Narrative Impulse – Keeping Fiction Alive

Narrative impulse

Read about narrative impulse – the constant flux to and from the character currently at the centre of a story. The movement flows from the particular to the general, from the individual to the relational, from the deeply personal to society at large, from extreme emotions to cold, hard facts, from heartfelt presence to time immemorial. The narrative impulse is the essential throbbing of narration that instils life into stories, conferring them with depth and breadth, with warmth and colour. It quickens or slows the pulse of the reader that beats in sync with the story. Read the full article.

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New flash: Where was I?

I hadn’t written a piece of flash fiction for a while. An encounter early this morning with an old lady inspired this new short story entitled Where was I? 

Where did I put that paper? It was in here somewhere. What a mess. Always so much stuff in my bag. No idea where it comes from. A packet of cigarettes. Empty, of course. Shame. Could have done with a cig. No such luck. (…) Read more.

The rain uninvited

My daily walks in the forest have been marked by heavy rain which even invited itself into the book I am writing: People of the Forest. Here’s the extract.

Isla was startled when Amelia grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to the window. She dug in her heals and tried to resist, but Amelia was strong. “Look,” the girl said. Isla peered round the window frame, trying to remain unseen. Jurgen was balancing along ropeways with all the grace of a ballet dancer. The sight of the brute engaged in such nimble steps, his hips swaying from side to side, had her giggling, much to her annoyance.

The forest abruptly darkened as if someone had flung a hand in front of the sun and Jurgen was lost in the gloom, his clothes blending with the trees. A jagged flash outlined his form for an instant, then the building shook as thunder rolled through the forest and the storm broke. Giant drops bounced off leaves and branches, the rattle of rain ringing like the staccato beats of an army of dwarf drummers gone mad.

A window, one of those that reached to the floor, burst open, glass shuddering as it did, and the storm shoved its way into the room with a great gust of rain closely followed by a dark form. The fighter stood in the entrance, not bothering to close the window, rain dripping from his boots and soaked clothes, his long hair plastered to his head and shoulders as he stared unblinking at Isla.

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People of the forest

Almost every day I go for a long walk in the forest above our home, pausing from time to time to sit and write the next paragraphs of my latest book. As I walk, I turn over ideas and words for my book while trying to fend off the myriad other stories that  bustle for my attention. I examine the world around me and take photos or film from time to time. I had been meaning to film the funicular which crosses the path at one point but as the train goes by only once an hour, my passage rarely coincides with that of the ‘Funi’. Today I was lucky.

But it is not only flowers and birds and inspiration to be found in the forest. As I walk, exploring further and deeper each time, I meet a rich variety of people who have also opted for the forest. Here is today’s selection.

The man with gray stubble for a beard opens his plastic bag and proudly exhibits the mushrooms he’s found before plunging behind trees and around bushes in search of more. A Kurd plodding steadily along the road, leans on his sticks. “It’s diabetes,” he says. “And the heart.” He talks of his doctor and the hospital and the precautions he must take. But today he’s decided to be more daring and walk as much as he wants. A woman struggles after a husky up the steady incline as she does everyday. Taking it in turns with her husband, she exercises her dogs whenever using the sled is not possible. A man in a t-shirt, shorts and running shoes cuts through the forest extolling the virtues of getting in amongst the trees. When challenged about the dangers of ticks that are prevalent in the area, he replies, “I’ve been vacinated.” I didn’t now a vaccin against Lyme Disease existed. Finally there’s the lumberjack sawing off lengths of trunks with a cunning measuring device he made himself. Once cut and dried, the wood heats his home and brings “warmth and light” to his friends. When asked whether ecology or cost-saving motivates his work, he replies, “Both. But above all the pleasure.” He talks with evident relish of the different types of wood, how they dry, what they smell of and how they burn.

… and what about the girl?

If you read my last post, you will know a lot of the writing on my new novel has been done in the forest. Should it rain while I’m out walking, and that seems likely as the weather has changed for the worse, I can always shelter under one of the arches of the funicular (see above) to write.

I suspect the first extract from the draft of the new novel I posted a few days ago may have given the impression that it’s all about a young guy called Jake. Well it is, but there is also a girl called Isla and she doesn’t have a very high opinion of Jake after their first brief encounter. Here’s an extract from the beginning of chapter two. Remember this is a draft. Remember also that things aren’t always as they seem…

There is also a video of the author reading this extract: Isla and the boy she bit.

