The perils of information dumping.

Writers are known for doing a lot of research, aren’t they? Or perhaps it depends on the kind of thing they write. It’s probably possible to write a book and not need to do much research at all.

Some writers seem to do tons of research, and they make sure that you, the reader, get to read all of it. ALL. OF. IT. They present it to you like a magician pulling a bunny out of a hat. This is called an information dump. Throwing all your research in this way can be tedious, and will slow down the pace of the story drastically. I mean, yes, it’s nice to offer these insights or explanations to your reader, but I don’t think it’s a good plan to completely exhaust your reader, overwhelming them with information so they feel like they’re cramming for an exam.

Do I really need to know the source of the leather used to make the hero’s shoes, or the style of the traditional hand-stitching that finished them off? I mean, unless that pushes the plot forward, I seriously doubt it’s something I need to know to enable me to enjoy the book. I skip all this type of stuff in books—there’s not enough time in my day or patience in my soul to read about the handstitchedness of a chap’s shoes. I doubt I even need to be told the hero is wearing shoes—I think it’s pretty much taken as read that he or she is wearing shoes, don’t you? Unless you’re the author or Kinky Boots or some other shoe-related plot, I don’t think it’s useful or helpful.

I don’t do a lot of research for my novels. Well, that’s not strictly true. If it’s something that interests me, I can waste hours on it, but if I’m purely trying to find out about something ‘ordinary’ then I can take it or leave it. I nip in, check the fact, and nip out again. Then I try to drip-feed it into the story if relevant–a little here, a little there.

As a writer mainly of murder mysteries, I know more than I really need to about methods of killing, about the human body after death, about the psychology of a killer—those are the things that intrigue me. My search history on my computer is enough to make a grown man blanch. But I try not to crowbar it all into my story except where it’s relevant.

As my main character in the Dottie books is ‘involved’ in the fashion industry, and because of personal interest, I spend quite a lot of time researching styles, technology relating to fabric production, and the mechanics of getting a frock to a customer from drawing board to shop assistant. And I’ll admit, quite a bit of this does get put into the book: readers have told me they enjoy the clothing details.

A lot of my research is conducted online, of course, as so much of everything is done these days. But any time I go out, I look for architectural features or cultural ideas that could come in useful in a book. I take photos of everything when I go out. (Or used to, back in the day when going out was a thing we all could do).

I’ve got tons of books too, on fashion history, cultural history, domestic and social history, and even on forensics.

For my research into designer brands—I’m not a designer brand kind of girl—for my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy, I basically scanned Harrods website and selected the most expensive (insert item of choice here) I could find on their pages and awarded it to my protagonist. But those books have been around for the best part of ten years now, so may well be a bit out of date.

So if you plan to write a book and need to do some research, or if like me you are simply really nosy, here are my top favourites for online research:

Google maps – you can look around any town, not just in the UK but many other countries. Fancy a stroll around the streets of southern France? No problem. Want to drive through Warsaw? Easy peasy. Get a feel for the places you write about and see the real life layout (even if from two years ago) of your location. You can also get an approximate journey time and route all laid out for you. I love the internet!

Timeanddate.com – create yourself a printable or downloadable calendar from 1926. Or any other year from history. Want to know when there was a full moon in the Victorian era? No problem. Was Easter Sunday in 1958 in March or April? When was sunset or sunrise on a particular day? It’s all here. Super useful.

Wikipedia – yes everything seems to be on Wiki – but use with caution and try to verify the information here on other sites too, to ensure accuracy.

Want old street maps of London? Try maps-of-london.com

You can also get loads of useful information from police websites, every police service has them.

Newspapers online – so much useful material there.

The Victoria and Albert museum has a wonderful website. And no doubt other museums have, too. We’re all online nowadays, aren’t we?

