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……

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.

In praise of libraries everywhere…

Remember the moment in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where she falls down the rabbit hole? Or the wardrobe door that opens to Narnia? Or Platform 9 ¾, leading to the Hogwarts’s Express? Or the Doors of Durin in Lord of the Rings? Literature is full of enchanted doors that take us to a secret place, a place full of mystery and magic, suspension of disbelief and wonder.

Now think of your local library, a simple door that opens and leads into a space loaded with books. There might be a staircase; shelves everywhere, all sections carefully labelled: mystery, crime, thrillers, romance, historical, classical.

It may be a huge library in a university or a city, a medium library in a school or a town or a small provincial library in a village, but each place is special. It holds the key to may secrets, many stories, many adventures.

In these days where our physical journeys may be limited, the wandering of our minds is still unrestricted. With a library card, we can set imagination free. A library has something – so many things – for everyone: stories in all sorts of genres, books we’ll hold and breathe in and love for ever and never forget.

A library is stacked with audio books, large print books, even my novels which are available in all formats: books that I hope are uplifting, funny, sometimes sad, sometimes philosophical, but always my stories insist that, whatever your years, life is there to be lived to the full.

So, why not call into your local library (I have several in Somerset) and push open the enchanted door?

I can promise you, there will be something magical behind it….

As the year grows older, is autumn everyone’s favourite season?

The sharp scent of autumn has been on the air for several weeks now; it began before the first of September. My social media feed is inundated by glorious russet-coloured photos, pictures of damsons and apples, posts rejoicing in autumn, the cooler weather, the beauty of falling leaves, the abundance of berries and fruits. It seems that many people love the mellow richness of autumn months, the way the cooler weather heralds opportunities to have fun, such as Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving and eventually Christmas. (I’ve already heard the first Christmas song on the radio.) (Slade, of course!) I know people who live abroad in beautiful climates who long for the changeability of an English autumn.

I think that, to a limited extent, there’s a lot of love for the autumn months because, this year, everyone’s spring and summer have been heavily affected by the gloom that surrounds Covid-19; naturally, there is hope for some improvement in the latter half of the year. But also, there seems to be an optimism and joy that comes in September that I find fascinating: despite autumn bringing the end of holiday times and warmer weather, people enjoy the arrival of moderate temperatures and the opportunity to experience the changes in nature.

I used to have a theory that people are happiest in the season they were born. I love the heat; I could spend the entire summer on a beach; I can laze happily under the sun and, in truth, I don’t like being cold. I was born slap-bang in the middle of summer. I know a woman, born in October, who loathes the sunshine; another friend, born in spring, loves the soft rain, the pleasant weather and the sense of new beginnings that comes in April. Whether my theory had any sense behind it or not, many people seem to love autumn unless, of course, they’re worried about going back to school. There must be a lot of trepidation felt by students, teachers, parents at the thought of the new term – that’s for another blog post, however: I send them all my very best wishes.

Autumn has wonderful bright weather when it’s not raining; it’s ideal temperature-wise to go for brisk walks, twigs crunching underfoot, leaves whirling and tumbling. We can enjoy the taste of hot soup, hearty casseroles, log fires, hot chocolate drinks for months to come. The football season begins; we can binge-watch a whole series in front of the television; we can read for hours by the fireside; we can wear chunky warm clothes; we can bake; we start making plans for Christmas, for a new year, hopefully for future summer holidays. What’s not to like?

Each season brings its own special form of happiness; it’s important to enjoy spring for its freshness, summer for its warmth and relaxation, autumn for the gift of mellowness and winter for the pleasures of hibernation and comfort. It’s lovely being outdoors in all weathers; there’s something cleansing about rainfall, celebratory about sunshine and thrilling about intense cold, as long as we are healthy and safe.

When I’m writing, my desk is next to a window and I look out on trees, a field and the sky. I’m constantly reminded of the changing weather and evolving seasons, and I love the chance to use the power of the weather in my writing. In A Grand Old Time, Evie travels to France in her campervan during the summer months; naturally, the story ends as the first flake of snow falls. Nanny Basham’s adventure is in the late winter months, finishing at Easter. The Five Hens hit Paris in springtime. In The Old Girls’ Network, Barbara and Pauline meet Bisto in summer, where Winsley Green is at its most active and exciting. In Heading Over the Hill, Billy and Dawnie arrive at ‘Maggot’ Street in June, with plans to move into their dream house by Christmas. As seasons change, so do characters’ circumstances and lives, and their progress is often reflected by nature and external changes. All seasons are wonderful, as are all stages and ages: change is natural and we hope that change can be beneficial, rewarding and positive.

Most of my central characters are older people; I love the fact that they share optimism about the future and that, as the seasons change, they often change too. They may become more rounded people, happier, healthier; they may find new love or friendship or new learning; they may experience new places, fun, laughter, mischief and a few tears on the way.

