Florence Parrott was the first person I ever interviewed as a junior reporter. I was 18, the same age as she was when she joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1918.
I had been a reporter for about two weeks when I was sent to talk to Florence, who was then 79, and partially deaf (you’ll have to speak up, DEAR!). She was tall, rangy, ready to laugh, with great booming ho, ho ho’s, and she told her story with a sort of matter of fact understatement that I, as a teenager, just nodded at and wrote down, and now as a mother and grandmother, think of with rather greater imagination.
In 1917, the teenage Florence Maple was a wine waitress at London’s Liverpool Street Hotel, and part of her job was to go next door to the railway station to give lunch boxes to troops departing for the front.
She said: ‘The train and platform were packed with people that day. We heard a whistle and thought it was the train moving off. But we looked up and there was a zeppelin, dropping bombs. I don’t think there was much of the train left.’
In the midst of all this carnage, Florence, who was hit in the arm, shook her fist at the zeppelin, swore at the Kaiser and then was taken to St Barts Hospital. When she was discharged, she went straight to the Connaught Club and joined up. ‘I said to them, if I’m going to get knocked about, I’ll damn well go where I expect it.’
She was one of the first women allowed to join the women’s section of the Royal Flying Corps, which became the Women’s Royal Airforce in April 1918. She went to France with the first boatload of such women and was stationed in Cressy, near Vron in northern France. It was her job to pick up stores from Etaples (‘Funny names the French have. We pronounced it Eat Apples’) which had become a vast military camp and giant hospital and then deliver them to local depots. According to FirstWorldWar.com the hospitals were targeted several times by incendiary bombers, and many of the orderlies present risked their lives getting the wounded men to safety. Florence just said: ‘We had to run for our lives a couple of times, dear, and I’ve known days when there was nothing to eat but a piece of hardtack. Of course, you couldn’t drink the water.
‘I remember the morning that the news of peace came through –we got every vehicle that had a wheel, including wheelbarrows, and we put the men who couldn’t walk in those and we went round and round the green patch in the middle of the camp. The PoWs came and the people from the village. We just couldn’t stop laughing and singing.’
Florence eventually made it back to England, with the last boatload of women who had served in the corps, in 1919. She married and settled down in Buckinghamshire, where she spent the rest of her life. To my shame I have no idea when she died, and I regret that I never asked her the questions that I’d like to ask her today; about how she felt and how her experiences affected her. Although I doubt, even if I could ask her, that she’d want to answer those kind of questions. All I have is a faded cutting and an enduring memory of one of the strongest women I ever met.
Edie liked to play Scrabble with her friend Bunny. Edie was 93 and Bunny was 97. Every Tuesday they got together, drank tea, ate cake, gossiped and played Scrabble. Bunny always won. She knew all the two-letter words off by heart; words such as jo and xu and za. Edie would have liked to have won, just once. But she knew that was never going to happen. Then Bunny died, quite suddenly, in the early hours of a Monday morning. Bunny’s daughter Fran came to break the news.
‘Shall we play Scrabble?’ said Edie. She didn’t know what else to do. She got out the cake she had made for Bunny, and poured the tea. They sat down and Edie began to win. She put a seven-letter word down. She scored 108 with a crafty placement of a j and a z on a triple word score. She thought of how Bunny would react at the news. Then she put her rack of letters on the table. ‘I’m fed up with this,’ she said.
Here’s an interesting thought: lots of authors don’t like plotting their stories. They say they’re waiting to do it, they say they’re willing to do it. But when it comes to the moment with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil, do they really want to do it? No, they don’t.
Look at me. All this stuff I’ve written. Have I ever plotted it out? No. Not properly. I’ve scrawled a few ideas on a sheet of paper and then thought, bugger this, I want to get started. Also, there seems to be a feeling that if you plan something out, you knock the fairy dust off it. You are turning what should be an artistic creative exploration into some kind of mechanistic plodding.