Britainexplorer.com has information on interesting places. I used it to find out about a particular country house with priestholes or secret passages.

https://britainexplorer.com/listing/harvington-hall-priest-holes-and-hides/

Another time, I needed to know about everyday life in Britain in the 1930s, and researched telephones. Now we take a phone for granted, but in the 30s they were still pretty new and very much the preserve of the well-to-do. This blog post from italktelecom.com was very helpful

https://www.italktelecom.co.uk/blog/a-brief-history-of-the-home-telephone

And when Dottie got her first car in The Thief of St Martins, I needed to know all about motoring in Britain in 1935. Check out this:

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/what-is-designation/heritage-highlights/englands-first-filling-station/

But if you take away anything from this, I hope it is, it’s easy to find out information you need, but use it carefully, don’t overwhelm your reader with information that is perhaps interesting to you but not actually needed.

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Coming soon: new book Easy Living

I know I keep banging on about my books. I feel I should apologise for all that self-promotion, but then this is a blog about my books after all, so it’s kind of what I do here.  I’ve got a new book coming out at the end of March, and for a couple of reasons, I’m really excited about this and I want to tell as many people as possible about it. You might have heard some of it before, as it’s been on my ‘miscellaneous writing’ page for a while now.

It’s called Easy Living. It’s a stand-alone novel, that is to say it’s not part of a series of themed or related books. That said, a couple of people have suggested it could be a series, and (shh, no one’s listening are they? *quick look round*) I did in fact write a sequel to it that I’ve never owned up to before now.

As regards genre, I have got myself into a bit of a mess because although it’s a kind of mystery, and a kind of romance, it’s also about life after death and going back in time to reanimate a dead body and use it to get around. I do love a mash-up! Can we call it Romantic Detective Speculative Time Travel Reincarnation fiction, and move on? I have no idea what shelf this would be on in a ‘real’ bookstore. Any thoughts on that?

This is a novel I first wrote in 1997, and as I said, it’s about death – as always. It’s so hard to know when the time is right to release a book, but after all these years, I’m finally ready. I love this book, which may well cloud my judgement a bit. I know I’ve mentioned before how very much like a precious baby a book is to he person who writes it, and this one is no exception. If anything, the long wait has increased my attachment to it. Halfway through writing the first draft, we (foolishly) moved from Hampshire in the South of England to Brisbane, in Queensland, Australia. For three frantic months I was separated from my ‘baby’ because for some stupid reason to do with carry-on luggage allowance, I didn’t pack my handwritten manuscript, but it came by rowboat twelve weeks later with the rest of our possessions. Meanwhile, I decided I may as well write another book… (Dolly, that one is called, also still not available in the real world, but I love that one too. It’s one of only two books I’ve written set in Australia.)

Warning: this book contains language some readers may find offensive! (F-words and the odd other bad word, and references to sexy shenanigans going on, plus you know, people die in this book. A lot.)

I hope this book will be available for pre-order really soon, and if you are interested enough to read the first couple of chapters, (subject to editing and rewriting!) please follow this link:

Easy Living – about and early chapters

What was the ‘Golden Age’ of British mystery writing?

We sometimes hear or read this term, ‘so-and-so was a Golden Age author’ or ‘in the Golden Age style’. But what was the Golden Age? When was it, what did it mean, who were the exponents of the Golden Age, and is it still relevant today? Here is a (necessarily VERY brief) overview of the term and its legacy.

When was it? Well, according to some sources I’ve studied, (Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William DeAndrea, Google and Wikipedia, obviously 🙂 Twentieth Century Crime Fiction by Lee Horsley and The Oxford Companion to English Literature edited by Margaret Drabble) there is a general consensus that The Golden Age of mystery/detective fiction began in 1920 and ended in 1939 at the outbreak of World War ll.

What was it, and why was it new or different? Although there had been notable forays into detective fiction in the nineteenth century eg Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins to name just a couple, a lot of fiction had been in the form of short stories, usually with an ‘improving’ moral or message, or as novella-length, often rather highbrow, works. Essays and poetry, philosophy and criticism had been popular for decades. But the growth of a literate public, the rise of libraries and more disposable income, led to a desire for lighter, more accessible works of a purely entertaining nature. Mysteries became socially acceptable too, and were enjoyed by the well-to-do and well-educated, as well as by working class men and women.

Mass market fiction or pulp fiction was no longer a thing to be scorned, but became more generously regarded. The detective element of the story transformed it into an intellectual exercise. I would perhaps suggest that, following the trauma of World War l, detective stories provided a means of sanitising violence and putting danger at arm’s length, and keeping it under control. The genre required that good would triumph and order be restored at the end of the story.

