes.

At least there was grass here in the garden. Back at the camp, it was just mud, tents and heaped rubble, little to eat, meagre shelter from the rain. Mahmoud and Amira needed food, they cried during the night and here, at the edge of a farm, there might be pickings. He was desperate; the raw, aching hunger in his belly was constant now.

He gazed down at his legs, thin as poles in torn jeans and, as he passed a hand across the roughness of his face, he recalled that back in Damascus he had filled his clothes well: he had taken pride in his trimmed beard and glossy hair. Even without a mirror, he knew that the itchy bristles beneath the hat held dirt, his cheekbones were sharp: a front tooth was missing: he rarely smiled now. But, even worse, pride, dignity had slunk from his shoulders, and a hunched man begging for food stood in his place at the edge of a desolate farm in Calais. Farid held himself stiffly against the cutting wind with no idea of what he would do next.

The reason I love working with this writing group so much is that we can examine the importance of elements of writing, like setting. We considered how much location influences us as writers, then we considered the impact of what we’d written on readers. We honed our own skills, shared our work and developed understanding of how setting can influence the readers’ experience or enjoyment of a novel.

A strong setting can transport a reader to a place where new and exciting experiences may readily happen: a setting may inspire dread or delight. Creating an interesting and appropriate location is part of a writer’s toolbox, to fire the reader’s imagination. In my latest novel, Chasing the Sun, setting is all-important: in these times where travel abroad is limited, a story where the central character has adventures in Spain and Mexico can transport readers to a sun-soaked destination where the sights, the food and the culture are absorbing.

As a writer, it’s really good fun to try and evoke different places, then the next step is to consider the characters who might inhabit them……

‘Chasing the Sun’: travelling to two gorgeous locations and finding fabulous festivals, fun and food.

As the worst of lockdown is over, despite wide predictions of another possible ‘wave’, we are all looking forward to the summer and the chance to travel again, whether it is to the nearest beach, or to see much-missed friends, or to somewhere distant but safe. It will be lovely to spend time in the summer warmth after a cold, socially distant winter, and we all need to celebrate with much-missed friends and family. It has been tough for most people, and even tougher for so many more.

When I wrote ‘Chasing the Sun, the novel came from a desire to take my readers to stunning locations. From the cold separation of locked down Britain, I wanted to offer the warmth and fun of Spain and Mexico, the chance to join Molly and her sister Nell on their holidays in the sunshine. Molly, a widow, realises on her seventieth birthday that she is restless and doesn’t know where her life is taking her. It’s a perfect reason for a journey of self-discovery, chasing the sun metaphorically, and location is everything.

The great thing about going on holiday is the chance to kick back, relax and enjoy life a little: Molly and Nell spend time on the beach, sampling good food and wine. They visit fabulous locations and meet interesting people; there is the opportunity for fun, mischief and romance. I hope that the reader will enjoy going with them and sharing some of the things they enjoy.

In Spain, Molly eats octopus. I’ve never eaten ‘pulpo’ and although I do research many things by trying them out, but this is definitely not one of them. The sisters enjoy the best Spain can offer them, including sunsets, beaches, boat trips and sangria. I’ve tried all of those…

Then Molly moves on to Mexico, and I was lucky while writing ‘Chasing the Sun’ that my son was living in Mexico City. I’ve been to Mexico myself, but it was useful to be able to call him and ask questions about the local climate, what time the sun sets, what does the local mole taste like. He was the source of all sorts of useful research information, including inside information about El Día de Los Muertos, as he was there during the celebrations and could talk to Mexican people about the cultural importance and vibrancy of The Day of the Dead. I wanted to bring the local colour to readers.

When I created the tapas bar, Sabores, meaning Flavours, I tried to bring a very different taste of Mexico through a plant-based café that served new and exciting dishes. I have made all of them myself, and I’ve included a few recipes at the end of the book, just in case some readers were interested in trying them. The carrot canapé is quite easy, and most of the others aren’t too difficult except for the vegan scotch egg, which is fiddly. Most ingredients aren’t hard to source, especially by using the internet, and the plant-based chorizo using vital wheat gluten and the cashew cream cheese are well worth the effort. I hope readers will enjoy sampling some new food.