In the last few weeks, I’ve decided that I’ve got to get off my butt and write another romance. When it came down to starting, this week, did I plot it out first? Did I plan? Did I take any of my own advice, as given to everyone else in my blog posts? No, I bloody didn’t. I shied away from it. I decided, instead, to just freewrite; I wouldn’t , as I usually do, rewrite and rewrite, I would just keep going until the end, which would probably be about 5,000 – 7,000 words, and then I would use that as my plot. Clever, huh? Yeah, right.
And I suppose I would have gone on like that and probably got through, if it wasn’t for the fact that I teach a creative writing class and they’re all having some difficulty with giving their stories real narrative drive. I mean, making the reader feel as if the author is in charge, that they know where they’re going.
The research on plotting that I’d done up until that point hadn’t come up with anything that’s really useful. I wrote about it last week, about how you start with your hero wanting something, and then you keep putting obstacles in their way until you decide they’ve had enough and bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. But it was all too vague. If I’m going to get advice, I want practical stuff. I want something that I can use, that is going to work for me.
And then, quite by chance, on Twitter, I found this brilliant website: thescreenwritingprocess.com. It’s for screenwriters really, (no shit, Sherlock) but they have step by step instructions on how to lay out a plot, and I read them and I felt as if I had discovered New Life.
You can get the whole bit, if you’re interested, by going to their site. But in a nutshell, the first thing they advise is to write a premise (or a logline as sreenwriters call it). This is how you do it: Describe your protagonist (cab driver, mother, superhero, whatever) then give them an adjective that sums them up (world weary, alcoholic, retired), then describe their aim (saving the world, saving a child, singing in Eurovision). Then describe who/what is standing in their way. Then put it in a sentence. Like so: World weary mother wants to sing in Eurovision, but has to fight off alcoholic superhero.
Try it with something you’re working on. It’s hard. I thought I would find it easy. I thought I had all my plot in my head. It was only when I attempted this, that I realised that my heroine was a wet blanketty drooping victim, my hero had no personality, and there was no narrative drive.
The trouble was, in many ways, I was rather fond of what I’d written. Promising myself that this was just an exercise, I re wrote my logline just so that sentence sounded good, and then I thought, half grudgingly, half excitedly, Hey, this might actually work as the basis for my story. Then, I followed their plotting instructions. I found myself sketching out a completely new story on the foundations of the old one, but one that now had structure and flow.
Then I took it to my class. I could tell that some didn’t want to do it at all (see fairy dust, above) but they all tried it, even if, for some, it was just as an exercise that they were certainly not going to let anywhere near their inky darlings. Some found the loglines really hard to complete. Some felt the whole thing was silly. Some felt that it showed their stories weren’t dramatic enough, but I don’t think this matters. A premise doesn’t have to be Kerpow! You can apply a logline as easily to Pride and Prejudice as you can to X Men. The point is that you, as an author, know where you’re going. Then we went through the plot stages, with a similarly doubtful reception (see fairy dust, again) but once started, I could see them beginning to think really hard about the structure of their stories and what needed to happen when. Now they’ve taken them home to complete. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
Caroline was having trouble with a guy at work. He kept asking her out, and she kept refusing, because after all, she loved her husband. Then she went on a business trip. That night in her hotel bedroom she sat down to text her husband. ‘ Miss you darling. Love you. Xxx.’ And then she clicked the wrong button and sent it to the guy at work.
There’s a new reality programme on Fox TV in America called I Wanna Marry Harry which is causing a bit of a stir. It involves flying 12 women to a castle in England where a Prince Harry lookalike fools them into thinking that he really is the Ginger One.
The doppelganger, a cash-strapped student called Mathew Hicks, has had to learn all about living the high life, and he has to lead all these women on, until finally he chooses the one he likes the best (for what, exactly?).
The Washington Post have branded the show as tasteless and a cruel prank, but I’m a bit confused. Have these women been drugged? Do they not know they are on a TV programme? Do they really think Prince Harry would agree to appear on a silly game show where 12 young attractive women compete for his attentions?
