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. (…)

The Dream Class

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It’s all about learning, but don’t let that distract you from the story. 

The Starless Square, Book 3 of The Storyteller’s Quest opens with a policeman challenging An, who, unbeknown to him, hails from another world, “Shouldn’t you be in school, Miss?” An laughs, thinking that ‘school’ is the last place she’d go to learn. Later, teasing the policewoman who is interrogating her, she asks why they keep harping on about school, to which the woman replies, “Because school is compulsory.” With all the naivety she can muster, An asks, “Why go to a place to learn when you can learn everywhere?” knowing full well that the woman, along with most of the inhabitants of this world, would be stumped by such a question. So saying, she expresses one of the unwritten tenets of the group she belongs to, The Dream Class. Learning can and does takes place everywhere and not just in a privileged building with privileged teachers.

The term ‘The Dream Class’, was first coined by Professor Rafter at the end of The Reaches, Book 1 of The Storyteller’s Quest when Sally suggested teaching her friends the ground-breaking skills she had learnt in her travels to another world. Here then is a second tenet of the Dream Class. Learning is best propagated by sharing what you have experienced with your peers and others.

When describing The Dream Class to another girl in the heat of action in Forget Me Not, Book 5 of The Storyteller’s Quest (currently being written), Sarah says succinctly, “We learn to do weird and wonderful things thanks to our adventures.” That adventures are potentially an ideal context in which to develop outstanding new skills and abilities in difficult situations is another of the tenets of the Dream Class.

As Sally puts it, talking to new students at the beginning of Forget Me Not, “Unlike the university with its set curricula and predetermined ways of working, we adopt a more experimental approach. Our experience has been that the best way to learn is by adventure.” Of course, the original members didn’t create adventures but stumbled into them. The challenge in extending the Dream Class to outside participants is to create the conditions in which an adventure might take place even if there is no guarantee anything will be learnt. Gauging risk is important.

Later in Forget Me Not, confronted with the enthusiasm of new students gathered on a deserted island off the coast of Scotland, Jenny tells them that they should “learn one thing at a time”, adding as an afterthought “if possible”. Learning through adventures means that learning cannot be served up in convenient, pre-digested packages. It’s messy, sometimes chaotic, often dangerous. Circumstances invariably require mastering several new things at once and the skills to be learnt can’t be decided in advance.

Although writing The Storyteller’s Quest has been an adventure in itself, the outcomes of which were not predetermined and often surprised me, certain ideas expressed here find an echo in my earlier writings about education on Connected Magazine, in particular an article entitled, Nine lessons of schooling … or why school isn’t what you think it is.  Note that much of what I wrote at that time on Connected was constrained by the need to work from within the school system. Of course, that limit no longer applies in the world of the Storyteller’s Quest.

Further reading

The Reaches – The Storytellers Quest Book 1

The Keeper’s Daughter – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 2

The Starless Square – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 3

The World o’Tales – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 4

Forget Me Not – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 5

Nine lessons of schooling … or why school isn’t what you think it is, Alan McCluskey, Connected Magazine, August 2007.

Healing from within – learning from writing

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It seems so strange to our eyes, but at the time they couldn’t see things otherwise (…) They came at the body from the outside. It wasn’t simply that they didn’t have our techniques to enter the body with their minds. All their knowledge was buried in books, in scientific papers and in data gathered by machines. They kept new healers away from people in need of healing. They would have been horrified if anyone had tried to heal others without all that knowledge, whereas, in reality, it blocked access to what they really needed to know. Inside out, Alan McCluskey, April 2012.

One of the greatest difficulties with improving long-established systems, like the one we call Health Care, is being able to step outside the system and, from that unaccustomed vantage point, explore new possibilities that go beyond what is currently thinkable. Freeing ourselves from familiar logic is hard to achieve, rather like stepping through the mirror for Alice. It can be liberating, but more often than not, it is a frightening and disorienting experience.

What’s more, the moment you venture out, a chorus of expert voices intones from the safety of comfy armchairs, You can’t do that. It doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t, in their logic. If we listened to them there would never be any major breakthroughs. Transgressing social norms and the fixed mind-sets of our institutions can be explored in inspiring ways through fiction, especially Sci-Fi and Fantasy. All that is demanded of the author is plausibility, a quality that can be built up over time as a novel moves forward.

In writing Boy & Girl, speaking mind-to-mind was a first step in creating a bridge between two worlds, between two people, Peter and Kaitlin. Travelling mind-to-mind followed on quite logically, making it possible for my young protagonists to lodge in each other’s minds and to see and feel the world through their eyes and their senses. What I did not anticipate, as I began writing, was that being able to travel to the body and mind of another had deep-seated implications for health care. That healing could better be assured from within than without, that the body knew exactly what it needed to be healthy, that healing could use this knowledge to counter illness and accident. All this became apparent as my characters affronted challenging situations.

