True Confession

As a young teen I, along with my best friend, for some reason best known to ourselves, used to like to borrow Jilly Cooper books from the library across the road from our school.

Well, that’s what libraries are for aren’t they?

The thing is we didn’t do it the conventional way. We thought it much more fun to sneak in, nick a book without getting it stamped, read it and return it. I can’t honestly remember whose idea it was to do this but no doubt it was mine. We never ever kept a book, they were always returned in perfect condition, so it’s not exactly a crime is it? It felt naughty enough and gave a frisson of excitement getting past the reception desk and out again with no one spotting us. Far from on a par with robbing a bank but enough to make us feel a bit on the wild side. You can tell it was a long time ago…

I remembered this today when in the midst of clearing my old house I came across my riding hat. The riding hat reminded me of Jilly Cooper’s book Riders. We started with reading her books titled with women’s names, I can remember Imogen and that’s the only one that springs to mind but progressing to Riders some years later was quite an eye opener, the others were tame by comparison. Imogen funnily enough, happened to be a librarian, maybe that’s why it’s the only one I recall.

We took it turns to read the books out loud to each other in the common room, trying to guess what the characters would get up to next. They were a whole world away from our text book reads, dictated by the English teacher.

Surprisingly, it’s not Jilly’s racy imaginings that made me want to ride horses later on in life, that goes back to my childhood longing to be a cowboy.

Many years later I went to see Jilly Cooper give a talk at Jarrold’s in Norwich. I wanted to go and tell her the impact she had on me as a young teen but sadly I felt too shy. Besides, I still felt a bit guilty we hadn’t actually bought her books. I know now an author gets paid a little every time their book gets borrowed from a library but since we didn’t do our borrowing the official way, Jilly may not have been happy we deprived her of even that tiny income.

This week I revived my Linkedin account and out of the blue a complete stranger messaged me to say that even though it had been many years since she’d read my short story The Eight of Swords, and had read hundreds of books since, the story had stuck with her, she said it was wonderful and hilarious. I mention the last bit so you know that the story stuck with her for good reasons!

Her kind words made my day. All you want when you write something is for someone to enjoy it or/and identify. Writing is a very special connection and I am grateful to Jilly Cooper for her impact on me as a young teen, bringing back that lovely memory of fun teenage times, inspiring our imaginations and I’m thrilled that I impacted one of my readers that strongly too, in my own small way.

My new book of short stories is scheduled for launch on 14th February. A date you are not likely to forget! Look out for updates coming shortly.

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Do Different

‘Do different’ is Norfolk’s motto and so it makes perfect sense to me that I have always felt so at home here because I have always ‘done different.’

I’ve never been one to worry about what other people think. My dad always taught me that it doesn’t matter what status anyone has, what matters is whether they are a good person and kind to others and that stuck with me. Wherever I went, wherever I worked, I never felt phased by the seniority or fame of anyone (well apart from Peter Cook). We are all simply human with different doses of luck and ability, no one is better than another, other than by how they behave.

Dad’s occupation was personnel officer for the Co-operative Society. He had a big whacky RAF style moustache, always wore a blazer or a suit, half moon glasses to read with and sometimes used his MCC tie as a belt and more often than not you’d see him with a big fat cigar in his mouth. People loved him. His father was a Colonel in the Royal Pioneer Corps who wrote novels, he was also a fundraiser and events co-ordinator with his own colourful history, my stylish Grandmother mingled in High Society. When their marriage broke up the wealthy lifestyle they had led came to a pretty abrupt end. Their story is worthy of a novel in its own right.

However, I should get back to the point of ‘do different.’ My father once said to me ‘tell me what you want to do and I will see if I know anyone who can make it happen.’ I didn’t know what I wanted to do. When the careers advisor at school asked me, I said the first thing that came out of my head ‘an actor.’ I didn’t want to be an actor at all and I have no idea what made me say it other than I’d heard other girls at school say they wanted to work in a bank, one wanted to be a tax inspector. Both those occupations sounded incredibly dull to me so maybe that’s why I said actor. I honestly don’t know why but I sat there dutifully while the careers master told me all about RADA. It sounded interesting but the thought of performing in front of anyone shrunk this shy young teenager back into the seat of her chair.

