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A very British obsession

They say a picture tells a thousand words but when I get stuck on how to describe a character I give them a biscuit. Biscuits are central to British culture; and are really as important a talking point as the weather. If you can come to London and talk to a complete stranger at a bus stop about it being a bit drizzly today and how you’re dying for a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive, you will be getting that Real British Experience the travel agent told you about – especially if the person you’re talking to turns out to be an exchange student from Valencia.
Understand biscuits and you’ve got us bang to rights. Stay-at-home mums eat Viennese Fingers, pensioners will have a Rich Tea, comedian Victoria Wood made her name with jokes about Gypsy Creams, and talk show host Jonathan Ross arouses deep suspicion and a palpable sense of embarrassment in some Hollywood stars when he offers them his chocolate Hob Nobs.
In fact, we only drink tea as an excuse to eat biscuits. There are entire aisles in our supermarkets devoted to bikkies, which are not, by the way, to be confused with cookies. According to Linda Stradley of What’s cooking America, cookies are small cakes, and were invented in 7th century Persia to test oven temperature. Who knew?
As far as I am concerned, cookies are hard crumbly dollops of stuff, embedded with chocolate chips or raisins. Biscuits, on the other hand, are everything you can possibly imagine; from hard, flat, shiny Garibaldis, which I’m sure Tolkien was thinking of when he wrote about elven bread (‘We’ll have a nice cup of tea and a packet of Garibaldis, and then we’ll go and vanquish the dark lord.’), to Tunnocks tea cakes (the making of which practically destroyed the contestants on The Great British Bake Off last year).
And then there are the names of the biscuit manufacturers themselves. There is a story, in an advert for the Imperial War Museum, that a captured World War Two pilot, questioned by the Germans, said he had been flying a Huntley and Palmer bomber with a Peak Frean engine. Sweet.

Uncle Ken

I went to my uncle Ken’s funeral this morning and I can’t get to grips with how I feel about his death. He could be such a curmudgeonly old git, and yet I couldn’t help liking him. Strictly speaking he was my husband’s uncle, and he lived, almost right up until the moment that he died, in the tiny little terraced house where he was born. He was a twin, but his brother died at birth, and I will never forget being shown the little faded note that his mother had been given about what to do with the baby’s body. ‘Put it in a clean cardboard box, and leave it outside the door of the cemetery superintendent, so that it can be disposed of.’ This was in the 1920s, but still, pretty shaky stuff. Ken’s mum always excused his bad tempers on account of the fact that he was ‘missing his twin’.

He grew up into quite a good looking lad, rollicking through the town where we still live, loud, cheerful and always down the pub until chucking-out time. I suppose he was a lot like Robert Newton, the thirties film star who played Long John Silver. Then war came and Ken was put in the pay corps and sent to India, where he remembered guarding piles of food at the docks, while being watched by starving kids. He was sent back to England when he got dysentery.

As the years went by it got to be just him and his mum at home, and there were occasions when he bullied her, and others when he would walk for miles in the spring, and pick bunches of violets to bring home to her. And then she died, and he stopped going to work; he just stayed in the house, unless my mother in law went round to clean, in which case he would leg it over the back wall.

He got better, with a bit of family help, although his brothers and sisters sigh at the memory of him coming for Christmas. ‘He never wanted to go home,’ my father in law said. ‘We were all nodding off at midnight and he’d be all for having another drink and a song.’

He never married, never had children, although none of his nieces and nephews, including our kids, ever left him without some money pressed into their hands. But, as he got older he got more and more unsociable. He wouldn’t go out; he hoarded stuff; he wouldn’t let one of his brothers into the house. Mostly he just wouldn’t answer the door unless it was my father in law, or the lady over the road who did his laundry. In the end, his life telescoped down into a single room with a bed and a chair. He wouldn’t have a TV or a radio – ‘bloody rubbish’.

He was a sick man and, although he had carers, he had to be taken to hospital in August. When my father in law went to see him he had turned to face the wall. My father in law said, ‘When are you coming home, then, Ken?’ He had to bend down to get the whispered reply. ‘Never. I’m never going home.’ Ken died about two weeks later.

We were a small bunch who went to see him off this morning. At the start of the service there was a recording of All things bright and beautiful. ‘He loved that song’, his cleaner, Ann, said. ‘We used to sing it together, especially when his room was a right tip.’

