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.

A new end, a new beginning

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As a writer, you know you are drawing near the end of the novel you are writing when ideas start to surface for the next book. The other day I passed the 100.000 word mark on Forget Me Not, having finished chapter ten. Ideas for future books include the sixth and final book of The Storyteller’s Quest; A possible sequel to In Search of Lost Girls; and finally a completely new idea about someone trapped in a story…. an exciting prospect. I’m tempted to go with that first.

Here’s an extract from the draft of the end of chapter ten of Forget Me Not.

Ethy staggered against the table in the potting shed, causing several pots to tumble to the ground and smash. Clutching the wooden surface for support, she felt as if her head were spinning but her stomach couldn’t keep up. Could it be an earthquake? The table still rocked where she had jostled it, but the packed earth beneath her feet remained motionless. No. This was in her. More likely it was a virus or something she’d eaten. She felt weak and queasy. Of course, it could be this place catching up on her, finally getting its revenge.

She’d been lucky so far. Not only did she not get lost like all the other girls who ventured out, but she suffered none of the distractions or delirium that had made lumbering vegetables of many of the girls, Beth and Maria included.

She glanced at the others. Beth was huddled in her wheelchair oblivious to the world. Maria in comparison looked alarmed. Her head swivelled in every direction as if in search of an explanation but her expression spoke only of incomprehension. Both Anju and Tricia looked green, but maybe that was only the light reflecting off so many leaves. (…)

Blinded by inspiration

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I attended a workshop given by the poet Laura Kasischke (in the photo above) organised by the Geneva Writers Group. It was all about images, or rather metaphors … and the importance of the senses as the source of all perception of the world. There were many writing exercises amongst readings and the occasional discussion. Based on the juxtaposition that underlies metaphors, each exercise strung together a description anchored heavily in the senses and a question or judgement linked to a different context. Here are a few of my pieces sparked by this jostling of disparate worlds.

Derelict house

Rain ran over her bald head and dripped from the faded red dress which hung torn from her sagging form. Ivy had crept up her legs and over her body, its deep green leaves in stark contrast to the pale ivory of her skin and the prominent bluish veins. She sat in the ruins of an armchair, unleashed springs sprouting around her as she stared out over the abandoned garden. Despite the heavy makeup, cracks ran down the side of her face, threatening to reveal the bones that jutted out. Her chest heaved in one long drawn-out sigh and she turned the page of the book resting in her lap, slowly, ever so slowly. The ink on the page had long been washed into a grey-blue blur and the paper buckled in the rain. Curving her index finger, she dug the long nail into the soggy mass, and, tearing downwards, left a deep gouge in the body of the book that the rain hastened to fill.

The White Room

The double bed fills most of the room, its covers folded down with hospital precision. Slippers slink side by side, their toes peeking out from under the bed. On the dresser, each tube of lipstick, each bottle of perfume, even the paper hankies, are aligned in neat rows. The wicker wastepaper basket, mostly concealed beneath the worksurface, is empty. Not an odd angle, not a rough edge, nothing to get hold of. I round the bed, cross the plush carpet, feeling it’s softness ease between my toes, and pull at the wardrobe door. It resists. I pull harder and it flies open. Crying out, I jump back in alarm as a host of empty cardboard boxes tumbles out on top of me.

 Vulnerable

You step out from behind the lectern, smoothing the folds of your dress as you do. Smoothing your nerves too. So many people watching, listening, sizing you up, row upon row of them awaiting the impossible, drooling in expectation, on the look out for the slightest miss step. Your eyes are wide, your jaw set, your arms snake around your chest, clasping you tight, crushing the breath from your lungs. Whatever you do, don’t let it show. You know the routine. Throw up a rampart of words. Plough on. Let the words tumble over the waiting audience, hurry, out run them, knock the breath from them, eliminate them before they do you.

 

In the hands of writers

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Hands are like faces, they tell stories, but are maybe not so easy to mask.

Since I began attending the Geneva Writers’ Group I have taken a number of photos in attempts to visually capture the group work. Those photos reflect the frontal nature of conferences and workshops with anywhere between fifty and ninty people aligned in rows in front of the workshop giver. Today, thanks to the capacities of my new iPhone, I tried a different approach at a workshop jointly run by Susan Tiberghien and Jason Donald.

