This is one of the first questions people usually ask me – and I’m pretty sure it happens to other writers all the time. It kind of makes me want to groan, because it’s next to impossible to give a sincere and considered answer to this question without boring the pants off everyone by talking for an hour. The short, somewhat trite answer might be: ‘Everywhere!’
But if we really want to answer the question, it takes a minute or two longer. Because really there’s no single answer. Ideas don’t come from one unique, unvarying source. Nor do they come in the same way each time. Anything from the world seen or unseen can randomly come to my attention and lead me to think, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting…’
Inspiration, which is what ideas really are, comes from everywhere and nowhere. A snatch of song, a news story, a little patch of colour on a card in the paint section of the DIY store, the turn of a person’s head making you think just for one split second it’s someone else – someone from another time, someone who should be dead. An unexpected view of yourself in a shop window at an unusual angle, that odd moment before you recognise yourself, that brief second when you think, slightly puzzled, ‘I know that face.’
An overheard snatch of genuine conversation: ‘Don’t lose my hat, man, my hat’s my identity,’ and ‘Of course she never did find out who’d sent it.’ A film, a book, a taste, a smell, a memory. What about a story your mother told you – you’ve known her all your life yet this is the first time she’s ever mentioned this particular incident. People-watching is endlessly fruitful. I’ve written about beloved family friends recalled from my childhood.
I have based two full-length stories on dreams. Three short stories and one novel on songs. One novel (The Mantle of God) based on two documentaries I saw on TV. One was about ancient tapestries: Opus Anglicanum which is Latin for ‘English work’, and the other was about the Reformation. I’ve written a short story about an arrowhead, and another about ancestral bones and the relevance they might have to a Neolithic man, about a trip to Skara Brae in the Orkneys. I’ve written a whole series of stories about the fact that all too often people think it’s okay to take the law into their own hands. (I’m looking at you Cressida, main character of Criss Cross etc, from the series Friendship Can Be Murder.)I’ve written about work situations, about hopes and plans for the future, about family tree research, about children, and pets, and parents. About love. About the absence of love. About faith. About fear. About books I read as a child. And books I read as an adult. I’ve written about identity and what it means to be who I am, who you are. I’ve written about death – loads.
I saw a gorgeous man on the bus many years ago and wrote a story about him, (The Ice King – it’s still not ‘available’, but if you’re intrigued, here’s a link to a short bit about him.) I’ve read news reports and been inspired to create my own story around some of those. I’ve written in hospital having just given birth, in hospital awaiting treatment for cancer, at work during my lunchbreak when I felt so depressed I just wanted to run away and hide. I’ve written when sitting on the loo, sitting in the garden, on holiday, in bed with flu, and in cafes all over Britain, Europe and Australia. I’ve written on buses and trains and planes. I’ve written when someone I cared about has died. I’ve even got inspiration from sitting down at my desk every day and just making myself write. Sometimes I’ve written a whole page that just says, ‘I don’t know what to write’, like the lines that we had to do at school when we got into trouble, and still nothing has come to me and I’ve gone away desperate, feeling that the well has not only dried up, but was only a mirage to begin with, that I’m an imposter and just fooling myself.
If you are a writer, you squirrel away in the eccentric filing cabinet known as your brain EVERY single thing that you ever experience, and a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle or creating a patchwork quilt, you keep trying pieces together every which way until thing one fits with thing two and makes a pleasing, meaningful picture. There’s not really a pattern to it, there’s not a system or a set of regulations to follow. You just do it.
‘That new striker for United is here for the interview,’ came the message. Geena sighed and dragged herself to the reception area. Another inarticulate footballer with a repertoire that entirely consisted of the usual three phrases: ‘The lads done good’, ‘We’re training hard’, and ‘It’s a game of two halves’. It wasn’t exactly the hard-hitting journalism she’d dreamed of as a student.
In reception he looked up from FHM as she approached. He unfolded himself from the seat. He was tall, he was blond, he sported a diamond stud in one ear. He wore an expensive suit as if it were a cardboard box and he was the gift inside. Wow, he’s gorgeous, Geena thought, and she slapped a smile on her face as she stepped forward, her hand outstretched.