So there you are, he was a difficult, generous, sociable, grumpy old bugger, who caused quite a bit of upset for his family one way or another. One of his nephews, not without humour, remarked, ‘I expect he’ll be making trouble Up There now.’ I hope he is.

What women want

If men really want to know what women want, they should buy a stack of romantic novels. Seriously. If you are a man and you are reading this, then I imagine that your reaction is on the lines of ‘F*** Right Off’, but stay with me here.
Romantic novels represent our fantasies, they set out blueprints for our dream man, they detail how we like our men to look, behave and think.
If you are a smart guy and you still don’t know why women look straight past you when you’re trying to chat them up, you can do no better than to pop into WH Smiths, pick up the Mills and Boon monthly selection and spend a couple of evenings doing a spot of clinical analysis. (Of course, my booklist is readily available, but being British, I don’t like to mention it).
You will, no doubt, probably in the middle of Chapter 2, come to the conclusion that it is impossible for you to grow three inches and suddenly become a human rights lawyer, a wine-grower, or a rich businessman. And you would be right. But this is not the moment at which you throw Rebel Bride on the fire and go down the pub. It is just that you have missed the point.
Sure, the books always describe the hero as having perfect surface qualities. What is more interesting is that my Mills and Boon editor once told me that you could never have a hero who is a soccer player, an antique dealer or a pop star. You can take it then, that women want somebody reliable, who’s not going to run off with their family silver or score an own goal with their sister. They want somebody who is a considerate lover (lots of stuff on the internet about that, chaps) and somebody who dresses well (likewise).
And most importantly of all, they listen to the heroine, because she is the most important person in the book. Hey, are you reading this? Hey? Come back…

The editor’s mug

I want to tell you a true story. It’s about a man I once worked with. We were both subs (copyeditors) on a daily newspaper. The work was hard, the shifts were long, but we all had four-day rotas, which meant that the blocks of graft were cemented with decent layers of days off. There was also a pub nearby which we went to at any given opportunity, and we got paid very well, so you needn’t feel too sorry for us.

And then, horror of horrors. A new editor arrived. He was ok, as far as editors go. The only limitation being that, on Thursdays, he would speak only Latin. Nobody knew why. But then that is the way, and the right, of kings and editors. ‘Quintus ubi est argumentum?’ he would demand, of no one in particular, as the newsroom hummed with shouted obscenities from the sweating subs who might have been able to write the Queen’s English, but who generally spoke only Anglo Saxon.

Every afternoon at four a news conference was held in the editor’s office, where he and his assistant editors and department editors would meet to chew the fat over what was going to be the front page splash, and what would be relegated to page two, and so on. You get the picture. It was very soon noticed that, at these meetings, the editor would always drink out of a stripey blue mug, of which he seemed very fond.

And then came the dreadful news. We were to lose our four-day shifts; we were to work longer; and what is more, we would not be getting a pay rise. The editor proclaimed (on a Wednesday, I think) that it all made Perfect Sense, that it was an Efficiency Saving, and that he didn’t see what any of us could possibly complain about.

The next day he arrived at conference looking rather harassed. ‘Vidistis mea hyacintho stripey Mug?’ he asked his assembled henchpersons. The unthinkable had happened. His mug had gone missing. The execs looked at each other rather helplessly. The sports editor, who had taken a first in theology from Oxford, said, ‘Here, have my mug,’ but the editor shook his head and sat down, trembling, at the head of the table.

Over the next few days the change in him was marked. He had a wild look about him, and from our vantage point in the middle of the newsroom, we could see him button-holing various high-up members of staff and asking if they had seen his mug.

One day, not long after that, his secretary took his afternoon mail into his office, and a few seconds later there was a terrible cry. The editor stumbled out of his office, holding a padded envelope in one hand, and in the other, was a blue and white stripey china handle. ‘My mug!’ he wailed. ‘My mug!’ Forgetting that, since this was, after all, a Thursday, he should have said, ‘Mug meum! Mug meum!’ Still, he was in extremis.

Worse was to come. There had been a note in the envelope too. It said, in cut-out newspaper words, ‘Give us our four-day shifts back, or the mug gets it.’

You would think, wouldn’t you, that there would be a happy ending to this story. That the editor would see the error of his ways, and give us our shifts back, and consequently be reunited with his mug. But it was not to be. Despite his love for his mug, the editor stood firm on the new shifts, and dark days arrived for the subs of this particular newspaper.