My main hope is that the protagonists in my novels will be received as characters, wise characters, experienced characters, characters who’ve lived a long time, but not just  ‘old’ characters. I recently had a discussion with friends about age, asking them at what age do we ‘become old’? Answers included the following replies: ‘forty’, ‘sixty’, ‘seventy’, ‘eighty’, ‘a hundred,’ ‘when you feel old’, ‘when you get your pension’, ‘when you give up trying’. No-one was really sure. My own response is that I don’t really care about numbers: what I do care about is challenging the perception of less opportunity and worth that sometimes goes with ageing. When we reach a point in time where age isn’t seen as a reason to make negative judgements about people and the word ‘old’ isn’t seen as detrimental or an insult, we’ll have arrived at a place where it doesn’t matter what age people are; it only matters that they are healthy, safe, happy and loved.

Like the seasons, the stages of life change from fresh to warm to mellow to cool. We can enjoy being all ages as we enjoy all seasons and all weathers. Each time brings something wonderful, fulfilling and good; it just depends on how we embrace and accept it and how we support each other.

Happy autumn. May all your seasons be abundant, safe and joyful.

dried maple leaves

What I’m writing now…

Since the restrictions of lockdown, we dream of a time and a place before Covid where we could travel freely without risk of a virus. We have no idea, however, how things will change in future months and years, whether travel as we knew it will become normal again or whether it will be subject to changes. As a writer, I’ve always enjoyed giving my characters the opportunity to travel. Evie travelled through France; Nanny Basham visited Brighton; the Hens went to Paris; Barbara and Bisto visited Pauline in Somerset and Billy and Dawnie zoom around North Devon on the Harley.

I have to decide how far to allow the virus to intrude upon what I write, and that means to what extent my characters can travel. We all watch the future with interest. I’m setting the novel I’m writing now in the Highlands. Last year I visited Loch Ness for the first time and, enchanted by the magical atmosphere, the warmth of the welcome and the breathtaking scenery, I decided to set a novel there and I went back again – just for research purposes, of course.

Meanwhile, a few months ago, I wrote a novel in which the main two characters visit Spain: I booked a holiday there a while ago for April 2020 and, like many other people, I couldn’t go. I still wrote the story, though.

So, now I’m writing about the Highlands, and it’s another story of second chances for both characters, a woman in her late eighties who used to be a chorus girl in London in the 1950s, and a woman who is on holiday near Loch Ness, who is almost sixty, independent  and rootless. The characters’ lives intertwine and their ultimate destinies come from their interdependence.

I’m writing chapter sixteen already, thirty-eight thousand words in, and I’m enjoying the characters and their story. The time line is from August until January: the setting is so important as the Scottish backdrop changes dramatically during this time: the vibrant colours and the cooling temperatures are all intertwined with the action.

I don’t do spoilers but, interestingly, both characters’ journeys are parallel, in terms of love, loss and self-discovery. The fifty-nine-year-old character isn’t looking for what she finds: she’s happy enough as she is. The eighty-eight-year-old is lonely and lives her life in the past, immersed in memories, but the present brings both women surprises. Of course, events change both characters’ outlooks, expectations, and they both discover a new chance, although not necessarily with similar outcomes.

One thing I love about being over a third of the way through a novel is that it will still surprise me and it will still change as I write it. The novel I want to write will develop considerably from my current plans and it will be improved by the end – if not, I’d file it away and forget it. I have a structure, a plan, but it’s not set in stone. My ideas are changing already. I know how it will probably end for one character and for the other, there are several options.

In terms of the story’s timeline, we’re well into September as I write. There has already been sunshine, mist, a thunderstorm, rain. In October, there will be a balmy trip to the Isle of Skye. November will bring autumn leaves, deer frolicking in darkness. In December, there will be ice, snow-capped mountains. I’m looking forward to writing about Christmas and Hogmanay.

I expect to finish writing this story in October, although I’ll walk away at intervals and come back to the story afresh, to check if it works. Then, when it’s finished, I’ll leave it for a fortnight, then read it through again and decide what needs to be changed and developed. A week or two after that, I’ll give it a thorough edit, then another. I still won’t be finished with it as a story. Some things will be wriggling in the back of my mind: inconsistencies: the need to develop a scene or a character some more; an idea which can be improved or altered to make the whole thing more cohesive. I have to walk away and think, then come back.

I’m so glad I enjoy working this way, with ideas and a loose plan in place but also ready to fly by the seat of my pants and realise new ideas: I have several friends who are painters, poets and artists, and I’m often aware of how similar our working pattern is. We sketch stuff in, rub it out, improve it, stand back, make alterations, paint over, fuss over details, cross out and then fill in the spaces with colour. It’s great fun to see how something develops, but only when I’m confident that it works.

Of course, what makes it ‘work’ or not is based on a complicated journey and many ports of call. It takes time for a novel to change and develop before I’m happy; I ask reliable friends to read it as I progress and I request feedback. I have an agent and editors whom I trust, who will tell me honestly if something needs adjusting, from a character to a simple phrase. There’s a lot of work by a team of people before a novel reaches the reader. And when it does, of course, that is the ultimate test we writers all hope to pass.

Scotland Loch Ness

How can we deal with the whispering voices of doubt?

‘You’re doing fine. Keep going. You’re nearly there. You’ve got this.’