Detective fiction of this time became all about the puzzle. Readers were very sophisticated and demanding, requiring more and more complex riddles to entertain them. This cerebral pastime acquired a kind of moral kudos, described by Phillip Guedalla, a well-known British writer and barrister of the time, as ‘the natural recreation of the noble mind’. Others said that it had become ‘feminised’, doing away with the macho, aggressive ‘male’ approach of might and power, with both readers and writers exhibiting the traditionally female qualities of intuition, insight, and I might add, craftiness. Perhaps that is why so many of the most successful authors of the era were women.

So in these works, the emphasis was on cerebral/intellectual puzzle rather than physical action and strength. Gore and violence was contained, and mainly ‘off-stage’; there was a defined resolution; and the reader expected to read a story peppered with clues and red herrings that she or he could solve alongside the detective. The emphasis was on the pursuit of Justice and Truth, and doing what was Right. There was a moral high-ground to be held. As Dorothy L Sayers detective, Lord Peter Wimsey says, ‘…in detective stories, virtue is always triumphant, they’re the purest form of literature we have.’ (quoted, 20th century crime, p52)

Who were these Golden Age authors? Many of them came, flourished briefly and went again, but some of the biggest sellers in crime fiction today are authors from that era. Here are just a few:

Agatha Christie – often considered the foremost leader of the genre, she both established and contravened the definition of the classic mystery. She was often accused of ‘not playing fair’ with the reader, never more so than in the (grudgingly admiring) outcry following the release of her book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926. She famously began writing detective fiction as a bet with her sister. The Mysterious Affair At Styles was her first published novel in 1920, and featured Hercule Poirot who became arguably the most recognisable sleuth in detective fiction, on paper, and on the TV and film screen.

Ngaio Marsh – New Zealand born, she famously wrote her first murder mystery out of boredom. In 1934 the release of A Man Lay Dead led to 30+ other novels, all featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The books were turned into a popular TV series. Marsh was also renowned for her work in the theatre. She was a grand master of the Mystery Writers of America, and new books continued to be published until the 1980s.

Nicholas Blake – pen name of Cecil Day Lewis; wrote poetry, criticism and essays, as well as twenty detective mysteries towards the end of the Golden Age era, 16 of which feature Nigel Strangeways, a consulting detective who helps both police and government as required. First of these A Question of Proof 1935.

Anthony Berkley – a writer and the founder of the Detection Club in 1928 whose aim was to preserve and promote the classic detective story. Wrote as A B Cox, Anthony Berkley and Francis Iles. As Francis Iles he wrote some of his best known works, Malice Aforethought in 1931, and in 1932 Before The Fact which was filmed as Suspicion with Alfred Hitchcock as the director.

Freeman Willis Crofts – born and raised in Ireland, author of The Cask 1920 which was a huge success, selling 100,000 copies. He was one of the first authors to focus on police procedure and not merely the enthusiastic amateur detective. This was the same year as AC’s Mysterious Affair Styles and is taken as the landmark year to commence the era. He wrote other books, collaborating with the authors of the detection club and also a book of short stories.

Other well-known authors of the era included: G K Chesterton, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, and many more. In the United States, there were also authors writing in the genre, although here the ‘hard-boiled’ mystery quickly became popular. Here are just a few of those authors:

S S Van Dine – he is mainly remembered for his detective Philo Vance, but there were other works. Van Dine was embarrassed by his authorship of popular fiction as he had higher aspirations, and he used his pen name to conceal his identity for a number of years. The first mystery novel to feature Philo Vance was The Benson Murder Case in 1926, followed by more works within a year or two, making him one of the USA’s top selling authors at that time, and his works were turned into films.

John Dickson Carr famously termed detective fiction as “the grandest game in the world”.

In 1935 his novel The Hollow Man (The Three Coffins in the US) was published and it is still considered his finest work. He was a master of the locked room puzzle. he often used English settings and even characters, for example his best known detectives were Brits named Dr Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, but there are others, and books set in other nations. He also wrote stand-alone novels:  such as The Burning Court which appeared in 1937, in all he produced over sixty mystery and historic novels, in addition to short stories and plays under the name John Dickson Carr and as Carter Dickson.