Once my exams were done, my plan was to escape to Greece. One of my English teachers had always been enamoured with Greece and listening to her made me really want to go. So instead of going straight to college to do my A’Levels, I answered an advertisement in the local paper and joined an Anglo Greek family in Athens for a year, which turned out to be of the best years of my life. It wasn’t so much a job (I was hired as an au pair to two lovely little girls) as like joining a new family. At first I was homesick and their Grandpa gave me whisky to cheer me up and it worked! I loved Greece, I loved the weather, the people, the beaches, the excitement of living in such an amazing ancient city and most of all I loved the family.

Then tragedy struck. I had known my father was unwell before I left but nothing could prepare me for him being diagnosed with dementia. I asked to go home but my mother assured me that there was nothing I could do and told me to see out my year in Greece. My father wrote me letters asking when I would come home. I was torn. My life in Athens was idyllic but I really wanted to be back with my own family too and my plan was to go back to college when I returned.

I saw out the year.
Typically for me, I decided to return by bus. My last little adventure before settling down back into what was supposed to be some kind of normal. I sobbed all the way out of Athens, I was only 18 and had no idea if I’d ever return.

My whole family came to greet me at King’s Cross station. I will never forget it. After an exhausting two days with no sleep, I stepped off the bus to embrace my father and he had no idea who I was. The Dementia had already taken hold. He stared at me with confusion and I felt my heart snap.

This man who had held me in his arms to comfort me so many times, who had been my buddy through all of my childhood, who had entertained us with his humour and funny ways simply stared at me with his now empty brown eyes. The thought of this moment makes me sob even now.

I went to college and got on with my studies. It wasn’t easy coming back after a year’s break but I enjoyed the studying and met my lifelong best friend there. At home my father’s health grew progressively worse and it became quite a challenge coping with his illness while trying to live the normal life of a teenager. I rarely had boyfriends and if I did, I met them at the end of the road so they didn’t see how my father was. One of my college lecturers unexpectedly turned up on our doorstep to give me a present for looking after his house while he was away. I grabbed the present and shut the door before he could see my dad who by now was constantly confused and always disappearing on long walks where occasionally he got into trouble because people didn’t understand that kind of illness in those days. Not that many do now but it is better known.

In a way we had to cut ourselves off from the outside world to cope with Dad’s illness. My mother became my father’s carer, to this day I think about how incredible she was. She had some help from my sister and I but she tried to protect us from it all, however, there came a time near the end when we had to step in and make sure she didn’t go under herself.

One of the things we share in my family is a wicked sense of humour and somehow it got us through all of this but as a young woman this whole period really took its toll on me. My father died on my sister’s birthday and just a couple of months before my 21st. I made a vow that should my mother ever need my care, I would step up and eventually I had to.

I hated my first job, it was part-time and I didn’t like the people. My mum came to visit me one lunch time and told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t like it I was to give it up because life is too short to be miserable. The assistant manager told me I’d never find another job (bitch), within in a week I was in a job I absolutely loved. That taught me never to be trapped where you don’t want to be. I learned the lesson with work but never in my personal life until much later.

While I always ‘put my all’ into any job I had, I also sought adventure. I married too young and lived to regret it. Eventually I escaped and lived in London awhile but Norfolk pulled me back with it’s wide open spaces, quirky inhabitants, incredible beaches and ancientness. It is where I feel most at home in the world and I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite extensively.

Eventually the office jobs were stifling me so I decided to set up my own business where I definitely ‘did different’ and it is there a whole new story began but more of that another time…

‘…this corner of England which once it holds your heart is more lovely than any place on earth. Beautiful with a hint of secrecy which haunts it, as the memory of a dark and tender sadness clouds the brilliance of a summer day.’