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Giving birth to a novel

Much of writing might be described as mental pregnancy with successive difficult deliveries – J.B. Priestley, quoted by Donnalane Nelson.

Difficult births seem to be the hallmark of a certain breed of author for whom creation is akin to intense suffering and writing is a pain they relish but constantly complain of. Then there are those authors for whom writing is a joy and creativeness a pleasure, akin to beholding the starlit sky at night, uplifting and inspiring. For them words just flow. Not that they don’t need to labour over their drafts to ready them for print, but the underlying feeling is delight. Neither group has the monopoly on good writing, although the first look with much suspicion and doubt on the second whereas the second gaze on the first with incomprehension if not sadness at their suffering.

The photo: JB Priestley in 1931. MI5 called him ‘an independent leftwing liberal whose conscience seems to be answerable not to any political party’. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty. Source: The Guardian.

Forget Me Not – dark corners

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Artwork: Alan McCluskey

Since the last update on Forget Me Not, my tenth novel, I have completed the first four chapters, that’s over 40’000 words or about 100 pages of the printed book. I am always astounded by the way the story takes on a life of its own and I am just a servant writing it.

Wondering what this photo has to do with the story. Well, read the short extract below from the beginning of Chapter 5 as young Maria slips away from her friends and ventures upstairs in the long-dead Explorer’s house. Remember this extract comes from a draft and may well change over time.

The left hand corridor was much darker and she wasn’t sure, from a distance, what lay down it. Steeling herself, she stepped into the shadows, feeling her way along the wall. When she came to a doorframe, she halted and cocked an ear. Nothing. She fumbled for the handle and eased  the door open. A strange smell greeted her, but she could see nothing in the pitch black. 

Unsettled by the dark and having nothing to create a light, she was tempted to retrace her steps and try another room, but the faint odour intrigued her. Like sweets or perfume or dried flowers, it smacked of humans and life.  Someone had been there. Recently. “Anyone here?” she whispered, her voice more breath than sound.

No answer came. She let out a sigh of relief. She had no idea what she would have done if anyone had replied. “Thank heavens for that,” she said, taking a couple of steps forward, her arms outstretched in front of her. She should have left the door open, light from the landing might have filtered through. Her knee brushed against an object. Terrified, she turned to leave when the sound of a match striking had her swivelling back to face whoever was there, her heart thundering in her chest. The match flared, revealing a candle on a desk behind which sat a person outlined in the dark.

Meet Gina Monjoy, pole dancer

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Photo: Alan McCluskey

Yesterday I attended a workshop with MJ Homes in Pully, organised by Joy Manne. The theme? Uncertainty in writing, both that of the writer but also that of the writing itself. What is this between space in which all is possible? I hesitate, frightened by the void and the dark and the silence, then I jump…

Met an old lady at the workshop. Gina Monjoy was her name. A zany pole dancer, cum script writer, who sported wild colours and spoke too loud. I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t a little deaf. Not the sort of thing you could tell her, though. She must have been at least eighty-five. All wrinkles she was and preoccupied with loosing her mind, or so she said, often. You only had to hear what she wrote to wonder if she might be right. Anyway, here’s an extract she scribbled on a piece of paper that I found screwed up in a corner under a desk.

John was a tall man with hairy legs and knobbly knees that knocked together when he climbed the stairs which he did rarely because with age his legs had gone so stiff he could barely quit his wheelchair to pee or to pray and anyway praying was not his thing, unless you included preying on his neighbour’s wife who was a most beautiful specimen of sun-kissed tropical fruit that would dribble down his chin if he bit into it which in turn recalled his youth before the accident, but after the operation, at a period when he spent less time thinking about being someone else, even if the idea had begun to obsess him, despite efforts of two psychiatrists that cost him a fortune and a lot of medication which ruined his liver and might have explained why he had the accident, not that the police would have agreed, but then they agreed only with themselves, blustering away, swearing at him when all he needed was a hug