…Well, ok, maybe the Post have a point.
But I do rather feel sorry for young Matthew. These girls are all rather steely eyed, and the Post itself admits that they ‘come across as so unlikable that’s it’s impossible to have any sympathy for them’. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when he tells the girl who thinks she’s snagged the fourth in line to the throne that actually, he’s a single bloke from Exeter who makes his money by impersonating royalty. He is quoted as saying: “I have to convince them I’m Prince Harry, but the goal is for them to like me for who I am.” Yeah, right.
But still, let’s not throw the whole idea away. I Wanna Marry Harry is a really snappy title. And I’ve got a great idea for a spin-off series. How about Let’s go shootin with Putin? Twelve personable young women from the Ukraine, armed with AK-47s, are sent to the Kremlin. No? (No, ed) Or, what about, Have a twerkel with Merkel ? Anybody got Fox’s phone number?
Pictures courtesy of Vanity Fair, via Creative Commons.org
The rather snappily titled ‘writing process blog tour’ has been making the rounds and I’ve been asked to answer some questions on how and what I write.
I was nominated for this by Bruce Goodman who posts a short story a day. He is funny and sharp, and you never know, even in 150 words, how his tales are going to end. Thank you Bruce!
So here we go:
What am I working on at the moment?
A romance set in the 1920s in France. However, to earn my daily crust, I’m also editing a document about social partners in Europe. The combined effect is having serious effects on my sanity. I’m thinking of combining the two, so that the hero could be a designated representative for occupational health and safety, with the heroine attempting to organise a tripartite agreement on pay and conditions in the metalworking sector. They interface at a stakeholder seminar for hairdressers in Monte Carlo, where he falls for her risk assessment techniques in the casino, and realises that together, they have a sustainable future in roulette. Yes? (No, ed.)
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
It’s written by me? I suppose I ought to say, because it’s sassy and funny and altogether marvellous. But so are most other romances I read. I think I just try to write something that will entertain people.
Mostly, I concentrate on making what I write fit into its genre. I was trained as a journalist, and when I became a sub editor, I spent a lot of time re-writing other people’s copy but making it look as though I hadn’t touched it. Actually, I’m going to wave a flag for sub-editors here. They are the people who write the headlines, correct the reporters’ spelling and grammar, cut out all the libellous remarks, and generally stop reporters and columnists making fools of themselves. (I give you the assistant editor who told the subs not to touch her copy and then praised George Eliot for his wonderful novels). More importantly, subs make the stories fit on the page. (It’s amazing how many reporters think that 1,000 words are going to fit in three inches.) And when I worked on papers we did it all so unobtrusively that, quite a lot of times, even the paper’s reporters were under the impression they’d written what was under their name.
Why do I write what I do?
I started writing romances, because my husband and I wanted to adopt children, and in those days (the 1990s) the social services insisted that I had to give up work. So I looked around for alternative ways of making money and thought of writing for Mills and Boon. It was an entirely practical decision. I knew Mills and Boon read every ms they received, and let you know within three months whether they were interested or not. I felt that writing a romance was merely an exercise in writing to style. And if I couldn’t do that, I thought, then I really wasn’t up to scratch as a tabloid journalist. Of course, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, it turned out to be rather more tricky than I expected. I could write a snappy 300-word piece, but turning out a 50,000-word book was quite different. I knew nothing about creating characters, or plotting, or anything much to do with writing a novel. At all. Still, Mills and Boon liked my first ms (but not enough to publish it) and then published the next five I wrote (under the name of Sally Carr).
By this time we’d adopted two children and then, to my enormous astonishment (after years of infertility treatment), I got pregnant (twice), so we had four children in three years, and writing rather went on the back burner. A few years down the line, I thought it might be good to write children’s stories and I had a few of those published, and then real life intervened once more, and it’s only now, after starting to blog, that I have come back to writing again.