‘Hi, Justin, so lovely to meet you, sorry to keep you waiting,’ she said.
Her hand was grasped firmly and released. No sweaty palm, no prolonged contact, he didn’t even stare at her boobs. That was a huge surprise. A good start, she was forced to acknowledge.
‘I’m so grateful to you for sparing me some time today,’ he began in a smooth, public-school voice. ‘I realise you have a somewhat hectic schedule and I was fully prepared to have to wait a few days but as I’m sure you’re aware, the publicity is always very welcome.’
She blinked at him. ‘Oh – er – well, it’s – er…’
He smiled again. Sexily. Gorgeously. White even teeth. Good skin, not as orange as celebs usually were, and he didn’t appear to be hungover. She led him into her office, invited him to sit. And he sat. Not lolling, but actually sitting, ninety per cent upright at least. Amazing.
She positioned her dictating machine and with a smile, indicated they were beginning. ‘Well, Justin, perhaps you can tell me a little more about your move to United.’
He smiled again. It suddenly struck her he was here alone: no entourage, no agent, no coach, no WAG. Just Him. Wow. Again.
‘Well Geena–I hope you don’t mind me calling you Geena? I saw this as an excellent opportunity to further my career by playing for a high profile, high status club, but at the same time I really believe it is good for the club too, because I’m confident I can bring an element to the team’s game which has been a little lacking in the last season or two.’
‘And have you met your new teammates yet?’
‘Yes, we’ve had two practice sessions together, and of course, I’m researching the footage available. I have great faith in my colleagues–they’re all keen and talented athletes, and I feel that this move will be mutually advantageous. I intend to work very hard to justify the manager’s faith in me and the huge transfer fee they have invested.’
She caught a whiff of his designer cologne as he leaned forward to take a sip of his designer water. ‘Tell me about team tactics,’ she suggested.
‘One thing I really believe is that the game can be won or lost in the mind as well as on the pitch. I think it’s a wise man who comes out of the dressing-room after half-time and views the second half as a new game, a fresh opportunity to test himself.’
Quite so, Geena thought. It was two hours before she realised he’d said what they all say: ‘We’re training hard’, ‘It’s a game of two halves’ and ‘The lads done good’. He’d just said it in a posh voice with big words and a nice smile.
Secondhand. Preloved. Used. Old. Whatever you call books that are not new, it amounts to the same thing: neglected; unloved; abandoned; discarded. Even the ‘amusing’ epithet of ‘preloved’ simply indicates love that has been given then withdrawn. No longer loved.
Yes, I know that many people see these places as Aladdin’s caves filled with wonder and possibility. Not so for me. For me, a secondhand (let’s call it what it is) bookshop is a bit like going to an animal shelter. My first response in both cases is always one of dismay – there are so many here! Secondly, I think, ‘how can I possibly save them all?’
I went into two such shops today.
In shop one, I was frustrated by the lack of genre categories or alphabetical ordering. I felt I had to scan the entirety of the store to be sure I didn’t miss anything vital. As it was, when I paid for my ‘finds’, or as I prefer to call them, my ‘adoptions’, I couldn’t shake the certainty that I’d missed something. But the ‘usual guy’ was on holiday and the woman standing in for Usual Guy was not versed on what was where. She laughingly told me that if Usual Guy had been there, he could have immediately told me where any of my chosen authors might be stationed. Ha ha! Oh my aching sides. Not. They also had an overflow into an empty shop front next door – and even though I could see literally dozens of boxes heaped up, she wouldn’t let me go in there and poke about, and neither could she tell me what was there. I took my five rescue-books and left, slightly disgruntled.
The second shop was somewhat different, and yet, underneath all the glamour, exactly the same. It was squeaky clean and neat as a new pin. I see books neatly stacked on actual shelves or laid out in boxes, spines uppermost, and the boxes have labels such as ‘Romance’ and ‘Family Saga’, and also ‘Romance and Family Saga’. I stand in the doorway to get my bearings and the proprietor bustles up in a housecoat, carrying a duster.