Ellery Queen – Was actually two men, writing under the pseudonyms of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Their first book was The Roman Hat Mystery published in 1929; subsequent books shared the title style, being all ‘The something something mystery’, which in many ways is still the standard form of title today. There were over thirty books in all, plus other series eg Drury Lane series etc, and other pen names. And notably, the hugely successful TV series, and the magazine.

What is the legacy of the Golden Age of detective fiction? Currently Crime, Thrillers and Mystery makes up one of the largest categories in fiction, apart from possibly romance. You can see endless variations on the detective theme from crime noir to cosy, with subgenres in legal, hard-boiled, gay and lesbian, spy, medical, political, police procedural, and even paranormal mystery. If the parameters have changed in regard to content and character types, if attitudes have changed, and settings have become exotic, or even practically a character in itself, we are still as in love with the puzzles presented by murder mysteries as those readers of the 1920s and 30s. We love to curl up in an armchair and lose ourselves in a mystery where the Reader is in fact the main detective.

 

 

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Happy Anniversary

In a recent blog, I wrote that it was Time For A Little Celebration, following the completion of a new book, and by some miracle, meeting a publication deadline. Thus week, my hubby and I celebrate 37 years of marriage. So I thought I’d combine those two ideas and talk about the importance of celebrating achievements in our writing, both small and large.

It’s really easy to get despondent about our writing, especially if sales are not great, or reviews are negative or completely lacking, or if you cherish a dream of being published by a traditional publisher ad have just had another rejection letter fall on your door mat.

There are a lot of books ‘out there’ to inspire creativity, and a few of them even help you to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and move on.

But here are a few ideas that have helped me to overcome depression, discouragement, and the temptation to give up.

  1. You’re not alone. Surround yourself with loving people. You may feel like the loneliest person in the world, but with the ever-expanding array of coffee shops you can get out of the house and meet up with a friend, it will do you good. And with the wonders of social media, in fact you can quickly build real relationships with people you’ve never even met. If things are going badly, you can be tempted to retreat from others, as I often do, but it’s not a good idea. For a number of years, I’ve been friends with some people I’ve never met, in many countries around the world. They listen to my woes, give me encouragement and feedback, and I try to do the same for them. We tell each other tall tales, laugh and rejoice together in good times, and commiserate and encourage in the tough times. Writers need people, we need human contact, and we need someone to talk to. Do it. Lots of authors advocate steering clear of social media but I say it’s not a good idea to cut yourself off. When pouring yourself out onto the page, you need to replenish your energy, and spending time with other people can help with this.
  2. Don’t be tempted to compare yourself with others. No two people’s experiences are the same, and don’t add to your discouragement by looking at those writers you envy, whose work sells better than yours, who win accolades and awards or have millions of followers. They are a kind of writing royalty, and yes, one day you may be up there with them, but in the meantime, don’t grudge them their success: it’s not at the expense of yours. See yourself as an employee in a large organisation: you need to spend some time working your way up the ranks; learn your craft, improve your skills, and don’t put yourself down.
  3. Celebrate the small victories. If you have written a book, be proud of that. Everywhere we go, people tell us, ‘Oh I thought of writing a book once.’ The difference is, you’ve actually done it. If you’ve written 2,000 words or 100 words today, be proud. Try to do the same tomorrow. If you published a short story, won a prize, got a new follower, made a sale, be proud, be grateful, and celebrate.
  4. Remember how quickly things can turn around so don’t ever give up hoping or trying. Don’t give in to the temptation to feel you’ve arrived, we are all moving forward at different speeds. There’s not an actual arrival point with writing, just the journey. So whether you are a new writer, an old writer, a young writer, a middling writer, or an aspiring writer, keep learning, trying new things, supporting others, and be proud of your every achievement.

Meanwhile, thank you to my hubby for being laid back, (most of the time), occasionally encouraging, and even better, for being out of the house most weekdays so I can sit at a computer or with a notebook, instead of fussing over him! Thirty-seven years! Wow!