I said at the start that this story was about a man I once worked with. I have neglected to mention him until now, because I know for a fact that he was the mug-napper, and I cannot describe him for fear the editor, even now, might exact some kind of revenge. One must never underestimate the power of the press. However, the reason I have told this story is that, shortly after this episode, my workmate disappeared. He had a tiff, apparently, with his girlfriend, who was either a baroness or a sculptor, I can’t remember which, and disappeared from our lives after a night out in a tapas bar near Waterloo Station. So if you are the man I mean, and you are reading this, get in touch. I still have the handkerchief you lent me that night, and stuck to it are a couple of cut-out words that you probably mislaid while concocting your message. I couldn’t possibly say what they are, except that they are most definitely Anglo Saxon.

How hard can romantic writing be?

Image My life as a Mills and Boon novelist began when I decided I wanted to leave work and stay at home to have children. ‘How hard can it be?’ I told a friend. ‘After all, the world is wall to wall with romantic novels. They can’t be that fussy about how you write something so trashy.’

And so, dear reader, I uncapped my biro and began. An hour later I was sure I had written at least 5,000 words (a romantic novel is between 50,000–55,000) but when I counted up, there were only 1,000, in which the hero and heroine had already had a row, made up, had sex, and got married. I realised I was going to have to spend some time chewing the end of my biro over the next 49,000 words.

Two years, and many, many revisions later, I sent off my ms, and the editors at M&B (or Harlequin if you are in the US) liked it enough to meet me, but not enough to publish it. I also got a grilling about my casual way with facts. ‘How does the hero know she has concussion?’ I was asked. ‘Does he have medical training?’

‘No, he’s a pirate,’ I admitted.

‘Maybe he was forced to join the St John Ambulance at an early age,’ suggested the editor, with a sardonic lift to her eyebrow. (You see what I did there? People in romantic novels are always lifting their eyebrows sardonically).  If you become an author with Mills and Boon, you are expected to get things right.

I went home, polished up my facts, corrected my spelling and got my first book accepted. I went on to have five books published by the firm, and when I later wrote books for other publishers I realised what a brilliant grounding I had been given, and just how highly respected Mills & Boon are for their professionalism and knowledge of their market.

They do give advice on what they want, but not explicit instructions on plots. The style is generally to tell the story in the third person through the eyes of the heroine (a style invented by Jane Austen) as in ‘she could feel her heart thumping wildly as he entered the room’, but there are authors who tell the story through the eyes of the hero, or both. The hero has to be an alpha male, and the heroine a strong feisty woman, someone with whom a modern woman can identify.

And when you’ve finished it, your reader should be able to consume it without ever needing to pause for thought. ‘It should be as easy as eating blancmange,’ my editor told me. In fact, as easy as having children. And how hard is that?

 This article was first published in the Daily Express in July 2011

Ogres in stripey jumpers

When you have two characters, or maybe more, it’s quite likely that you will already have thought of where you want them to meet, or that you know vaguely what you want them to do. When I start writing, I usually can see one character in my mind’s eye. Its generally nothing earth-shaking, but it gives me a small anchor, and I can build from there. I was once commissioned to write a short children’s story based in World War II. My first thought was of a boy in those grey flannel shorts that they always wore then, and a dirty jersey, picking his nose. Then I thought of an anecdote a friend of mine had told me about her mother being strafed in Streatham High Road in south London; with an amazing description of great chunks of tarmac flying up in front of her, and it just seemed to take off from there. The odd thing about that story was that the publishers told me I couldn’t have a plane strafing the street because nobody would believe it happened. Even when I found eyewitness accounts of several such incidents, they wouldn’t change their minds, so in the end, although the story had been fired by a true account, I had to junk it and substitute another event, which worked ok. Strange, really, that you have to change the truth to help people learn history.
Sometimes you can get the most amazing stories by doing everything at random. I mean; you’ve got your characters through a kind of free association, why not your setting? Get an atlas, close your eyes and just pick a page. Did you know that there’s a place in Latvia called Ogre? They have an Ogre hospital and a knitwear factory, and the forest nearby gives off ethereal substances (sorry, I just go from one place to the other on the internet, and before I know where I am, I am surrounded by Ogres in stripy jumpers). Then have them meet at a bus stop or a taxi rank, or in a hospital (lots of room for conflict and drama there) and away you go. Don’t bother to stop and correct. You can do that later. Just write and see what happens.
Must go now, and take my own advice.