Isla cupped her hands under the fountain for the third time and swilled water round her mouth unable to rid herself of the taste. What if the boy had some dreadful disease? She’d bitten him, damn it! There’d been blood and he stank. Spitting the water onto the ground, she straddled the monoPod ready to ride off and pulled out her Tab. If she’d been a normal girl she’d have denounced the attack. The boy was frankly dangerous. She’d thought he was going to rape her.

Her heart pounded as she recalled how he’d flung himself on top of her. He’d been about her size, but he was much stronger. She’d felt his muscles. His chest. His arms. His legs. His weatherbeaten face had been so close. She could still feel his breath on her cheek. The whiff of mouldy cheese had almost made her gag. And the wild look in his eyes. Like a cornered beast. No. More lost and perplexed. As if he thirsted for an answer.

Isla ran her fingers over the screen of the Tab. It had been hidden in the saddlebags of the monoPod she’d stolen. She had immediately disarmed the location software of both the Pod and the Tab, but using the latter to notify the Trackers was still risky, if not plain stupid. They could trace the call and would want to know how she came to be alone in such a remote spot when she was supposed to be at school.

School? Reform school they called it. A pretty name for a prison for youngsters. A school where teacher was synonymous with warden and learning meant sweeping the floor or clearing away the cardboard Boxits each and every meal was delivered in. A place where brawls were commonplace and abuse, especially of girls and the young and weak, was the norm. In her short stay, she’d spent her time trying to go unnoticed. If they sent her back she’d be in trouble. Inmates didn’t appreciate kids who tried to escape. As if escaping insulted those left behind. She’d bear the brunt of years of pent-up anger. Especially with her being so different. Few could read or write, let alone programme screens. The authorities would surely have twigged she’d busted wide open their precious system. They’d never let her near a screen again.

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The birth of a new novel

As I reached the end of the draft of my latest novel, Stories People Tell, I was concerned that no idea for a new book sprang to mind. Normally I have to put a brake on the new ideas that jostle to be heard as the current book nears completion. But this time nothing moved, even if I nudge and prodded it. What if my source of inspiration had dried up? A worrying thought I tried set aside. I was three-quarters through the first edit of Stories People Tell before an idea came for a possible novel and in unusual circumstances.

My hip had been playing up and rather than try to rest, I decided to start daily walks, hiking first four then eight kilometres early every morning. On the second day, as I neared the eight-kilometre mark I came across a clearing off the well-used track. Littered with moss-covered rocks and some felled trees, the place had a magic quiet to it that appealed to me. I sat on a rock (see photo below), pulled out my iPad and began writing a story that took shape in a very similar place to that one. Every day I paused to sit on that rock and write, except the one day in the month when it was raining.

It was not  immediately clear where the story was going but now I have written twelve chapters (of about one hundred to be written), the direction is becoming apparent. Unlike most of my other books, I have not immediately decided on a title. I just call it New Book. It will be my twelfth novel.

Here’s a short extract from the beginning of the opening chapter. Remember this is a draft and it will probably change before the book gets published.

To think he’d walked so close to the ruins on his foraging trips, never suspecting they were there. Jake glanced at the scattered slabs of stone covered with moss and rampant ivy. Despite its dilapidated state, the sacred ring was discernible amongst the trees, culminating in a majestic menhir that towered over the others.

There was an inner peace to the place, like an insistent silence that called to him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and bowed his head. Easing onto a rock, he shrugged off his backpack. The miles of trekking were taking their toll. His legs ached. He stared at the sullen standing stone, undecided if it were welcoming or hostile. At least the site, nestled in a hallow in the ground that hid it from the main track, offered shelter to break his fast.

He pulled a slice of bread and a chunk of cheese from his bag. The bread was stale and the cheese dry. If only he had some pickles. The moment the thought crossed his mind, he berated himself. The priest would have called him twice cursed, for covetousness and gluttony. The sour-faced man was very free with his condemnations, especially when it came to Jake. All the same, he had to agree. Craving more in the circumstances really was a sin.