How does my writing process work?
My imagination just gets sparked by something. Then I let the idea grow and grow, and then, when my brain won’t hold any more stuff, I write. For example, I recently read a book by fellow blogger June Kearns and I was really captivated by the idea of setting something in the 1920s. Hers is based in England and Texas, but I’m setting mine on the French Riviera. (I’ve got the whole first chapter in my head, and I’m at the point where I’ve got to get it down on paper.) I’d never really been taken with the idea of writing historical romances before because, with the research involved, they seemed far too much like hard work. But the 1920s I can manage. And if I get stuck I can always borrow shamelessly from look up Agatha Christie or PG Wodehouse.
So there you go, there’s my contribution to the writing process tour. Next up, on Monday, May 26 is Ian Probert a former sports and music journalist. In America, in the 1990s, his first book Internet Spy was a bestseller there and was made into a TV film. In the UK you might know him as the author of Rope Burns. He’s been posting chapters of his book Shotgun Reality, which is about as far from romance as you could possibly get, and frankly I can’t wait for the next instalment.
It had been a hard night, and I was ready to go home. I had spent my shift checking off the news pages of the morning paper where I worked. Some of my mates were talking about going for a drink, but I knew if I hurried up, and nobody famous died, I could send third edition to press and get to Euston just in time for the last train home. This meant that I would get my first decent sleep in a week, and that I would wake up in my own bed and not on somebody’s couch. And, it would be nice to see my husband.
So I went home. I have to say here that we live way out in the country in what was once a large house, surrounded by fields. The house has been divided into three and, although the neighbours on one side are perfectly normal, you couldn’t have said the same for our other neighbour, Mr P. He was, as far as we could make out, a retired optician and part-time composer, who spent most of his time writing letters to the Times in green ink and was only ever seen in his pyjamas. Although he did wear a dressing gown when he drove to the village in his rusting Ford Escort.
Anyway there we were, husband and I, a few hours later, snoozing away in bed, when bang! bang! bang! I came to rather fuzzily. Bang! Wtf? It sounded like a gun. Some crazed extra from Deliverance was sneaking up the drive with a gun. Suppose they were going to come in and rob us? Or worse, play the banjo? There was only one thing to do. I woke my husband.
‘There’s somebody outside,’ I said. ‘With a gun.’
Husband took some waking up and when he did, he looked at me blearily. ‘A gun?’
‘Shots, I heard shots. Somebody’s outside with a gun.’
At this point my husband did something really, really brave. ‘All right,’ he said rather sleepily. ‘I’ll go and have a look.’ And he got up, and went.
Long minutes passed and I began to drift off. Maybe I’d dreamt the bangs, because after all, I had just finished a 60-hour week, and it did seem like some remnant of a crime story that had maybe stuck in my head. There was no noise. Nobody was shouting, ‘Give us the telly, you gurt dollop, or we’ll tie you naked to a tree.’
Steve came back upstairs. ‘It’s all right,’ he said, looking rather dazed. ‘It’s not a gunman. It’s a trapeze artist. His car’s exploded and he set fire to his trousers.’ He paused. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
I opened my eyes and stared at him. ‘You what?’
‘Tea,’ he said. ‘Do you want a cup? Carmela and I are having one. Nice girl. She’s lost all her clothes, but she managed to keep hold of her handbag. Not like her twit boyfriend. Can’t get any sense out of him at all. His dad’s in Australia, you know. ’
I was definitely dreaming. I think I must have lain back at that point and closed my eyes again, because the next thing I remember is Steve coming back with the promised cup of tea.
‘Here you go,’ he said. ‘The fire brigade are here. It’s a huge blaze. They’re worried it’ll set fire to the yew tree, and then Mr Panting’s garage will go up. Amazing flames. Look.’ And he drew back the curtain, and I stared open mouthed at a column of flame about 20 feet high. ‘Have we got any blankets?’ said Steve. ‘Because Carmela’s getting a bit nippy.’
