And the topic is: New Beginnings – how do you motivate yourself to get back to writing when life has interrupted your flow and/or, how do you begin a new writing challenge?
We’re under new management and I feel the first thing I want to do is thank the departing organiser, Rhobin Courtright. Her sterling efforts over a long period have prompted many interesting exchanges and made us think below the surface of our writers’ exteriors. Thank you, Rhobin, and all good wishes.
The second thing is to welcome the incoming organiser, Skye Taylor. I’m looking forward to continuing with these posts and thanks to Skye for takng it on.
The celebrations around Christmastime are joyous but they are time-consuming. I hardly ever manage to write anything between the 3rd week of November and the 3rd week of January. This rules out participation in the competitions for a conference I go to. Yes, I know the competitions are the same or similar every year, and no, I cannot get organised to write entries in advance. However in early 2022 I did write an advent story about a Christmas tree and sent it in to the People’s Friend magazine. They bought it when seasonal stories were being read and it was published in December.
Next up, in the disruption stakes, is the annual marmalade extravaganza. The pic above is of an earlier year’s activity, but you get the idea – I nearly said flavour, but you’d have to taste it for that.
So, what now? Well, I think writing this post will help as it steers the mind back into work channels. Also, a little success goes a long way. The serial proposal I made to my editor last autumn has been accepted and I’ve been reading up on my character outlines and their story arcs. I’m gradually finding my mind full of what they’re gong to do next and that helps enormously.
In addition, the writing world’s social side has started up, too. Coffee with my friend and fellow Capital Writer, Kate Blackadder sparked a good exchange about our current projects. Early in February there’ll be an RNA Scottish chapter lunch so that, too, will be a stimulus. There are so many talented people in the RNA.
What is not helping is this new keyboard. It’s sticking. Hence I’m having either no letter depressed or three copies of it. The shift key is seizing and the ‘Enter’ one is sending the next para all the way down a page. It may be a visit to the accessories shop is on the horizon.
Below is a list of other robins and their approach to picking it up again. I’m sure there’ll be interesting tips to be learned.
As has been my practice over the last few years, I’m uploading a free-to-read Christmas Story in lieu of a card for readers, friends, distant relatives (HI Helen in Australia), and anyone in need of a few Christmassy moments.
Thank you all for dropping by through the year and, in particular, for those of you who take the time to comment. It’s lovely to read your take on whatever the topic is.
AWAY FROM THE MANAGER
Grace watched the others.
It was cold out but some of the boys had gone into the yard to kick a battered ball around while they waited for the hatch to open. The cook was behind it and the smell of bacon grilling seeped through into the dining area.
Grace watched the others.
They came back in by ones and twos, pretending they’d done enough to warm them through but failing to stop their hungry gazes turning to that hatch. The smell of bacon grilling will do that.
In the farthest corner of their dining area, Hannah sat alone peeling the skin around her fingernails and creating a buffer zone, a no-fly zone, a leave me alone to my own special misery space.
Grace did not watch Hannah. She was already miserable enough and didn’t need any of Hannah’s, thank you. Christmas Day in a hostel. Grace closed her eyes briefly but opened them when the scenes from Christmas Past flashed up in her memory.
The dogs would be frantic by now because Grace’s granny would have opened all the kitchen doors. The fridge and its freezer compartment, the larder off the little back hall, the breadbasket where Mum would have been de-frosting croissants and those other pastries with the chocolate in them, would all be standing open. Well mannered dogs like Petal and Thea would be struggling with their natural impulse to grab the turkey crown or the gammon and run for their beds under the stairs.
Then she remembered Christmas Present when it would all be different, but ‘Just as nice.’ As if…
The smell of bacon grilling was enticing. Grace looked at the others and saw the hunger. Food wasn’t going to make it go away. Were they thinking about Christmases past?
“Move over, Gracie,” Rico said as he approached her table with a tray. “I suppose you’d like a bacon roll and I brought you orange juice.”
Grace cast a startled glance at the tall young man and slithered across the bench. He was a voluntary helper. Did Tuesdays.