She asks if I’m looking for anything in particular. Really all I want to do is browse. How can you tell someone that you won’t know what you want until you see it? But I fear she is not really, in spite of the location, a bookish person. I have a sense that browsing is not to be encouraged, and I drag my ‘little book of books’ out of my bag. I tell her I have quite a long list. She’s not bothered by that. She’s waiting. So, under pressure, I panic and begin to blurt out a few names.
‘Patricia Wentworth!’ I feel a bit like Harry Potter frantically trying to come up with the right spell. She gives me a sad smile, and shakes her head.
‘Not done much for a while, has she?’
‘That’s because she died in 1961.’ I explain. I could tell her the day and month, but I’m not convinced she’d be interested, so probably for the first time in my life, I just shut up.
She nods. ‘Ah.’ It appears that being dead is a major hindrance to having your book in stock at a secondhand bookshop. I’d have thought it was the perfect spot, but no. I’m a bit worried about continuing with my list, as I feel most of my favourites are a bit on the no-longer-with-us side. But she is looking at me with an air of expectation. I’m not sure she’s really helpful, I think she just wants to get back to the dusting.
‘Victoria Holt? Mary Stewart?’
That smile again. The same shake of the head. Sorry. I look at my list again and wonder if there’s any point in carrying on with this charade. I feel already know the answer, but perhaps due to some previously-unnoticed masochistic tendency, I ask anyway.
‘Nope, not him either.’
‘Her,’ I say and turn away, intensely irritated. I scan the shelves. They are packed with books by people who are dead – how come my authors aren’t here?
‘Try the clearance boxes out front.’ She suggests. I nod. Somehow even as I rummage through these boxes I know I’m wasting my time. Eventually I give up.
And as I walk away, I’m pretty sure two whole shelves of Jean Plaidys and Catherine Cooksons shouted after me, ‘Take us with you!’ and ‘come back!’ and possibly even, ‘Help!’
I was an only child and I spent a great deal of time on my own. We did not have a lot of money but we always had a collection of books, and of course library cards.
Books intrigued me. There were grown-up books with lurid enigmatic dust jackets, pictures of strangers lurking in darkened doorways, or a single outflung hand, or an image of lip-sticked women with broken pearl necklaces. These I was not allowed to read as they were ‘too grown-up’ but I liked to look at the covers.
Then there were the books that had either been my mother’s or one of her brother’s or sister’s: Enid Blyton’s ‘The Island of Adventure’, Malcolm Saville’sLone Pine Five series. I read the ones we had again and again, struggling at first with the more advanced language of the Saville books, but not wanting to put them down – something in those stories gripped me. And when I became old enough to have pocket money, aged 9 or 10, I began to spend all my money, from birthdays and Christmas too, on any books I could get my hands on. By the time I was 11, I had hundreds.
Now more than 50 years old!
I can remember making paper models of Famous Five and Lone Pine Five stories, cutting out little people–and of course the dog–and things like tents and bicycles. I also wrote to Malcolm Saville and was thrilled to receive a letter back, signed by him and enclosing a Lone Pine Five badge—he was already in his late 70s or early 80s at that time.
I can remember writing my own stories on the back of scrap paper, and stapling them together inside a ‘cover’ made from a cereal packet which I decorated with crayons. I made dozens of little notebooks for myself.
An aunt gave me a massive book on Christmas–the complete works of Lewis Carroll. I loved that. Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, of course, but even the essays, the letters, acrostics and puzzles, and, new to me then, the magical Sylvie and Bruno stories. I read ‘Twas Brillig…’ in German—or tried to—before I even started to learn the language, and it too was magical.
I can’t remember the day when I suddenly thought ‘I could do this, I could be a writer’. I can only remember that those early books gave me something that I longed to participate in. By the time I was 10 or 11, it was a fully fledged ambition. I wrote stories and made covers for them from cereal packet carboard. My teacher took them seriously and critiqued them.
Poems that inspired me, and filled me with encouragement, a sense of story, and with awe: Jabberwocky. Daffodils by Wordsworth. I read it as a child and felt I could really see them—the simple imagery was something I could understand and relate to. The haunting opening line of Walter de la Mare’sThe Traveller—‘Is anybody there…?’