These perspectives struck me as so important, I wrote a separate short story called Inside out that explored, under the guise of fiction, what might be possible in health care from such a standpoint.

Further reading

Inside out

Boy & Girl

In Search of Lost Girls

Dressed in girls’ clothes

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Alexander, Aonyan, Aubrey, Bell, Boris, Cameron, Camila, Charlie, Daniella, Ella, Elle, Ellery, Jenny, Kim, Lawrence, Lily, Mishel, Nong Poy, Saphire, Stav, Vincent, Yue Yue, Yuki, and many more.

Had Peter, the main character in Boy & Girl, been a girl, wearing a dress or a skirt and top, with those new-fangled tights that were all the rage at the beginning of the 60’s, would not have been such a big deal, either for her or for those around her. Doing so might have made her feel pretty or attractive or happy, but no more than the girl she was. That he was born in a boy’s body made all the difference. For dressing up in girls’ clothes had an allure he couldn’t resist, yet, despite the hold it had over him, he did not understand the driving force behind it. One thing was clear, it wasn’t that he wanted to be a girl. As he explained to his best friend Fi, he would never give up that part of him that singled him out as a boy rather than a girl. Yet in dressing like a girl, he relished the feeling of girlishness, the curves and colours that only girls could wear and the acute sense of his own legs, his chest, his shoulders, his whole body that he’d never been aware of before. Not to mention the fact that the cut of girls’ clothes, like the way blouses pulled in tight around his waist, flattered his body in ways that boys’ clothes never did.

Peter could be forgiven for thinking that girls’ clothes were somehow bewitching in that they had a power over him that he could not resist. Just the thought of them sent his pulse racing. His whole body became alive as he dressed up in clothes filtched from Sis. Concealed in her room, surrounded by drawers and drawers of her clothes, enveloped in her perfume,  the world around him was daubed with vibrant colours. In comparison, his grey shorts and school uniform jacket abandoned on his bed were dull and lifeless, offering not the slightest promise of magic.

Peter was at that age when some boys could be mistaken for girls and some girls for boys, the ambiguous age of androgyny, suspended in a moment of grace before hormones drive them out of paradise. It was that angel-like, undecided state which many older boys, those who stood uncertain on the threshold of manhood, derided if not feared. The thugs of the rugby team were the worst, making a sport of bating Peter and Fi for refusing to take sides between boys and girls. They were the rowdy flag-bearers of a society that violently opposed what Peter was try to express, condemning those that did not fit binary norms and heterosexual behaviour, with a fanaticism and a bloodthirstiness akin to earlier witch hunts. Such a society, in 1960, felt it had every right to respond to difference and non-conformity with punishments like chemical castration.

Like his namesake, Peter Pan, Peter escaped an ugly,  hostile world, by mentally flying off to a Nevernever Land in which no one aged. Could that be why he found his way to Kaitlin’s world so easily and took comfort in her company? She never judged him, but accepted him as he was. Meanwhile, back at home, alone, then encouraged by Fi, the right clothes, a little of Sis’s lipstick and a dash of powder to conceal his freckles, were enough to make him believe he was a girl. In a few years, however, it would take much more than makeup to hide the emerging angles of a masculin form. The thought revolted him. For even if he did not want to physically become a girl, he didn’t want to be a boy either, even less a man. If only he could stay eternally  in between.

Well before Andrew stumbled across his path in In Search of Lost Girls – the sequel to Boy & Girl – it did cross Peter’s mind that he might enjoy dressing as a girl because deep down he was attracted to boys. But he wasn’t. He found them uninteresting, if not repulsive, especially that hoard from the school rugby team who gave him and Fi so much trouble. All his interest centred on the delicious Fi with her brightly coloured clothes and her vivacity and then, later, on Kaitlin who was like a part of himself. True. Andrew was a fellow soul. He too dressed up as a girl, but for completely different reasons. Yes despite this affinity, Peter felt no attraction for Andrew, much to the boy’s chagrin.

Peter, who relished being a girl amongst girls, was delighted to find the Lost Girls and to be able to live and sing with them. They accepted him as he was and were happy to embrace him as a fellow girl. But, even had it been surgically possible in the early 1960s, he had no wish to become a girl for real. All he wanted was to put off the inevitable choice, delighting in a girlish ambiguity as long as possible.

Further reading

Boy & Girl

In Search of Lost Girls

New ebook covers

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Both Boy & Girl and its sequel, In Search of Lost Girls, have snappy new ebook covers. You can order copies from Smashwords, Apple’s iBooks and Kindle amongst others. For links and further information as well as free extracts, click on the cover of the book.

Books…

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Here are my five published books and some of those that have inspired me over the years. Recently I have been listening to a lot of audiobooks none of which figure here. To give some idea of authors I have been listening to here is a short list: David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Maggie Stiefvater, Tamora Pierce, Anne Bishop, Neil Gaiman, Trudi Canavan

Click on the picture to get a closer look.