“It’s not Tuesday,” she said and closed her eyes in despair. How cool a remark was that? “I mean, you usually come in on Tuesdays.”
“I couldn’t bear the thought of you lovely people on your own at Christmas,” Rico unloaded the tray and yet again Grace felt the tug of that bacon smell. She wondered if the street team had a spray of it to lessen the resistance of the homeless they approached. She lifted the roll and took a bite. Oily liquid slid down her chin.
Rico laughed. She made a wry face, and he picked up his own roll. Oily liquid slid down his chin.
“There’s loads of company,” Grace said. She eyed the spare roll sitting on the big plate. Had Rico brought it for her or for himself, she wondered.
“So there is and Hannah is still sitting in solitary.” Rico spoke quietly without turning in the direction of the other girl.
“Will I take her that roll?” Grace asked. Rico studied her for a moment or two. His eyes were nearly as deep and brown as Grace’s spaniels.
He nodded and stood up to let her out of the bench seat.
“Hannah?” Grace said quietly, tentatively, “Would you like this roll?”
The other girl shook her head without raising it.
“They’re really good and hot,” Grace tried again.
“I’m vegan,” Hannah said.
“Oh, oh, I didn’t know. Sorry.” Hannah had been here when Grace was brought in a week ago and Grace had never seen her eat anything.
Back at her own table, she set the plate down.
“Vegan, was it?” Rico asked. “Her excuse?”
“Did you know?”
“No! I wouldn’t have let you ask if I had.”
“I suppose,” Grace muttered.
“Missing them at home?”
Tears spurted and she drew her sleeve down to wipe it across her eyes.
“They won’t be missing me. ‘Cept the dogs maybe. Dad and I used to take them out onto the Pentlands on Christmas morning.” She stared into the middle distance.
“It’s a second wife, is it?” Rico asked.
“My category,” Grace flashed. “Am I reduced to that?”
Rico’s big warm hand tugged her smaller one out of the defensive shrug she’d made around herself. He straightened her fingers and gripped them.
“Only in the paperwork,” Rico said. “Look, Grace, maybe they are missing you. Maybe your dad’s new wife doesn’t know how to do Christmas the way everybody likes.”
“That’s certainly true,” Grace said. “She bought beef.” Grace remembered now. It wouldn’t be a turkey crown or gammon joint the girls would be slavering under but a huge piece of something or other.
“Sirloin?” Rico asked.
“That’s the word.”
“Hmn! Well, loads of households eat Sir Loin around Christmastime.” Rico pulled her to her feet and steered her out of the kitchen. “Have you been into town to look at the Norwegian Tree?”
They stood on The Mound shivering despite being zipped into their outdoor jackets. Grace loved this tree. She turned her head to look up into Rico’s face and caught the glance he was sending over her head.
Rico was too quick for her. He had her in a bear hug round her middle before she could run.
“I know. But, I will take you back to the hostel if you really can’t face them,” he said, “I promise.”
He set her on the pavement without releasing her fully and Grace stared fixedly at the top of his jacket zip. Behind her, two dogs barked furiously and in seconds were leaping up the backs of her legs. She reached down and one of the dogs, Thea maybe, had her glove off. Wet doggie kisses slurped all over her fingers.
“Happy Christmas, darling,” her dad said, and she turned then as Rico’s arms relaxed.
To run or not to run?
“I’m a vegan now, Daddy,” she said.
“Really? Well, okay. Will you find the smell of roasting meat too much to bear?”
Grace edged closer to her dad. He looked thinner, a bit. The dogs were tangling themselves in their leads and flopped onto the frost.
This month’s topic is How do you create your characters–their quirks, habits, values, and what part they will play in the story, etc.? Do you have a process or do they come to you instinctively?
Dealing with the widening out questions first – Do you have a process or do they (characters) come to you insitnctively?
I suppose I do, or might, have a process in so far has I need to hear their voices. I often start a story or longer piece in dialogue and the character’s voice has to be clear in my head before I really know who they are.