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Embracing the mess

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about routine and how I think it’s essential to productive creativity. But what do you do if your routine goes to pot and everything is unsettled and out of sync? Just go with it. I’m thinking of that song by Scott Walker about a million years ago, ‘Make It Easy On Yourself.’ That’s just what you should do.

If you allow the stress of being disorganised to get to you, you will become depressed, anxious, feel guilty, and become increasingly non-productive, then get even more deeply depressed, so allow yourself the room to just do what you can manage, and don’t sweat it. Do what you can and don’t beat yourself up if you feel you’re not achieving as much as you should, or planned to achieve.

Do what you can, and gradually normality will reassert itself. Even if you only write a small amount, remind yourself it’s a step forward from yesterday, and any progress, no matter how small, is good. You may even find, as I am beginning to realise, that it’s a normal part of your creative process.

I usually start strong, like most writers. I have a good idea of where the story is going, I know what it’s about. But for me, again like many writers, the problems arise about halfway or so into the story when suddenly I realise a) I’m useless at writing, b) my story sucks, and c) it’s never going to be ready in time.

The first couple of times this happened, I gave up on the story. That was a long time ago when I was a young writer. Then I realised I could work through the doubt and fear and finish a book. And for a long time, that’s what I did. But the last couple of years have been exceptionally stressful in my life, and pressures have taken their toll. And now, my old anxieties have resurfaced and this time it’s so much harder to push them away and carry on. But that’s what I’m going to do. Because what choice do I have? Do I want to give up writing? NO!

So now, I’m embracing the mess, and working with it, secure in the knowledge that, regardless of my feelings and the muddle that is my so-called WIP, I can do this. It might take a while, and it might be baby steps, but I will get there, and finish this book.

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Routine – the nemesis of creativity

I recently read somewhere that routine hinders the creative process. To really be creative, we need to let go of organisation, routine and any kind of rigid preconceptions or framework, to allow ourselves freedom to explore in any direction and form that appeals to us.

I couldn’t disagree more strongly. If you think that routine is a hindrance and obstacle to being truly creative, I’d like to invite you to reconsider.

I suggest that it is routine that brings freedom and that freedom is often to be found within boundaries, not outside of them. Because parameters do one great thing for us, yes, even us creative types. They give security. And if you feel secure, you have the freedom to be creative.

All art is created within boundaries. Or a framework of conventions, if you prefer to call it that. Mozart created wonderful music. Yes, undeniably, he was incredibly creative and had a flair for genius. But. Musical composition is, in many ways, one of the most rigidly ‘controlled’ art forms in that very deeply-held conventions dictate the agreed (not necessarily explicitly agreed) common elements that must be adhered to, in order to create any form of music. Sonatas have a specific set of rules, if you like. All sonatas have common elements that make them what they are. Similarly, concertos, arias, opuses and symphonies all have elements which dictate how they are created and underpin the very stylistic identity of a given piece of music.

Now I am tempted to take a long detour at this point and show that this is exactly the same as the genre conventions in writing, but I won’t, as I’ve already waffled quite a bit, and I want to keep this blog fairly to-the-point (wow, who’d have thought it?).

Sometimes, I just go with the flow, letting words pour onto the page. There’s nothing actually wrong with that, but it doesn’t make for good reading, it rarely fits neatly into a novel, and I am a novelist, so that is what I need to write. Unfocussed, meandering writing is great fun, very cathartic and can help you to improve your writing overall. But for ‘everyday’ working writing, you need focus, not indulgence.

Within a framework, we have the freedom to be creative. Routine can be just such a framework. I’m actually not a very organised person with regard to my writing. But I have discovered that an established routine is my friend when it comes to cracking on with my WIP and meeting deadlines.

Why?

If you are organised, you can relax and focus on the job in hand. You make the most of your time, and have something concrete to show for it, so productivity is improved and you feel good about what you’ve achieved. Which makes it more likely you’ll do it again tomorrow. In addition, good output leads to increased confidence and positivity, and as many writers know, these are commodities that can be hard to come by.

