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.

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.

Reading at Payot

Alan at Payot

I found it hard to choose what to read at Payot. My allotted reading time was only three minutes. I thought of reading the beginning of In Search of Lost Girls when the ageing author is beset with troubles, not the least of which is one of his characters giving him a hard time. But the extract was too long. Then I thought of reading the beginning of the second chapter with the enigmatic first meeting of Peter and Andrew. The length was OK, but I was hesitant, mainly because it’s a delicate moment that is best not plunged into abruptly in a public reading. Finally, at the last moment, I opted for a short extract a little later in the book. Huguette suggested using a more emotional moment. So I did. I have too admit that often when I read this piece out loud it brings tears to my eyes. Anyway, I read the part where Peter sings Blake and, judging from the people who came up to me afterwards, it went down well.  I prefaced the extract by saying that you only need to know one thing, the two boys performing in the church are dressed as girls and if you want to know why, you have to read the book to find out. Here then is the beginning of the extract for you too read. Click here to read the whole extract.

(…)  Standing next to Andrew, seated at the piano, it was a relief to have a small space around him in which to move freely without fiery hands groping at him. Concentrate, he told himself, or you’ll be singing “Tyger, Tyger burning bright…” instead of Jerusalem. He smiled at the thought, mentally thanking Mrs Greengage, his English teacher, for his growing knowledge of literature. When Andrew began to play the opening bars, Peter took a deep breath, relaxed his shoulders and neck and prepared to sing. (…) (Read on)