Thinking back, I suppose I should have got up, but my brain wasn’t up to it. I put the empty mug on the bedside table and went straight back to sleep. In the morning, I came downstairs and there, at the kitchen table, was a glum-looking young bloke with a ginger beard, and a beautiful dark haired girl, wrapped in a blanket, who kept laying her hand on his arm and talking to him softly in Spanish. Steve was frying bacon. Rather too cheerfully, I thought.
It didn’t take long to get the facts. The lad was indeed a trapeze artist and he lived with his dad in Muswell Hill. He had got a gig performing at some fete at a stately home near us. His dad had gone on a business trip to Australia, leaving strict instructions that son was not to touch his brand new car. Son, in order to impress girlfriend had ignored dad, and set out in car for stately home. Unfortunately, after about 80 miles he decided he needed a kip, so had driven straight into the field next to us and, being a city boy, even though he had six acres to choose from, had to park right next to our garden wall; for company, I suppose. While girlfriend put up the tent, the lad sat in the car, got out his camping gaz stove and held it upside down so it dripped fuel all over his trousers and soaked the car seats. Then, he lit the stove. In the car. He then spent the next five minutes rolling around the field with his trousers on fire, while his car lit up the night sky. The bangs I had heard were the tyres exploding.
So that was almost it really. We gave the boy who, amazingly, was hardly singed, a pair of Steve’s old trousers. (Carmela, it should be said, had the rather scanty clothes she stood up in, but her luggage was burnt.) We took them to the stately home (and no offer of a free ticket for the show, which I thought was rather poor form) and left them there. When the remains of the car cooled, Steve and the farmer up the road cleared the mess.
It was a few days before Steve thought to tell me about Mr Panting. Apparently, while the firemen were struggling to stop the blaze spreading to our trees, he had come out of his house to see the fun. Fully dressed, mind. At 4am. Cavalry twill trousers, tweed jacket, and a cravat. He stared at the commotion for a while and then beckoned to Steve. ‘Do you think you could come and have a look at my car? While we’ve got all this light? I’m not sure it’s running correctly.’
This post was prompted by one from pieterk515 about burglar alarms. Thanks Pieter.
I’m writing another romantic novel. At the moment I have two characters, a secondary (but pivotal character) and a cracking first chapter. But the rest, as Shakespeare said, is silence.
Working out the plot of story has got to be the hardest task for a writer. So imagine my joy when I found loads of self-help stuff for novelists on the internet. Plotting, it all seems to say, is child’s play. Just follow the advice and you could knock out a scenario in your lunch hour.
The received opinion on writing plots is that they should be character driven. Build your characters and they will take you there, to paraphrase Kevin Costner. Which is pretty good advice, but characters do need some kind of motivation.
Which leads me swiftly on to the ‘what do they want’ school of plotting. Here, the experts advise that you work out what your characters want, allow them to embark on the job of getting it, put obstacles in their way, let them overcome them, hit them with a socking great disaster, and then, ta dah! allow them to pull through into the sunny chapter that finishes with those marvellous words, The End.
I quite like this theory, except that my characters want irritating and intangible things, such as happiness and independence and, since this a romance, lerve. And that’s the problem. In a romance, if two characters fancy each other, the hard bit is not the motivation. It’s keeping it in check. And so you have to think of some sort of sub-plot that’s going to get in the way every time the heroine gets her hand on the knob (down, boy) of the bedroom door. This can be anything, a row over property or an inheritance, or a misunderstanding about other possible lovers (who always turn out to be long lost cousins, or conveniently gay).
I suppose I could be terribly practical and say, well, the hero wants the heroine, on the table, in the library in Chapter Four. She could throw a book at his head, (minor problem), they kiss and make up; but he might then develop concussion on the eve of their wedding and be rushed to hospital (disaster) only for him to wake up at the sound of her voice in Chapter Ten. Actually….wait a minute…that’s not bad (it’s terrible, ed).