Lilias Rider Haggard (Norfolk Notebook)

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A young Petra Kidd in Athens

Character Creation

Every writer has a different method to creating their characters. I’ve read quite a bit on the subject. There are writing courses galore, software you can get to help you plan your protagonists, internet advice abounds.

You will see in novels a disclaimer that says, ‘no characters in this book were based on living people,’ or something along those lines.

Of course you can’t take someone you know and implant all their characteristics into one of your fictional characters because quite frankly, that character wouldn’t be fictional now would it? That much is obvious. And the last thing you want is a lawsuit.

All I can tell you is how my characters come about.

I don’t sit down and create a character by listing how they look, their age, their weaknesses, their strengths, their political leanings, their occupation etc. I don’t do this because for me it simply doesn’t work. I have tried it but by the time I come to put them into a story I’ve lost interest in them because I know all about them. It is like creating a robot you are going to control to the nth degree and from what I’ve read you can’t even do that with a robot.

If you are a writer reading this and do use that method please don’t take offense. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use that method, I’m purely saying it doesn’t work for me.

The idea for The Eight of Swords came to me from a newspaper article. Once I read the article I couldn’t get it out of my head. It isn’t uncommon for fictional stories to be created from real life events because how else would stories be created? They say truth is stranger than fiction and this is very much the case. However, in this instance I created something strange, dramatic and exciting out of something pretty mundane. I know it wasn’t mundane to the real life lady but the outcome was pretty mundane to my mind.

The article described an immigration officer who came home to find her house overtaken by gypsies (well they may simply have been squatters I can’t remember now but I decided in my story they would be gypsies). In real life, the lady in question used the law to have them evicted within 24 hours or maybe even sooner. I’m a little hazy on the details because I didn’t keep the article and we are talking nearly ten years ago.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it for some time. Then out of the blue I was struck down with Pleurisy and became very ill. I didn’t realize it was Pleurisy, I just thought it was a bad cough. After a few weeks I went to see a doctor who suggested I buy myself some flowers and chocolate and to prepare myself to put up with it for six weeks. My protestations that I had a business to run fell on deaf ears. I ignored her advice and tried to carry on with my daily life but I became more and more poorly and suddenly experienced sharp pains in my ribs so sharp I could barely breathe. I went to see another doctor who told me I’d probably cracked a rib coughing. By the next day I knew I was in serious trouble, not all of my ribs could be broken surely?

By now I wasn’t really well enough to leave the house but another doctor told me to get in a taxi and visit a GP who specialized in respiratory matters. He at last told me I had Pleurisy. This time I went home to my bed and stayed there. I couldn’t just lie there and try to get better, my body might have been in trouble but my mind needed to be kept busy, so everyday I dragged myself into my office and I started to write about an immigration officer who came home to find her home taken over by Romanian gypsies.

I became Jayne Patchett, I could imagine how she might feel, a woman perhaps my own age, coming home and not being able to get through her own front door. Unlike the reality of the article I had read, Jayne had far more trouble dealing with the intriguing family who now inhabited her home. The characters all came to life vividly and the story progressed as if it were actually happening to me in real time. If I had been reading the story instead of writing it, I would not have been able to put it down and that’s what pretty much happened when writing it, I struggled to leave the keyboard until the fatigue of my illness forced me to.

The gypsies were addictive to me, I loved learning everything about them: their way of living, their attitude, their beliefs, and mystique. I researched how Romanian gypsies lived and Jayne became as intrigued by them as I was. In the story she gets drawn into their world and begins to question her own.

So my characters developed organically if you like. They came out of nowhere and took over my mind and my story. I found them leading the way. My decisions on what would happen next belonged entirely to them. I could never have planned the story from start to finish. I had no idea how it would end, what would happen to Jayne or any of them and exactly the same thing happened when I came to write The Putsi.

And again, with my new book of short stories, it is the characters who have dictated how the stories unfold. I don’t think I have ever started a story knowing where it will end up. Perhaps that’s why writing is as much a pleasure to me as reading is. I love to be surprised.