The most exciting thing for me during the journey to Mexico, even more thrilling than dancing the bachata and riding horses Western-style, is visiting Chichén Itzá. It is a very atmospheric and beautiful place so, when Molly goes there to see the sun rise with two friends, I wanted to express how breathtaking it is there.

In short, I’d love us all to fly off on a plane to Spain and Mexico right now if it was safe, but it isn’t. So, it seemed to me, that the best way to travel is vicariously, through the pages of a book, and to enjoy good times with Molly and Nell. Molly’s attempts to chase the sun take her to two wonderful sun-soaked locations. The beaches, the food, the people and the culture of both Spain and Mexico are charming and fascinating. I hope you’ll enjoy travelling there between the pages and that, for you too, the summer will be one of sunshine, laughter and fun, whatever the coming months bring.

My next novel, Chasing the Sun

Originally given the working title The Hokey Cokey Woman, I set out to write a story about Molly, a seventy-year-old widow who leaps into situations with complete abandon, later realising that what she’s chosen isn’t for her and she should have considered all options and thought more wisely. But part of Molly’s charm is that she’s spontaneous; she is caring, full of positivity, enthusiasm and she has natural joie de vivre. In the novel, she finds herself in several situations that are the result of her impetuosity, because she acts before she has thought out the consequences. Although her spontaneity might be endearing, and she has boundless energy and enthusiasm, her life isn’t perfect: she’s always seeking something new, chasing something elusive, but she doesn’t always know what it is.

Nell, her half-sister, is a few years younger, wiser and more sensible. But when her own seemingly-solid marriage is in crisis, she appears on Molly’s doorstep, her world suddenly shaken.The husband who had become part of the fabric of her life wants something else and Nell is shocked that the comfortable existence she knew is in the past.

Molly’s reaction is to leap straight into a new adventure, to change the scenery in order to prevent Nell from further heartache, so she drags her off to Spain for a holiday. They have a wonderful time, although Molly’s impetuosity leads her into a few more scrapes, but they both make new friends and initially life appears idyllic. However, after a while, Molly has itchy feet and she yearns to move on and to discover more.

I am always interested in the themes of companionship and love, and how different people make different choices about whether to stay single or to choose to be in a relationship: loneliness can affect us all, whatever our age. Molly is a widow, she is independent and has learned to live alone, so she doesn’t stop to consider whether being single is a problem. Nell, however, has had a partner in her life for forty years: she hasn’t known solitude before and being by herself is a novelty. So what interests me in this part of the story is the way both women react to the choices of new love and friendship. Are friends needed to keep loneliness at bay? Is any partner better than no partner at all? Or can solitude and self-reliance be an alternative to loneliness: sometimes we find satisfaction in being alone, and sometimes we yearn for love and companionship. Both Molly and Nell face decisions about their future paths several times in the novel and their responses are very different.To live life independently or to accept a new partner, that is the question. As one character says, being single is not the opposite of being happy. And as the other suggests, once you have tasted champagne, why would you opt for flat lemonade? So the title Chasing the Sun is not simply about wanting to be in warmer climes, it is also about how the characters consider bringing warmth into the cold empty space of their own lives.

The setting of the novel was also an important choice. I began writing Chasing the Sun at the start of lockdown, having previously intended to go to Spain for a few days to practise speaking Spanish and to research the location. When the trip was cancelled, I researched the coastal area of Murcia online. 

I’d been to Mexico several years ago and my son was living there at the time that I was writing the novel, so I took my character there, to a location and a culture where I had some background knowledge already, which was a useful starting point for research. I wanted to offer the reader the chance to experience vibrant, sunshine-filled locations and a rich cultural heritage as a form of escape from what had become the lockdown norm. My intention was that if we can’t go on holiday physically, then we’ll go vicariously, with a character in a novel. 

To that end, I hope the readers will enjoy Molly’s voyages to the sunshine, and also I hope that they’ll like the exploration of the choices between independence, loneliness and romance, the life-choice options considered by Molly and Nell, two very different characters with very different experiences. Chasing the Sun is out on April 8th.

The excitement of writing for a competition…

I enjoy writing for specific events or audiences, as there is a kind of precision and framework to be considered. It’s quite an interesting mental exercise when you have a word limit, or when you have to create something for a specific genre. I like writing newspaper or magazine articles, poems, speeches, plays, all of which mean a writer must consider the use of words and the requirements of an audience really carefully. I’ve written things from song lyrics to pantomimes, and I love the mental challenge of slelecting words and phrases that fit a specific framework. Of course, I enjoy writing novels best: I love the freedom of letting a character take over and run with an adventure. But that’s for another blog post.