In the beginning, I was told by my mentor, the late Margaret McKinlay, that all my characters sounded like me. This was backed up by others in the Edinburgh Writers’ Club. There was a huge shift in my writing when I realised that: No, the character would not resolve things the way I would and: Yes, as soon as the character refused to play ball with plot, they were real.
Most writers have been asked whether such and such a character is based on them/a mutual acquaintance/the newsreader and the answer must depress pretensions (or hopes) because ordinary people are too ordinary to make the cut. They need the application of quirks, habits and values and at that stage in their creation I can look to the needs of the plot.
It’s such a relief to get to that point. How does one get there?
Take Rosalie Garden in A Debt for Rosalie. She made her appearance as a young woman struggling with the loss of a promising business and the discovery that her fiancé was likely to blame. Her back story strengthened her resolve to not accept the solution offered by another man. Her emotional recovery allowed her to take the help the new man offered on terms that were good for them both.
The story opens with Rosalie getting off an ‘ageing man’s bicycle’ and instantly we know she’s a young woman of determination because she’s cycled for hours and miles on it. It becomes clear that she has no loose money – but she did have a bike; and she got on that bike.
I suppose, it’s a free-flow process. What I have to be careful over, is not getting carried away and allowing character to become caricature. Rosalie’s story may be available from a library near you.
Check out the posts from my fellow robins below, from the 27th, to discover how other writers find their characters.
Anne (who, like Melissa, has been dancing quadrilles! Ha!)
Have you ever included current social, political, or environmental problems in any of your stories or thought about doing so? Why or why not?
This month’s question could cover a lot of ground and for guidance, contributors were offered a list of possible ways we might be including the issues mentioned. I write mainly historical novels and magazine serials and contemporary magazine short stories.
Hence my title, Through a Glass Darkly: from 1st Corinthians and meaning – to see an issue imperfectly.
Although I don’t regard myself as an ‘issues’ writer, I am very conscious of the things that anger me and hold my interest. Principally, that the discrimination meted out to the female of the species never disappears. It’s an issue that embraces politics, discrimination, wars, terrorism and economics.
The theme a regular reader of my work would identify is the entitlement to education. It was a central plank in my first historical novel, Mariah’s Marriage, and also in the Anniversary serial I wrote for People’s Friend magazine, City of Discoveries.
Once a person achieves the ability to read and write, their future changes dramatically. It was, therefore, a major objective among many to prevent women, in particular, and categories of men from learning these skills. After all, who was going to continue at home scrubbing floors and making the tea? Who was going to be content in dead-end work?
Having lost that battle, it became a major concern that no further ground – like secondary education or university education – should be ceded. This is the main theme of the serial I wrote for People’s Friend last year, In A Class of Their Own, about the struggle of women to become registered doctors.
How does this theme embrace ‘wars, terrorism and economics’? Scrolling the world news channels provides an all too recognisable answer. Women are not entitled to education in many countries. Wars are fought and much of the fall-out will be to remove the independence a previous culture allowed to its womenfolk. Some will be terrorised by the imposition of anti-female laws. Almost all will be economically discriminated against.
The work of fiction, in my opinion, is not only to entertain but to inspire thought. In many Western cultures women are educated, have worthwhile jobs, equal control of their children and the right to leave a poisoned marriage. In many cultures they have none of that. Writing in the world of the early nineteenth century enables me to entertain, but remind my reader – ‘It’s not that long since you were controlled by your father or husband and your children would go with your husband if you dared to leave him.’
The hope is that the reader will recognise and ALWAYS, ALWAYS, use their vote. It was hard to come by.
A large part of Melissa’s story in Courting the Countess is about her struggle to avoid a second marriage where her new husband would be hoping for control of her fortune.
Maybe you’d like to find out how others view the use of contemporary life and some fellow Robiners have contributed below.
Re-running on the People’s Friend website is my anniversary serial set in Dundee and Australia. Jennet Marshall is the subject of unwanted attention from the foreman, Fleming. However, an unsuspected champion is on her side.
Describe a flawed character you might use as a heroine or hero in a story. How did they become so flawed? How might their flaws affect the story and what will happen to them?