Planned routine is anticipated, your subconscious inner writer is actually hard at work long before you sit down at your desk. You know what is expected, and what your intentions are. This means you ‘hit the ground running’ and are ready to go straight away with no need for warming up or getting yourself in the mood.

As I’ve said already, routine planned writing leads to increased output and measurable results, you see the word count piling up and you see that you are moving towards your deadline or goal. This gives you the impetus you need to write through the tough sections of your book, those tricky little scenes and the mid-book blues.

For me, one of the main advantages to this type of organised approach to work is that I remain ‘current’ with my WIP. I literally don’t lose the plot. By that I mean I don’t lose track of characters and plot strands the way I do when I’m here and there and all over the place writing whatever takes my fancy. The resulting draft is more seamless, the scenes transition more smoothly, and small details are less likely to be overlooked.

They say it takes six weeks to develop a new routine: three weeks to break old habits, and another three to establish new ones. Give yourself six weeks, starting today. Who knows, by the time we reach mid-April, you may be firmly in the Routine is my Friend camp.

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The Sweater

I am hugely indebted to Morgen Bailey for the inspiration to write this story from one of her excellent writing competitions. She also posts brilliant writing prompts every day – I recommend these to help any writer loosen up their writing muscles. You could enter January’s 100-word story competition, find out more here: Morgen Bailey’s site

The Sweater

I don’t know whether to keep it or chuck it away. I hold it to my nose, my eyes flickering closed in rapture. It’s still warm, and floral-scented, soft and yielding like her. Whenever I think of her, in my dreams, my imagination, she wears this sweater. I picture her as she was tonight, smiling over her shoulder at me, a beckoning look, challenging. As if asking me, ‘Have you got what it takes?’ I have. It hurts to walk away and leave her to be discovered. But the sweater is a fitting memorial covering her face.

***

The woman in the mirror

So I finally finished my novel The Mantle of God: a Dottie Manderson mystery, and it’s due out tomorrow (shameless plug), I’ve done most of the Christmas shopping, and so it’s the time of year when I sit back and think. Usually I think a wee bit too much, I’m very much an introverted overanalyser, like a lot of writers. I’m taking some time to read quite a bit now. One of my perennial favourites is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, first published 1934 (when my book is set, coincidentally, another shameless plug haha) but still a great read, and encouraging. In common with many others, she advocates writing exercises, such as morning pages. But the first exercise in the book is to observe yourself in a mirror and write what you see. On the surface, it’s an exercise in observation; for me in reality it is an exercise in confronting the self in honesty and acceptance. I began to reread Brande’s book this week.

And also this week, I found myself sitting in a cafe in town, actually not all that unusual, it’s practically a hobby for me. Opposite me in the cafe was a huge mirror, a bit like those places where it’s all positivity and mirrors, to reflect the light, make the place seem bigger, fuller, or more successful, a kind of feng sui for business. So I was sitting there stuffing my face and chewing my pen, wondering what to write and myopically became aware that a woman sitting opposite me was doing almost the same.

I’m confronted with myself, I eventually realise. It’s not a comfortable experience for me. I could do with being several stone lighter and twenty years younger, maybe three or four inches taller… It’s an odd sensation. The woman in the mirror looks very like me, except that she has her hair parted on the other side. She sits there and stares back at me almost in a challenging way, daring me to deny her right to be real. I look away. From a young age, it was ingrained in me that looking in the mirror would make me vain (which I am) and I should not do it. But there’s not a lot else to look at here, and also I’m intrigued. So I look back, and sure enough she’s looking at me again. She appears to be left-handed as she writes in her notebook, but of course, it’s me, and I’m not. This reminds me of another thing I once read about the left brain, right brain thing, and I remember how for a while to help the creative process, I used to write with my left hand. It was easier that way to pretend someone else was writing, and I felt freer, and wrote wiht a different ‘voice’. At the moment I’m looking for a way to revitalise and freshen my writing for the coming year, so I like to try new things. Maybe I’ll do a spot of left-handed writing and see where that takes me.