Recenty, someone in a creative work-sharing group mentioned that they were enterng a writing competition. In competitions, you’re generally given a few specifics, a title, a word limit, but you have little knowledge about what the judges want, so you have to think outside the box and try to be a bit original. I’ve entered a few competitions and had placings: I’m one of those people who often come second, and that in itself is a source of great happiness. The competition we were discussing demanded no more than five hundred words, based on a theme of Hope, so I wrote something as an exercise, although I have no intention of using the piece for any other purpose than this blog.

Recently, in one of my zoom writing groups, we discussed the importance of strong opening and closing lines, so I decided I’d incorporate this into my piece. In a subsequent class, we were asked to consider the power of the weather on our writing, so I incorporated the weather too.

I decided that, in these lockdown times, it would be easy to write a piece about how much we all hope that the separation and the threat to everyone’s health, mental and physical, ends soon, and that we can emerge from this situation intact and all move forward; that we can somehow use the experiece to grow. So, instead of writing about that as a theme, I thought about choosing a completely different location, a different time, and I moved my story to Canada in the 1930s. I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it’s a metaphor…

This is my piece, below, entitled Hope. I have written exactly 500 words. I hope you enjoy it..

Hope

‘God must be having goose for tea tonight.’

She looked upwards as she walked on, huddled inside the thin coat. Snowflakes fell like fat feathers, large as a baby’s fist, tumbling from somewhere above, filling her eyes, blinding her. She couldn’t see the night sky for the whiteness of it all.

She trudged on. It was fifteen miles to Québec. She would be there by dawn. Her sister would take her in, as long as her husband didn’t mind. She’d be useful.

Her fingers tingled. She’d never owned a pair of gloves. She’d seen kid gloves once as a child; she’d been with her mother outside a store in Québec and an elegant lady had stepped from a car, wearing a fur stole and the softest gloves. She’d never been inside a car: she imagined it was like a house, but smaller and warmer. Her own house had never been warm.

She tramped through the hard-packed snow, cold water seeping through the holes in her boots and she shivered. Her hands flitted to her belly and she thought of the baby there, small as a button. She hoped he or she – it was a girl, she was sure – was warm enough beneath the folds of a thin coat, a thin dress, thin skin. It was for the child she had done it. When the baby was born, she would be better without a father.

Her feet were stamping some kind of rhythm as she lurched onwards, her hair wet and bedraggled, her face so cold her cheeks burned. The wind blasted snow in her face and she was buffeted by the blizzard, but she forced herself forward.

Ice crunched beneath her boots as she set her feet down sturdily, hoping she wouldn’t slip. In the darkness, the snow was luminous, a soft light. Her thoughts fled back to the freshly-fallen snow outside her cabin, banked high on either side, as she had rushed from the house. He had chased after her, shouting, swearing, stinking of sour-mash whisky. Then he had hit her, full in the face, and she had felt her nose pop. She had pushed him; he’d fallen backwards and hit hard ground, his neck cracking like a twig. The falling snow had covered him quickly as she watched, and she’d been glad to see his twisted angry expression disappear. She’d gone inside, wiped the blood from her face, collected her bundle of rags and the money behind the clock, and ran.

Now, her toes were numb and her legs felt like soft sponge. Beneath the coat, her flesh was ice. She stared up into the dropping snow, blinking, letting the wetness of it fill her eyes like tears for a moment, then she slogged forwards. The road in front of her bent to the left and wound on into shadows.

She pushed her head down, lumbered forwards into the whirling blizzard and prayed between chattering teeth, ‘God, save a bit of that roast goose for me.’

I had so much fun with this writing exercise…

I’m always busy with novels, writing them or editing them or thinking of new ideas. But writing can be a fairly isolated profession, so I’m always glad of an opportunity to collaborate with others. The Boldwood writing community is very special; there’s a supportive group of women and men who seem always to be there for each other, ready to celebrate when new books are published, to coax and support when anyone has questions, to advise and to share happy moments and to read each others’ work. I have read some truly mindblowing books by Boldwood authors recently. There are so many talented writers I can’t wait to meet.