Hullo from a snowy overcast Edinburgh. I know that some of you wouldn’t regard what I see out of the window this morning as being snow – or anything approaching it – but as it hardly ever snows in Edinburgh, I stand by my view.
The pic above was taken in Assynt when the DH and I made a winter trip there and saw it under snow for the first time. Our normal visits having been during the summer months.
What has the weather to do with using flawed characters in one’s writing? What if my brain conflates the image above with the dusting of white on the front path this morning? Because I am not a cold weather person and, matter of fact, dislike snow a lot, any snow triggers a disproportionate reaction in my brain. That’s a flaw in my character which might affect my behaviour and that of others.
It’s a flaw, or warp, that might cause me to stay at home missing an important event, a treat, a funeral, the opportunity to secure a job… the list is endless.
Moving on to the other types of flaws. Supposing a person has been brought up in a family group that believes ALL of the people in another family are EVIL. They live in circumstances where it’s difficult or impossible to avoid the other clan entirely. But at a crucial moment in their development, they are being taught, and influenced, by a teacher from outside the area. That person doesn’t know which family is aligned with which or, if they do, ignores the implications of such a feud. The teacher is either wholly rational (not everyone in any family can be evil) or their own irrationalities are different.
In due course, our flawed character finds themselves in danger together with one of the hated clan. They must work in harmony to save themselves/the local hospital/the barn storing the winter grain/ something IMPORTANT. They do.
Having discovered that at least one member of the other family is not a bad person, a conflict has been set up. How does the character settle back into the old life? The story is likely to be the struggle they have to climb out of hatred into rationality.
This character flaw – accepting as gospel what Mum, Dad and the other relatives say without question – is the basis of much great literature. The tragedy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example. The hero and heroine move rapidly to a place of acceptance, but the families do not.
A lot of the work of one of my favourite writers, Georgette Heyer, is based on the flawed character, but is to comic effect. In Friday’s Child, for example, Sherry, Viscount Sheringham, is told within the first few pages of the book why his chosen bride won’t have him. The flaws of his character are laid out for the reader and the rest of the book is the tale of how he is made to face up to and overcome them before achieving his true life’s partner (not, by the way, the one of the opening).
And in my writing?
I’m currently tackling the planning of a serial and I have a flawed character who will in due course influence events. It’s a she and her character flaws relate to the problems of insularity and are the product of upbringing. I’m using her to encapsulate much of what is wrong in the society she inhabits. Will there be hope arising from her eventual story arc? I’m very keen to find out. Will she be affected by her ‘journey’ – oh yes!
My fellow robins, listed below, all have something to say on this subject. Do drop in on their blogs, too, and please, if you find our pieces of interest would you consider sharing through your facebook or Twitter channels? Warm thanks in advance.
Visits to the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh have become an important part of the ‘coping mechanisms’ mentality here in the Writer’s Study. Nature carries on carrying on and yesterday there were many lovely rhodies to be seen.
There’s currenty not a lot of writing taking place! Maybe the brain has had enough of keeping up and keeping cheering up. Instead, I’ve begun the process of finding surfaces. One bag of paper ready for the re-cycling (includes some MSS!) and several piles of books ready for the next opportunity to send to a sale or take to a shop.
Looking forward to the online conference of the Scottish Association of Writers this w/e. Stellar line-up of speakers and adjudicators so maybe that stimulus will kick-start something.
I find it very hard to describe people. I love showing their characters and actions but describing them remains a real problem. Yesterday I set myself the task of describing the heroine of a Scottish Regency I’m toying with. Achieved three sentences. What do we know so far? She’s short and blonde.
Mother’s Day last Sunday was a lovely boost with flowers and a delivered Afternoon Tea. It was so nice to talk to my children and really looking forward to seeing them in person. I feel for those of you who are separated by oceans.
Curious Find – From the tidying – up is that elastic bands dry out and crack.
How is it going in your study/kitchen/workroom?
ps Takeaway par Excellence from Hickory at Home is a big help. St Patrick’s Day coming up and we’re trying the Vegetarian option.