A tear trickled down Jake’s cheek at the memory of his mother sneaking into the castle kitchens. Begging her to cease filching food was pointless. How else was she to feed them? The pittance she earned as a kitchen help was far from enough. One day he’d walked in on her spreading ointment on wheals on her back. The sight of the swollen gashes had made him sick. Never had she complained of the whippings. She was lucky, she said, not to get beheaded like other thieves. He brushed the tears angrily from his face and returned the remaining lump of bread to his bag.

Jake was reaching for his water bottle when he froze. In the distance, approaching fast, a group of horses cantered along the main trail sending birds squawking into the air. The Baron’s men. No other group could be out in such numbers. Surely they couldn’t be looking for him so soon. He shouldered his bag and searched for a place to hide. They were bound to stick to the well-used trail, but better to play safe.

He was wrong. The first mounted man trotted between the stones just as he ducked behind the largest of them. The horses snorted when their riders pulled them to a halt. There was a telltale click of buckles and stirrups as the men dismounted. “He must be here,” a gruff voice said. It was the captain of the guard, a thin-faced, vicious blighter  called Jurgen who was the terror of the young in the castle, boasting as he did of eating little children for breakfast. Story or no story, the voice so close made his skin crawl. (…)

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When real-life settings meet fiction

One of my delights in writing Stories People Tell has been discovering how I can embed real-life places in my story and how that juxtaposition of the real and the imaginary adds power and presence to the story. Within the limits of my knowledge of the places used, I have tried to respect the confines of the contexts chosen. In addition, I found it important to select an overarching setting for the whole story which dictated the places I could use and the possible trajectories between them and which gave additional coherence to the novel.

Some caution is required, however, to make sure the depiction of such settings does not mask the story. Places, especially those that are well-known, have a power and a story of their own. If you let them come too much to the forefront they will take over and hijack your story.

Below is a short extract, depicting a visit to a psychiatric hospital. I doubt you can identify the original setting, but I have used its presence to heighten the narration.

The car swung through the wrought iron gates into the park, where a large sign announced the name and nature of the institution. The former was concealed by foliage, while the latter was plain to see, Psychiatric Hospital. The words filled Annie with panic as all her doubts came rushing back. So Alice had made up her mind that she was crazy and intended to have her locked up. In a horrible way, it all made sense. No wonder she hadn’t wanted to say where they were going.

As they wound their way under a dense canopy of trees, Annie could feel mounting resignation numb her whole being. She glanced longingly out the back window at the world beyond the gates. She was partly reassured to see that the gates did not snap shut behind them. Reaching the end of the drive, they emerged from the wood in front of a large mansion surrounded by a grassy expanse that extended as far as the eye could see. Alice parked the car at the foot of the steps to the main entrance and turned to face Annie.

Climactic finish to Stories People Tell

I have just finished the first draft of my eleventh novel, The Stories People Tell. A hundred and twenty four thousand words written in two and a half months. Details of all my novels can be found here.

Right up to the very last chapter (the one hundredth), I had no idea how the story would finish. Amongst other things, I was surprised to discover that the climatic end was a joyous celebration of the city of London and the wide diversity of the people living there.

The Stories People Tell relates the tale of Annie, an unknown seventeen year-old schoolgirl , who gets caught up in a grass-roots gay women’s movement in their opposition to Nolan Kard, current Lord Mayor of London. A rich entrepreneur, turned politician, he is campaigning to ‘Keep London Straight’. His off-hand attitude, his tasteless humour and his widespread influence, especially within the police, are undermining the country’s longstanding institutions. Annie, who is normally shy and retiring, discovers she has far more talent than she imagined. Despite herself, she becomes the figurehead of the ‘London Whatever’ movement that rocks London and its certitudes, but in so doing, she becomes the number one target for Kard and his rogue police, not to mention his sinister gang of ghost writers


Flags fluttered in the breeze over the hotel entrance as they reached Charing Cross Station. People were leaning out the many windows to catch a first glimpse of the march, whistling and cheering as the head of the cortege swept into view. The station forecourt was packed with people none of whom seemed in any hurry to catch a train. They erupted in cheers and clapping as the first of the marchers drew level with the station.