I have friends who are writers, performance poets, poets, people in whose company I know I flourish and become a better writer. I used to belong to an excellent group of writers in Devon who are incredibly gifted, and will be friends forever. There’s a local group where I live now which is bursting with so much talent, it’s breathtaking, and because we can’t meet physically now we catch up on line to share our work. I learn so much from these modest but incredibly able writers.

Then, once a week, I join a fascinating zoom group, led by an experienced and innovative author. This group is exciting because, despite the mix of published authors, journalists, bloggers and those with aspirations to write novels, cookery books and children’s stories, it is a supportive and happy group who respond so positively to the challenges we are set. We’ve written fairy stories, poems, different styles of writing inspired by many and various stimuli, and our responses are always so varied.

This week, the group leader asked us each to finish a sentence without thinking too hard: it was ‘Her had shook as she opened the ….’

Most people replied ‘Her hand shook as she opened the…’ ‘letter,’ ‘book,’ box,’ ‘door,’ and so when it came to my turn, I said the first unusual thing I could think of, which was inspired by a thriller written by a Boldwood writer: I said ‘corpse.’ Silly me: we were then asked to go away and write a piece based on the first line we had chosen. I was left with something that would be macabre, sinister or bloody, which I truly thought about writing.

Then an idea came to me. Here is my response, below. I hope you like it….

Her hands were shaking as she opened…

‘Her hands were shaking as she opened, the corpse at the beginning of her first speech was nothing short of indecorous. To summarise, Fannie Barton was the worst Shrew who ever appeared on the London stage.’ David Garrick sighed.

‘The Spectator wrote that?’ Fannie’s petticoats rustled as she flounced forward to gaze over David’s shoulder, staring at the words on the page. ‘You asked me here to show me this? I didn’t corpse – that was maniacal laughter and, as for the hands shaking, Katherina was angry – why wouldn’t she shake with rage?’

 ‘Our living hangs in the sway, Fannie – we depend on reviews, even if we don’t agree with the boorish hacks who write them.’

‘No, it’s worse than that.’ Fannie whirled round. ‘They want a Katherina who pouts and drops her eyelashes, who is submissive and acquiescent from the beginning, so by the end of the play she’s nothing more than a sodden dish clout.’ Her face flushed pink. ‘All they really want to see is a doxy in a low-cut frock, a white bosom, a shapely ankle, and as long as it’s all thrust under their noses, they’ll write about what a good performance it was.’ She stamped her foot. ‘That’s not me.’

David rose from the couch and moved to the window, pushing back velvet drapes, staring at the road below. A coach rattled by, the horses’ hooves clattering on cobbles. It was raining again, the sky drab as ditchwater; the roofs gleamed, the dull metal sheen of a Hogarth etching. David sighed. ‘But tonight, we must go on again, Fannie, your Kate to my Petruchio. And tonight, there will be other critics there, from the Tatler and the Gazette. There will be more reviews…’ His shoulders slumped. ‘And I have invested much money in this Drury Lane venture…’

‘So, what do you suggest?’ Fannie’s hands were on her hips.

‘Audiences want pompous, pretentious theatre and I want change. I want the natural passions that reflect real life – but even the newspapers are entrenched in the past. It’s always style, pretence, feigning, over a substantial believable performance.’ David shook his head sadly.

‘Then let’s challenge them, David – let’s show them something they are not expecting. Let’s give them some real passion.’ Fannie walked over to him, grasping his frilled shirt, pulling him so close the breath wheezed from his lungs.

He was alarmed for a moment. ‘Fannie – I have Eva to consider – my wife would not…’

‘And I have a three-year-old daughter who needs warm clothes and a hot meal…’ Fannie’s eyes blazed. ‘These critics think that women in my profession are no better than harlots, flower sellers. So, let’s give them some real-life desire of the flesh.’

‘But Kate is no common whore, Fannie – and Petruchio is just a likeable rake, a penniless scoundrel who drinks strong ale and…’

‘We can make it much more real.’ Fannie seized David’s shoulders through his shirt. ‘Passion. That is what Kate and Petruchio have for each other. We must show the layers of it, the way it fills the body, fires the blood, makes the brain blaze…’

‘I’m not sure I understand you.’