In February, Rhobin has chose an idea from fellow robin, Fiona. Where do you get your ideas from for stories?
It is the thing that fascinates non fiction writers the most. All of us are likely to have been held at cocktail-point by another guest who seems genuinely puzzled that anyone can take an event and turn it into something else. Their brains don’t operate on a What if? basis and that prevents them seeing the possibilities.
Of course real life throws up all sorts and a huge amount of it is feel-good, happy, moving. What I truly thank my story Gods for is the ability to witness the moment, to remember the feeling of revelation and to write it, often without reaiising until the work is completed. That is one huge privilege of being a writer.
I know a lot of my ideas come through visiting houses and through being close to houses. Some buildings cry out for attention.
My husband and I have life membership of The National Trust for Scotland and in more normal times make good and frequent use of it. We also visit privately owned big houses and have stayed in commercially let ones.
The picture above sparked an idea for a story I wrote years ago for a Writelink challenge. Most recently, I needed a house for a Hallowe’en story for a short anthology, Dark Stories, Capital Writers. The Cemetery House picks up a long fascination I’ve had with two houses on a nearby road. One is in a cemetery, one is just higgeldy-piggeldy.
A Debt for Rosalie was sparked by a long weekend spent in a big house in Angus (moved to Northumberland for the book) with friends. We spent a lot of time congregating in the kitchen which may be why Rosalie is a chef.
So, that’s my bag: observed and remembered moments of revelation and the aura of the stones. Do visit the blogs listed below where I’m confident other methods will appear.
Living in Edinburgh makes a heavy snowfall something of an event. I dislike snow and, although I can enjoy the beauty of pristine falls, simply long for it to melt.
Not an early chance of that if the BBC weather is to be believed.
Members of the extended family have been sledging and making snowmen. One or two might have had the Calcutta Cup added as an embellishment…
However, one or two have had to go out to work like the dedicated young lady who delivers our newspaper – warm thanks.
And the crew who brought our grocery delivery yesterday when it wasn’t warm but the snow wasn’t quite so thick. Again, many thanks.
So, the coping:
Grocery Delivery brought flowers. Daffs above, aloestramerias and a chrysanthemum pot plant. Cheered the house up considerably as the front garden, when you can see it, has 1 snowdrop and 1 aconite!
Looking for something else, I found a fresh cache of Georgette Heyer and one I may not have read before – or at least not for years.
Fellow inmate has had SPORT to watch. Cannot thank Channel Four enough. DH’s reaction when he discovered the cricket was on terestrial was like seeing the sun at the end of a very long tunnel.
Weight has dropped again and is now below a significant marker. This is good for morale and therefore ‘a positive’. Do hope the enforced loss of walks won’t be a problem. On advice of friend am watching Joe Wicks’s Absolute Beginners workout. I gather the intention is to join in, will consider that.
Am reading Cecilia Peartree’s Life and Death in the Woods, You can buy it here
What is on your writing to-do list for this year? Do you have
any long-range goals or just wrap-ups?
Rhobin’s questions are as always pertinent. I’m guilty of seeing what comes along and whether I’d like to get into/onto that. It doesn’t an organised life make.
However, this year there are two projects in hand.
Firstly, I’m deeply into writing an historical serial for the People’s Friend magazine. It isn’t collaborative exactly, but the team of fiction editors do opine instalment by instalment. so that’s ongoing.
City of Discoveries
It’s taken me back to 1869 but to Edinburgh and not Dundee. One project I might add to 2021 is bringing out City of Discoveries as an e-book and POD. I know several of my author friends do this. Check out Kate Blackadder’s Family Stories Boxset here.
Secondly, I’m signed up to offer my thoughts on writing drama for the Edinburgh Writers’ Club in April. This will be a totally new experience as I’ve not done any online talks or workshops as a leader so far. In person evenings discussing the nuts and bolts of drama always leave me thinking “Wouldn’t it be nice to write a play?”
Moving on, though, what’s in my mind?
Having published two pocket novels with My Weekly last year, I’m keen to a) write a short story for the magazine and b) write another PN.