Another way of cracking the problem is to look back at your story from the point of view of one of the leading characters, and get them to tell you how they got through. That, on the surface, does sound a bit potty, as you are asking an imaginary person to give you a hand, but looking at things from different perspectives can help. ‘Tell me how you fell in love with so and so, mummy?’ or ‘Tell me how you nabbed the murderer.’
The final way, which in the end is the one I always go for, is after planning your characters and plotting as far as you can, just start writing. The trouble, of course, is the ‘just start writing’ bit. Committing to write at least 50,000 words is hard. And we’d all rather faff about with spider diagrams and five-minute free-writing than get down to the grind. However, as you write and become absorbed, your characters will do stuff that surprises you, and that will open up new possibilities, which hopefully will keep you going at least until the next chapter, and then the next.
So, crack on, dear writer. And if you get stuck, you can always follow the advice of my former editor at Mills and Boon. I was wailing at him because I had got to chapter four and everything had begun to look rather stale, flat and unprofitable. ‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Just introduce some mental torture or a bit of sexual tension. That’ll take you through until your brain picks up again.’
If you are thinking of writing for children, I am going to tell you something vital: children are the last people who will read your book.
Really. Think about it. Ok, so you may have read your story to your kids, or your neighbour’s kids, but if you want to get it published and in a book shop you will have to get it past your agent, a publisher and an acquisitions panel. Never mind the adult who will wonder if it is suitable to buy for their child. And none of them is under 12.
Most authors starting out just think in terms of getting an agent. But as you can see, that is just the first in a long, and increasingly uphill, line of hurdles. I’ve had several children’s books published, and when you are writing to a publisher’s brief, however elastic, the process is pretty simple and very civilised (I have to say here that Oxford University Press are a really lovely bunch to work with). It’s when you go off piste and come up with your own ideas, that the problems start.
Let me tell you what happened to me. I wrote a story about a little girl who does something very naughty, but very funny. Agent loved it. Publisher (not OUP) loved it. Even my kids liked it (which was the biggest thrill). But the next step is the most important. This is when your book makes its way in front of the people who really matter; the accountants. Everyone involved at the publishing house gets together; editors, sales and marketing and yes, the bean counters, and they decide how much they are going to spend, and how much they will make. (Because, never ever forget, this is a business).
My book sailed through the first meeting (yay). Everyone round the table agreed they wanted a whole series about this girl and her adventures. (drinks all round, ed) but then I was told that the American branch wanted another look.
‘Piece of cake,’ said my agent, ‘Don’t worry about it.’
Couple of days later, agent rang me up.
‘Can you make her older?’
‘Can you make the girl older? The publishers are saying that children never read about children who are younger than them. If you make her older, obviously, they will sell more.’
I thought about this for a bit. The girl in my story had originally been six, which was probably a bit young. I could make her eight, or possibly at a really big stretch, ten…but that was pushing it; any older and the whole glorious innocent silliness of what she does would be lost.
‘Can you make her 12?’ relayed my agent. ‘Because they could really maximise sales, then.’
I thought about it. I thought about it really hard. I was being offered the chance to launch an entire series of books, here and in the US about a character who made me laugh while I wrote about her. If I made her 12, I would have to change everything. She would no longer be the character I’d fallen in love with. I thought about it some more. I probably went down the pub and drank more than I should have done.
And then, I rang up my agent and said no. I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t change her. And that was that. Publishers withdrew. Story put on virtual shelf and I went back to writing headlines for a living. Occasionally I wonder if I did the right thing. If I was in this situation now, maybe I would find some way of negotiating round the problem. Maybe not. But after writing this piece, I fished that story out of my files and I read it again. It still makes me laugh.
Picture from Canham, E. (2005) ‘Cinderella Stories’, in Driver, J. (ed) Oxford English Quest, Companion 2, Oxford University Press, Oxford.