Annie halted the march and grasped the microphone Bertie handed her. She took several steps beyond the column of people, Xenia, her faithful bodyguard, at her side. Kevin, her girlfriend, on the other. The crowd hushed. “Thank you,” she said, her amplified voice echoing back from the façade of the station and away down the Strand over the heads of the marchers. “Thank you all for such a warm welcome. It touches us deeply. We, the women, men and children of London, march to put an end to violence. The violence of words, of acts, of fists, of firearms and bombs. We oppose violence not with ever more violence, but with everyday acts of kindness, with concern for those who are poor, rejected and in ill health. It is not easy. But that is our goal. If that goal appeals to you, join us now. We are on our way to St. James’s Park where there will be speeches, but also music and dancing. You are all welcome.”

She paused a moment, the fist of her right hand cradled in the fingers of her left. “We raise our fists in salute, it is not a threat but a sign of solidarity. In those fingers held tight we embrace everyone however different they may be. Gay. Trans. Straight. Black. Yellow. White. All sorts. All colours of the rainbow. All are welcome in our London.” She raised her fist in the air. Behind her, the marchers as one saluted in their turn and with it a roar went up that rippled back down The Strand. Then hesitatingly people in the station forecourt and at the windows above, raised their fists, till a sea of raised fists greeted her.

Annie nodded as a token of recognition and returned to the march, her arm slung around Kevin’s shoulders, her heart beating fast with the emotion of the moment. Bertie raised her arm and gave the signal for them to set off towards Trafalgar Square.

London Whatever! An extract.

One month ago today I began a new novel entitled Stories People Tell. I am now half way through the book and have written 55,000 words. I know numbers mean very little, but when a story flows so freely that you write over four thousand words in a day, as I did yesterday and the day before, it is an exhilarating experience. When your fingers freeze because you are out on a walk in icy cold weather and have to write down the next fragment of the story, you know something special is going on. When the only light on a moonless night on a deserted path through the forest is your iPad open to Scrivener with you hunched over it, fingers typing away, you experience the full force of stories.

It is not easy sharing an extract from the draft, but I wanted you to be able to read some of what I as First Reader have read and written. First Reader? Because I get to discover the story first. Now it is your turn. But bear in mind, there are a number of story threads in this tale and you are following just a fragment of one of them. And if you like it or it sparks thoughts, don’t hesitate to tell others about it or add your messages below.

(What you need to know: Annie is an unknown seventeen year-old schoolgirl caught up in a grass-roots movement against Nolan Kard, a rich entrepreneur, turned politician who is campaigning to ‘Keep London Straight’. His off-hand attitude, his tasteless humour and his widespread influence is undermining the capital’s longstanding  institutions. Annie, who is normally shy and retiring, becomes the figurehead of the ‘London Whatever’ movement and in this extract is attending a spontaneous rally in a park somewhere in London.)

A roar went up from the crowd as the small group parted and Annie stepped forward. Several people patted her on the shoulder. Others shouted words of encouragement. Seeing the size of the crowd from the edge of the platform took her breath away and her head began to spin. She grasped the railing and tried to suck in a deep breath. The crowd roared again like a wild but joyful beast. She raised her fist in salute and the crowd followed suit, a sea of raised fists swaying in front of her. The sight was exhilarating, but also terrifying. There was a power in this situation that she could never have imagined.

What next? The crowd fell silent and someone handed her a microphone. She stared at it unsure what to do. She had not anticipated this. She had no speech at the ready. Her mind was a blank and she struggled to keep the panic at bay. If only she’d known, she’d have asked Alice. The old Professor might have been retired, but she would have known what to say. She thought of the Prime Minister, of all his worries and what he’d told her about Kard undermining those who did the work.

She took a shaky breath, raised the mic to her mouth and spoke. “It is so easy to stand on the sidelines and sneer at those who are trying to get the work done.” She halted to catch her breath and look around the crowd, giving the words time to come. A swaying fresco of faces stared up at her, expectant. She gripped the railing even tighter, almost giving in to the vertigo. “It is so easy to mock and poke fun at the institutions on which society is built.” She felt her voice grow stronger as if she had unearthed an untapped source of energy. “It is so easy to point your finger at those who are different and say they are to blame.” The words flowed more easily now. Goodness knew from where.