‘It’s simple. Kate is attracted to Petruchio from the start but she is proud: he must not know of it at any cost. Petruchio is besotted with Kate at first sight, but he is afraid of the depth of his feelings, how it makes him weak. So, the space between them sparks, it is fire, it will ignite the closer they become and, despite distance, the blaze explodes, engulfing them. Although the audience will never be told of this raging desire, this unquenchable thirst, they will sense it from the moment Petruchio and Kate’s eyes lock.’

David nodded. ‘It could work, Fannie. Petruchio and Kate try to deny the natural magnetism between a man and a woman at the beginning of the play, but it surfaces and grows, upon each line they speak: it boils over into everything they do.’ He was silent, thinking. ‘The difficulty is, how can we rehearse the play in order to replicate an incredible passion only dreamed of by so many and achieved by so few?’

Fannie laughed, pulling the pins from her hair so that it tumbled around her shoulders. ‘I only know of one way, David.’ He saw the gleam in her eye. ‘We must discover an intense world of our own, away from wives and children and critics and audiences, a world only the two of us will understand as we explore our characters between soft linen.’

‘As Petruchio and Kate?’

‘As who else?’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘It is how we move our art to the level of perfection.’

‘Of course.’ David watched her as she stood, just beyond his grasp, her eyes dark. His whisper was barely audible. ‘Why, there’s a wench. Come on and kiss me Kate.’

Sit by my side, and let the world slip: we shall ne’er be younger.’ Fannie took a step backwards, stretching out an arm, her palm upwards. She shook her head, turning away, almost smiling as she moved towards the couch, her voice low. ‘And where two raging fires meet together, They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.

The Egg

This week I finished writing a novel, some 97, 000 words that I’m quite pleased with. It’s a story of a woman and her neighbour on a quest to discover something new after a life-changing event, and it contains a secondary character I love to bits, an impressive lady who speaks her mind and is very focused on getting what she wants, which is all honourable and for the good of everyone. I’ll say much more about that particular novel later.

Then a new idea for a story came to me this morning, the tale of three very different women who emerge from various incidents together to discover a new future. I don’t want to start it yet – I want to think about it and let ideas bubble. So in the interim, I’m reading a lot of very different books – I have a pile of five novels I’m going to enjoy over the next week. Then I’m extending my time in the gym, walking in the spring sunshine (despite the cold), and scribbling a bit.

I belong to two writing groups and this gives me the opportunity to create new bits and pieces, scribbling over lunch time cups of tea or in the spaces between reading and planning a new idea. I like trying out new thoughts and different styles, so here’s a bit of verbage I wrote based on a picture my daughter painted. It’s about a mythical creature, or rather, the beginning of one. It’s probably a metaphor too. We’ve all been locked down for far too long…

Sending best wishes. xx

The egg

The ocean is like glass, the surface still, soundless, stretching to the horizon.

Then in a flurry, a sudden movement disturbs the silence, a ripple, a whirling funnel of water, and the egg falls, leaden, heavy, until it sinks and settles on the seabed.

In the murky light, the egg lies on sand, undisturbed.

A fish darts past unaware, another, larger, in pursuit.

The egg sits, perfectly round, alabaster white tinged blue, pink flecked, the size of a fist.

At the bottom of the sea, the water is darker.

Everywhere is vast, gloomy, graveyard-still: the egg is motionless.

But beneath the shell’s hard surface is the scratching of a small hoof, nail scraping against a hard wall, a fast rasp.

It stops.

There is no sound, just silence, a pause, then a repeated grating sound rattles inside, solid against solid, a persistent tap-tap.

The beginning of a crack appears, an imperceptible fissure in the egg’s smooth perfection.

For a moment, an intake of a breath holds, there is nothing, then a frantic chipping, a harder kick, the shell wall splinters open and the sides of the egg shatter in two, like breaking porcelain.

A damply white creature stands on four weak legs in the centre of the shards.

Wide eyes blink once, then she stretches her neck, lifts nimble hind quarters, tries for the first time to unfold skeletal wings.

 She staggers, one step, another, and pauses, sinking back on soft thighs.

Gazing around underwater, she breathes out bubbles, then she blinks, snorts pearl droplets through black bead nostrils, and tries her wings again.

They unfurl like wide fabric, pushing water, extending above her head, and suddenly her legs are firm and she stands, white furred, feather winged, strong.

One leap, hooves sinking back into sand, and she is up, cutting through the ocean, slicing the surface, water becoming clean air in her lungs.