We are not alone

I was taking a rather gloomy look at my bank statement yesterday when a friend rang me up and said that creative writing is terribly therapeutic, even when you don’t get paid for it. Really? What about when you’re half way through a story and nothing is working and your main character is as lively as Scott Tracey on Thunderbird One when all the puppeteers break for lunch?
Writing can be the absolute pits. You can get to a point where your brain is blank, and everything you’ve done seems rubbish and forced, and then you go and have a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive, and you know that you’d rather clean the drains than attempt any more messing about with the English language, thank you very much.
And then I flicked through a book and read this piece by George Gissing from New Grub Street (written in 1891):
There were floating in his mind five or six possible subjects for a book, all dating back to the time when he first began novel writing, when ideas came freshly to him. If he grasped desperately at one of these, and did his best to develop it, for a day or two he could almost content himself […] But scarcely had he done a chapter or two when all the structure fell into flatness.
Oh George, I know how you feel, mate.

Flash fiction

Sometimes, just the idea of writing trips us up and makes us falter. We don’t want to do it because it’s too much. We have the idea that we have to write a novel, or nothing. Why is that? The best writing is when we express ourselves honestly, and that doesn’t have to take pages.

Lillie McFerrin’s blog is described as the home of five-sentence fiction. She suggests a word, you write five sentences. This week’s word is ‘beauty’.

This is my attempt:

There was beauty that day in the church. The late winter sunshine flooded through the doorway and the loveliness of a lone flute soared like the pigeon that was up in the rafters. Of course the place was packed; you saw to that. But you had gone before we came. There was only the bird, exhausted, beating uselessly to get out.

People who need people

Ok, so you have a character. But you can’t write a story with just one character. A story needs conflict. You can, its true, have interior conflict, but really, a character can’t spend all his time in a story in some lonely mental anguish. Look at Robinson Crusoe, he spends a lot of time battling the elements, and then when he’s got his house and his goats and his stupid hat, and everything is just dandy, along comes Man Friday to push the story along.

Your first character may have already started to shape your story, but if not, don’t worry. Remember, you’re just exercising your creativity at the moment, you’re not embarking on War and Peace. So, make another character. If you don’t want to use the method described in the post Getting started you could try these.

One really good way of creating a character is to go to a café, pretend to read a book, and eavesdrop shamelessly on the people around you. People say the most extraordinary things. Once I was having tea in the Ritz, of all places, when the woman at the table next to me said, to the man she was with, ‘Of course, darling, what he really wants is for me to divorce him and set up with you in an apartment in New York.’ And then the waiter arrived and caught me trying to steal the teaspoons and I didn’t hear any more. In a shop, I heard a heavily pregnant teenage girl tell someone, ‘I’m having the baby in October, and my boyfriend says he’ll come and visit me every Wednesday.’  Or, at a wedding, I heard an old woman say, when presented with a plate of salad, ‘When I got married we went to the church by bus, but we all had a hot dinner.’  These snippets are so tantalising that they can be a really good way of getting you to think about what the story behind them could be.

Another way is to go through a newspaper or magazine and look at the pictures, and ask, ‘What if?’ What if I was the bridesmaid in the wedding photo, or that incredibly glamorous star, or that murder victim, what was I thinking, and how did I get there?

When you find something that inspires you, write about it. You don’t need to write much. Just enjoy creating.

Getting started

Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight vampire romance novels, famously wrote her books after the entire plot came to her in a dream. But not many writers are as lucky as that. There are plenty who start off with a snippet of conversation, or an odd character trait, and who build their stories from there. If you think that all you have to do is sit down and start tapping away, don’t be too disappointed if you find you are having a hard time writing anything.

The best way to get started is not to think that you have to come up with the Great English Novel. Lower your sights a bit. If you plan to run the marathon, you don’t start by running a marathon. You train. It’s the same with writing. Get into training. Do a little bit at a time. But do it regularly, and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.

So. There you are. Blank screen. What do you do? The first thing is to ignite your imagination. The best stories are driven by the characters. It’s no good thinking of a plot and then shoehorning characters into it. It never works, because there’s always a point when you think, ‘but X wouldn’t do that…’ What you have to do, is start with characters.

You can build characters by thinking of their possessions; make a list of 10 things you might find in a junk shop, 10 things that could fit in your pocket and 10 extremely expensive things. Now pick three things from each list. These belong to your character. Start thinking about whether they are male or female, what their job is and where they live. How old are they? Do they have any secrets? What do they look like?

And, hey, you have a character.

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