She lowered her voice almost to a whisper, her lips brushing the mic. “If you are one of those who snigger at these antics, if their bad taste makes you laugh, if you would vote for the buffoon thinking he is different and will set things right, remember one thing.” She raised her voice little by little. “Driving the vision of a straighter, greater Britain is the dubious humour of a madman whose only aim is to build an empire over the ruins he leaves behind. There will be nothing great or straight in the nightmare he has in mind. There will be no freedom at the end of the road. A twisted smile may linger on your lips, but if you do not see him for what he is, whatever you are, where ever you live, who ever you know, you will stand alone, powerless, a slave to the will of a man who cares nothing about anyone or anything but himself.”

“I am reminded of the story of the emperor’s new clothes. In this version the Emperor is a would-be President.” Laughter rippled through the crowd. “He stands before us in his dirty underwear expecting us to pretend he is richly dressed.” The crowd roared with laughter. “He is mistaken. It is us that are richly dressed in all our gay colours and pretty makeup.” Some whistled, others called out ‘love you’, most just returned her smile. “He would have us all clad in grey, each of us straight-jacketed into uniform thoughts so he can feel special. No way!”

“No way!” cried the crowd.

“This afternoon, a journalist asked me why we call our movement ‘London Whatever’. I replied that rather than pointing an accusing finger at the world, ‘Whatever’ opens its arms to embrace difference. ‘Whatever’ is inclusive. Why shouldn’t girls love girls or boys love boys? Why shouldn’t gender be a question of personal choice? ‘Whatever’ celebrates the richness and diversity of the world. It hugs rather than sniggers. It is open and frank. And as part of that frankness we stand up and laugh at the bully in his dirty underwear who has this crazy idea that we should bow down to him as if he were a richly dressed President.”

Enough was enough. She lowered the microphone. The crowd erupted in cheers and stamped their feet. Before the cheers had time to die down, someone pulled out a drum and began hammering out a wild beat. Only to be joined by a pair of bongos. Another person shouldered a fiddle and added a melody to the beat. Several others took out flutes and in no time the crowd was transformed into a colourful, dancing mass.

A new novel

For some time, I have been struggling to put a damper on a new novel which was clamouring for my attention, but Sunday, two weeks ago, I gave in. Whole scenes were running through my mind demanding to be written. So temporarily abandoning Forget Me Not which was nearing completion, I began a new novel with the working title, Stories People Tell (tentative cover above). Writing on average a chapter a day, I have now written over 20,000 words and am enthusiastic about the result.

I was planning to give you a peek, sharing the first couple of paragraphs of the draft, but it is still undergoing changes. With such inspirational writing, you don’t necessarily know where the novel is heading. Here is no exception. The initial idea that sparked the book turned out not to be the subject of the book, as I had imagined, but only a starting point. Anyway, here’s the current beginning. (*)

Annie looked up, startled. Nothing ever happened in the East End. Yet, there she was, on her way home from school like every other week day, except that today the path across the park was blocked by crash barriers and the grass was packed with a raucous crowd sporting badges, waving blue banners and screaming “Kard, Kard, Kard.”

Sure. She’d noticed the posters plastered on the walls around her community school and on the walls and windows of deserted houses and warehouses awaiting demolition, but she hadn’t paid them any attention. She might be studying sociology at A-level, but she was not much interested in politics. It all seemed so pointless and fake. During break, she’d even heard a brass band marching the streets announcing some event, but it was frankly not her type of music. There were several groups of rough-looking youths sporting large blue badges loitering at street corners. But her thoughts had been more on avoiding them than why they were there.

Of course, she’d heard of Kard. Who hadn’t? You couldn’t open a newspaper without his face leering out at you. The man had a regular spot on all the talked-of TV chat programmes. He reminded her of a stuffed pig. A thick set, blundering oaf who constantly cracked jokes, most of which were in bad taste. Some of her friends thought he was a laugh. A few found him handsome. One even claimed to have met him. Her mother called the man a buffoon and was clearly amused. Her father said if he was a buffoon, he was a dangerous one. Her sociology teacher said Kard hailed the end of history. Didn’t he really mean the end of the world? (…)

(*) The whole draft is now complete and I have begun editing, The above is from the latest version of the draft. Updated: Tuesday February 21st 2017.