I know I am fortunate to have such a fertile imagination. It developed as a young child. My siblings were much older than me so for much of my childhood I entertained myself and lived in my own head and for a while alongside my imaginary friend Bert, who I suppose was the first character I ever made up.

That’s pretty much all I can tell you about how I develop my characters. The truth is they develop themselves. They are real to me even though they are entirely fictional.

Tomorrow I will tell you more about my imaginary friend Bert, who has a story all of his own.

Drop in at 7pm, see you here!

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The Creative Mind

Good evening and welcome to today’s blog post. If I sound a little like the late David Frost I make no apology!

Jack Frost (completely different character) has been nipping at us all for the last few days and while I enjoy being out on frosty bright days, I’m not so sure about the aches the cold brings.

During the first lockdown I disciplined myself into daily yoga sessions via YouTube (I can recommend Adrienne) but that was summer and now the mornings are colder and darker so I have to fight with myself to get up. At the moment I am winning again but that is after a couple of months of lagging in the exercise stakes.

Happily I live in an apartment that has very impressive sound proofing so if I want to dance to loud music, no one complains. Exercise has been incredibly important in keeping my mind focused, as has meditation. If you haven’t tried meditation before I heartily recommend it. During the more stressful times in lockdown (like when my mum ended up in a Covid ward for a week although thankfully she wasn’t suffering from it, just displaying symptoms), I relied on daily meditations to get me through. I don’t do them so often now but I should, it especially helps when writing and your mind is jam packed with ideas.

My daily blog posts are going to be a mixture of how my self publishing is going and day to day writing, publishing, photography and sketching adventures. Of course I am going to be mentioning the pandemic but I will try to focus on the lighter side of everyday living with Covid-19 floating around us in its weird and threatening invisible aura. We all know the dark side, so I don’t need to dwell on that.

You see I mentioned photography and sketching as well as the writing and publishing above. I am also a photographer and I like to sketch when I can. My Grandfather, who was a far superior artist to me in every way, used to love to sketch everyday folk and I have picked that up genetically from him I guess. As it happens, the sketches will work well with my new book of short stories so I will use them to illustrate them.

My blog posts will also feature some of my photography, street photography is what I suppose some would call ‘a guilty pleasure,’ which it is in some ways but capturing people unawares is the only way to make sure their expressions are completely natural. I think I am a kind shooter, I don’t take advantage, I simply document characters and life on the street as I see it. There you go, this is only my second blog post and I am already letting out my dark secrets. Check out my images via @ZingleEye on Instagram.

My characters are completely fictional. I’m lucky in that I have had many jobs and the varied businesses I have worked in have featured all sorts of different characters so while none of my characters are ever based on anyone in particular, I suppose my subconscious computes personality traits and behaviours which then go on to become fully formed fictional beings who you can empathize or identify with in some way. At least I hope so.

I’ll write more about how my characters evolve another time.

Like most creative types I guess, I easily get distracted. I can be walking along thinking about a story and the next minute I am transfixed by a scene that I want to photograph or I might see someone who would make a good sketch or I see through a window and imagine the lives of the people within. Ideas come all the time and one of the big problems I have in life is filtering them and trying to choose which to pursue. Having so many ideas can be both a blessing and on occasion a curse.

The other side of me is that I am pretty practical. My head may be full of ideas and imaginings but I am able to do a bit of plumbing when it’s needed, cut hair, change the oil in a car, cook, bake or create a piece of jewellery – all a bit random but that’s me. If I don’t know how to do something I’m all for finding out how to do it rather than relying on someone else (which of course has to happen from time to time). In fact, I should pass more jobs on to others but my curiosity usually gets the better of me. I don’t see myself as a Jack of all trades and master of none but more a curious human.

This is what happened in the summer. When I had an idea for a book (as it happens not the short stories this time) I decided to learn a publishing program and I am still learning as I go.

My blog post tomorrow will focus (hey get me, I’m going to focus on something) on character creation and I will tell you how The Eight of Swords and The Putsi came about.

7pm, don’t be late!

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Please feel free to comment, ask questions and tell me what you are up to, wherever you are in the world, it’s a great time to connect.