I remember repeating this to myself on a long walk in the Lake District a few years ago: having climbed Scafell Pike and Great Gable, I ran out of energy on the descent with three miles to go. It took sheer willpower to drag myself back to the carpark.

Developing a supportive voice inside your head, imitating the soothing, coaxing tones of a parent or a best friend, is something perhaps we all need to do from time to time to keep ourselves balanced. Often, the face we present to our friends, the confident one with the positive thoughts and attitudes, is not the same face as that of the anxious individual who sometimes doubts his or her own potential. It’s no surprise that we often hear how people who show a self-assured, cheery exterior are, in reality, quite vulnerable and alone in their darker moments. Think Robin Williams, the most ebullient and talented of comedians. Apparently, even Lady Gaga suffers from low self-esteem.

It is interesting that, often, when other people appear so assured, they have all the answers, they seem to understand the world, say the right things, make all the right moves, it’s no wonder that we sometimes feel isolated, exposed and less capable of doing what is expected of us. The inner voice, less welcoming and supportive, tells us we will mess up, we don’t deserve success: it’s the voice that says we are impostors, we have taken a place we don’t merit and soon we will be found out as frauds, with embarrassing consequences.

I only heard the term ‘impostor syndrome’ relatively recently and, on hearing it, I had one of those moments when things seemed to click into place. It explained exactly what I’d felt on several occasions and, all of a sudden, there was a name for it.

As a child in the playground, joining in with all the others, I knew my family were ‘different’. At grammar school and beyond, surrounded by many lovely people, most of whom were very privileged, I often felt that I had no right to be there, I didn’t really belong and, at some point, someone would jump out from behind a curtain and explain that to everyone.

As a teacher of theatre, my central impetus was for every student to achieve their best, more, if possible, and I was always aware of the injustices that might hold the less privileged kid back. It was something I sought to identify and change.

Now as I writer, I’m still occasionally revisited by the familiar voice that asks me what I’m doing here. I have a smart and brilliant agent; my publishers are wonderful; the editors are kind, astute, cool people who are so self-assured. Everyone is glamorous, talented, warm and friendly and they all have every right to be where they are, bathing in the soft light of well-deserved success. The negative voice whispers in my ear that I must be an impostor.

Of course, the friendly voice in my head takes over at this point. I’m not out of place; I work hard; I can write and my books are selling well. I’ll be ok if I just keep going.

Then realism kicks in; these beautiful, talented writers who publish brilliant books that drip from their fingertips like magic spells are really just like the rest of us:  they sit at the laptop into the early hours of the morning, writing and editing and searching inside their heads for the right phrase, the clever ending, the smart plot points. They wake up in the morning with a head full of stories and they lurch for the black coffee before stumbling towards the laptop, not even having brushed their hair. They have moments of self-doubt which happen on the day before their new novel is released, wondering what will happen if no-one likes it; what will happen if this is the one where everyone thinks ‘Why is she even here?’ Then the sweet voice whispers to be calm:  all this anxiety is completely normal and will fade away soon.

Nowadays, I’m so much better at positivity. Equality, inclusion and fairness are my priorities and I’ll go out of my way to encourage and support others. If I’ve ever experienced impostor syndrome, then other people will have experienced it too. Moreover, there are so many talented people who don’t know or believe in their own potential or have something holding them back, so others should be more often  the focus of my energies.

Of course, self-doubt is normal; we’re all vulnerable, flawed, imperfect, human. That’s what makes us ultimately better at what we do. It’s the very nature of being human that makes us want to Improve our own skills and, at the same time, to reach out, to support and encourage others, to remind others that we deserve to be where we are, that we can aspire beyond the present moment. And, I have to say, my agent, publisher, editors, fellow-writers are all blessed with the ability to inspire and reassure: I couldn’t be luckier.

So, back to the voice in our heads, the one that soothes and cajoles, the one we should listen to more often, and the other voice, the one that criticizes and says that we are impostors who have no right to be here, the voice we should mostly ignore: I have developed the ability to switch them on and off. I know which one to listen to and believe, and which one to discount, to use as the voice of criticism which is there simply to keep me on my toes.

When I sit at my laptop and begin a new novel, the voices are quiet: I’m utterly consumed with a brand-new idea. I can hear conversations between characters; I can imagine settings, feel emotions. I’m off and away when I’m writing. There’s no time to stop and doubt what I can achieve. Hard work and rampant enthusiasm are brave companions.

But it is the quiet time, the time alone, the moments of emotional vulnerability when things are not going as well as they might or the biorhythms have taken an almighty dip that I have to be vigilant. It’s then that the doubt can arrive, the underlying feelings of being an impostor. We are all the same: we all feel similar emotions and suffer similar insecurities. Everyone understands both the feeling of strength and surging confidence and the opposing feeling of self-doubt.

We need to remember that whatever it takes, with the help of friends, family or our own sheer bloody willpower, we can reach our goals. Let’s replace the ‘impostor’ with ‘I deserve to be here.’ Let’s change the sense of being out of place with a sense of equal entitlement. Solidarity is so important. As we join hands and support each other, we realise that together we are stronger, whatever the journey. Let the voices of doubt whisper what they will, we can shout louder. We’ve got this.

 

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