The woman in the mirror is like me, but different. Does she care what people think? Does she let her anxiety and fear kill her imagination or hold her back from striving to achieve more? She is like me but different. As I turn away from the window and the street beyond, she turns towards them. Then she drinks her coffee, I drink mine. I look at her one last time. I pick up my pen and begin to write. I do my writing, and she gets on with hers.

***

 

‘I am Linzi Stewart and I come from a two-parent family’.

This is an extract from a teenage/young adult novel I wrote about ten years ago. The novel was tentatively called The Rabbit Whisperer, and this was the first chapter. I hope you like it.

 

‘It was such a humiliating spectacle.’ Sounds great, doesn’t it? I got it from one of my Mum’s Jane Austen DVDs, and it means something is the pits and makes a person’s life not worth living. No other description sounds quite right. Nothing else explains the depth of the misery I suffer constantly because of my selfish parents.

They got married seventeen years ago. After two years, they had my brother Warren. Two years after that, they had me, Linzi Stewart, and two years after that (are you detecting a pattern here?) they had my stupid little sister, Jo.

Jo is now eleven years old, and we all live in a nice old house just a short walk from my school. Please note I said, we all live there, because, incredibly, in an act of pure unreasoning selfishness and without a thought to what their children might suffer, my parents are still married! To each other! How could they? I am a laughing stock in my school.

Why am I telling you all this? Because Ms Sideboard found out from my parents that I want to be a writer or a journalist or a reporter or something when I leave school, and she has set me homework to do all this year. I have to write a journal – which is a diary really – and she told me to put in it what I really feel not just what I think I should write, but what I really want to write. She said if I don’t want her to read it, she won’t, but I have to show her it every week to prove I’m doing it. She gives me class points, and puts two gold stars on the board every week when I’ve done it. Which is good because I’m not the most popular girl in our class.

Everywhere I go, people point at me and laugh. Or sometimes they turn away in horror. On other occasions, I hear them say things like, ‘There goes that girl with two parents.’ Then their friends say, ‘I know, and they’ve never been married to anyone else.’ Then everyone will shake their heads and say, ‘It’s so sad.’ If it’s Sophie Green and Kully Kaur they say, ‘And in this day and age too, it shouldn’t be allowed! It’s abuse!’ and they always look as if they’re about to burst into tears because of the Great Compassion my situation makes them feel.

My parents are the greatest embarrassment in my life. Not only are they still married to each other, but everywhere we go, they hold hands. Sometimes they stop and have a kiss, which makes my stupid little sister laugh and say, ‘Ah, they’re so sweet.’ And my brother always pretends he’s going to be sick. I just pretend I don’t know them.

I mean, I know all parents are evil, but no one else’s are as evil as mine. They are determined to make my life as miserable as they can. In fact I don’t think anyone else in the whole world has a family as bad as mine. Cinderella’s family were saints by comparison.

I’ve just gone up into the next grade. For some reason our Headteacher, Mrs Winterbottom decided that in the second week of term, all classes would have a ‘Meet My Parents’ evening, so our teachers could get to know our parent and their partner(s), or in my case parents.

Honestly it’s just like being a Kid again, we did exactly this when we went into the second term of Reception year. We have to make sure our parents turn up, (in Reception we had to make an invitation on the back of a cereal packet and decorate it with glitter! That is so lame!) then we have to drag them over to our teacher and make a formal introduction like in Jane Austen and then we have to leave them to ‘chat’ whilst we go and get them paper cups of warm watery orange squash and a floppy paper plate with a broken biscuit. Who does Mrs Winterbottom think we are? Kids? It’s really pathetic.

It’s bad enough having a home life that’s a nightmare, but I’ve got at least another four or five years of school, more if my parents get their way: ‘You’re bright enough to go to university, Sweetheart.’ If they get their way I’ll be lucky to leave school before I’m seventy.

So the worst twenty minutes of my life was about to begin. My parents wandered along to school last night to see my new teacher Ms Sideboard. It was a nightmare. They started before we even got there.

On the short walk to school, I’d spent a few desperate minutes trying to persuade them to pretend they didn’t know me. I thought it would be best if I said I’d met them in the playground and they’d looked a bit lost so I was being helpful.