She is swimming, surging forward, then her wings spread and she lifts up, away from the ocean, a creature of sea and sky, leaving foam splashes of surf in her wake.

 Airborne, she strives for the sun, wings beating, clouds above and below, her eyes wide.

She is free and her future is open as the bright skies.

Lockdown, languages and me. (Warning: much failure, a little success…)

As a writer, I’m blessed with being able to work from home and I’m so lucky to have a job I enjoy, that I return to each day with energy and enthusiasm. Lockdown is a difficult time for everyone in their own way, but some people have real problems in managing to get by in these strange times. There are furloughed people, those who have no jobs, those who are missing people they haven’t seen for so long, and those who are medically compromised, and I whole-heartedly wish them the best.

Not long ago, I heard a celebrity recommend on TV that those who had no jobs or prospects during lockdown should take up a course or a hobby. I didn’t think he was being glib or facetious: I think it was a genuine attempt to turn a difficult situation into a positive one and to suggest that people spent the time they had on their hands trying to acquire new skills. I mentioned this to my daughter and she was immediately on the case, starting to learn Japanese, German and Irish.

So, to support her, I signed up for a few languages and I have to say, it is a daily source of total comedy.

My French is good but, on my phone, I couldn’t work out how to access the advanced level. Instead, I spent each day working through basics, hoping I could get to a level where I’d be able to stretch my skills. Then I discovered how to leap forwards and now I enjoy practising tenses I’d long forgotten and brushing up rusty pronunciation. So far, so good.

My Spanish isn’t bad; I managed to fly through the first few levels and eventually accessed the right questions for my skills. I’m recalling things I’d forgotten, although I’m having to translate the English from US to UK before I try the Spanish: I’m given words such as bathroom (which means toilet), purse (which is a handbag) and store (which translates as shop). These words threw me more than they should have at first. But now I’m fluent in US English too, which is perfect.

Then there was German. I can do basic German, ask for food, chat a bit, but I spent the first six lessons asking Ms. Merkel if she was the chancellor and Herr Schmitt if he was a lawyer. Then I had to ask Heidi Klum if she came from Sweden. After hours of this, I managed to switch my skills to a level where I was making mistakes. Now that was what I needed to do in order to improve: there was no point in getting everything right.

And then there was my decision to learn Romanian. I speak a few words of Romanian, not much… Te iubesc, Noroc, Țuică, Multimesc, that sort of thing. So, naïvely, I thought: rock and roll – what can go wrong? My daughter was steaming ahead with Irish and Japanese: surely I could manage a fairly easy romance language from Eastern Europe? Think again.

First of all, I kept getting everything wrong because I hadn’t uploaded the Romanian keyboard to my phone and couldn’t access letters such as ă and ţ. So everything I wrote in Romanian was a mistake. Once I’d accessed the ability to type in Romanian, I then encountered a problem with the definite article, which took me a week to work out. For example, a boy is un baiat, but the boy isbăiatul. A woman is o femeie but the woman is femeia. It took me ten mistakes to work that one out. Then there’s the exercise when a cross-sounding lady says something quickly and you have to write it down although you haven’t a clue what she’s just said. Then there are the sentences that you would just never ever say: ‘the goose, the chicken and the duck eat the sandwich and drink the water,’ for example which, for reference, is ‚gâsca, puiul și rața mănâncă sandvișul și beau apa’. It fills me full of happiness that one day I might be able to waltz into a shop in Constanța and say that line. (Constanța, by the way, is a beautiful place on the Black Sea – I recommend it highly!)

Then there is the awful sense of failure, which happens when you are steaming through the lesson, which lasts about ten minutes, you achieve 100% throughout until you arrive at the last two hard questions, then you fail abysmally and are greeted with a descending trumpet sound which would normally accompany Laurel and Hardy getting it wrong, and the words ‘You tried hard, but better luck next time…’ Why ever did I need learning languages in my life?

The answer is simple: it’s the chance to communicate, to learn, to improve, and when I get it right, it will be a great feeling. I dream of a time I can sit in a café in France or Spain and chat easily to the locals, or saunter into a biergarten in Munich and order something delicious. I may even one day be able to have a conversation with someone in Constanța about something that isn’t a farmyard animal and at least I can already ask for a sandwich and water.

And, of course, there’s always the chance that perhaps the next lesson will teach me the word for wine…