They refused to co-operate! Mum just laughed really loudly and said, ‘Don’t be silly Darling! Everyone will know we are your parents.’

That’s what worries me.

I should have remembered to eat a peanut earlier in the day, by now I’d be sitting up in a comfy hospital bed watching television and eating ice cream and the nurses would be saying how brave I was. But I didn’t plan ahead. Mum’s always telling me I should. How right she is! Mind you, on reflection, I don’t think I want to feel that ill again. I can still remember the last time I did eat a peanut. Possibly that would be a bit much, but the point is I should have planned something.

So we entered the classroom. Dad held the door open for Mum and she said something like, ‘He’s so sweet,’ which made my insides clench. Everyone turned to watch us walking in, The Girl and her Two Parents. A hush fell over the room. Two parents. I’m sure I saw Sophie Green’s stepmother shake her head sadly. Sophie nodded and murmured something that sounded suspiciously like ‘I told you.’

Gradually people here and there began to talk again, but in whispers, which wasn’t good. Ms Sideboard came over, I’m sure she was blushing with embarrassment, but she was pretty good really, the poor woman. She asked me to go and get an extra chair from one of the other classrooms because she didn’t have enough by her desk. I was glad to get out of there for a minute or two.

But when I came back, people were starting to leave, which I’m sure was just because of us, and when I reached them, my mum was showing Ms Sideboard a murder mystery story I’d written during the summer holidays. I wonder if my mum has heard of matricide?

Ms Sideboard smiled at me as I sat down on the chair I’d fetched from next door. I smiled back. I liked Ms Sideboard. Some people laugh about her name. I don’t know why. It’s not funny. Winterbottom – now there’s a funny name.

Ms Sideboard is tall and thin with short spiky purple hair and about forty rings in each ear. She is a big fan of Wallace and Grommit, and has a Grommit sitting on her desk. She makes it cool to be nice. She’s the best teacher I’ve ever had. She’s the only teacher I know who doesn’t hate children. And she was coping really well with having to deal with two parents at once.

My Dad had on his Daffy Duck tie. I felt like groaning. I hadn’t noticed until now. I wished I’d remembered to check what he was wearing before we’d left the house. And Mum too, I should have checked her, because now I could see a spot of gravy on the front of her blouse. I really must get myself more organised. I should have known this would happen—they go out of their way to make my life absolutely pants!

Dad was making a lame joke, and Mum was laughing at it really loudly so that the few remaining people in the room were looking over their shoulders and muttering to each other. The frosty temperature in the room dropped a couple more notches. It was positively arctic in here. Ms Sideboard didn’t look as though she understood Dad’s joke, which is no surprise. No one else ever does, apart from Mum.

I know I shuddered, and Ms Sideboard smiled at me, a sad, kind, this-explains-so-much smile. I’m brave, I know that, I try so hard not to let my parents hold me back in life. I can’t wait until I can leave home legally, because then the world will be my oyster. Except that I’m also allergic to shellfish.

The next twenty minutes went by so slowly, it was just like being in assembly. But finally, it was time to leave and let Ms Sideboard go and talk to the father of the posh new girl Liana—she may be posh but at least she’s only got one parent.

I wanted to hold back a little, give Mum and Dad the chance to get a bit ahead. I was going to say a quick ‘sorry about them’ to Ms Sideboard.

But just as she’d smiled and raised her eyebrows at me to show she was ready to hear what I wanted to say, Mum yelled across the room,

‘Linzi, you’d better put your cardy on, there’s a bit of a chill in the air, and you know what your chest is like.’

I almost cried. Honestly. All the way home, I couldn’t take my eyes off the pavement, as I was fighting back the tears, and I haven’t cried since the first day of school when I was four and a half. To hear her call out like that, to talk about my chest in front of Craig Jeffries, just thinking about it makes me go cold all over even now. These people are supposed to love me! They make my life a living hell.

My parents are the worst. I have decided to save every penny I get given for birthdays, Christmas and so on, and when I’m old enough I’m going to get a paper round, and any other job so I can earn as much money as possible, then when I have got enough, I’m going to hire an expensive lawyer to divorce my parents. Then maybe I can hold my head up once more. I will be Normal.

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