The first Enid Blyton ‘detective’ story I read.
It wasn’t until I was older, in my mid-teens, that I began to see writing as something I wanted to do in a professional capacity—but I was told I didn’t have the right background, or the right education, the right skills, that kind of thing. Did it stop me? No, of course not. If you’re passionate about a thing, no one and nothing can stop you. I told myself I could write ‘just for myself’, not to try to be published. So I saw myself as a hobbyist.
Formal studies at school and through university courses made me learn to see books as works, and view them from the outside, so to speak, not just immerse myself into them as an experience. I learned to understand techniques and things like plots and motifs and point of view. I discussed meaning and learned phrases like ‘unwitting testimony’. I honed my own writing skills and learned important grammar stuff. A lot of the books I ‘had’ to read didn’t appeal to me beyond the course. But I learned so much about books and writing.
Wow, I was staggered by the whole concept of stream-of-consciousness writing. And this was one of those works that really made you think. I was in bits by the end.
The Colour Purple
It was the direct yet otherness of the language that showed me how to reveal pain, to gain the reader’s sympathy and it made me want Celie to find her children and be happy. It felt all-engrossing. When she finally started addressing her letters to her children and not to God, it felt like an arrival. An emotional one.
Pride and Prejudice
It was what wasn’t said that I found touching. And also the gentle humour. I had never realised until I read P & P that ‘classics’ could be enjoyable.
The Wind In The Willows
The richness of the language, definitely wasted on children, was what inspired me. That and the busy minutiae of the animals’ everyday lives, so clearly people by any other name.
Patricia Wentworth & Agatha Christie
My cosy mystery heroines. The ‘safety’ of their stories and her worlds, the cosiness, the black and white certainty of each story is so restful and enjoyable. The intellectual wanting to know ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘who’. The satisfaction of revealing the culprit and vindicating the innocent. Christie sometimes added an extra layer of meaning, but overall I feel that her books remain cosy.
These were the books and the authors that got me started on the slippery slope! What are your book memories?
I first shared this blog post in 2016. To date, it’s still my best-performing blog post. Not sure if that is because it’s one of my shortest – I am quite a waffler these days.
But I love that line. It’s line 431 from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. The first time I read the poem, when I got to this line I burst into tears, because it seemed such a beautiful summation, of the poem, of my life, everything. Words do that to me–I’m a very emotional person, I’m glad to say.
I believe that our lives are made up of fragments. We are, in essence, a walking, talking collection of every experience we’ve ever had. This includes what we’ve read. Words.
So often I am out and about–yes, I escape now and again–and I hear something, see something, smell something which provokes a memory of something I’ve read. Most often it is snatches of conversation I overhear, being nosey and a crime writer, which as we all know gives me special dispensation to eavesdrop on others. (‘I ain’t been dropping no eaves, sir, honest.’) Words seem to lead to more words.
I hear someone say, ‘The wonderful thing…’ and mentally I’ve added ‘…about Tiggers is Tiggers are wonderful things.’ (I didn’t promise it was anything erudite!) Or someone may say ‘Wherever I go…’ and I think to myself ‘there’s always Pooh, there’s always Pooh and me.’ (By the way, Winnie the Pooh is not just for kids. Just read the chapter called The Piper At the Gates of Dawn…)
It’s not just A A Milne, though. So often snatches of Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, songs, poems, plays, hymns, prayers, all sorts of words come into my head. I can’t look at spring flowers without thinking ‘A host of golden daffodils’ or ‘April is the cruellest month’. (The Waste Land again!) A tall person becomes ‘thou painted Maypole’. A mouse is a ‘wee sleekit cowrin tim’rous beastie’. (Burns of course, who else?)
If something annoying happens, I hear Miss Marple whisper, ‘Oh dear, how extremely vexing,’ or I hear someone say something stupid, and Mr Bennett’s frustrated, outraged, ‘Until you come back…I shall not hear two words of sense spoken together’ comes to mind. I share his pain. In extremis, ‘I shall be in my library; I’m not to be disturbed.’ (Not unless there’s cake or Midsomer Murders.) Or I might hear Miss Silver’s indulgent, ‘In their own way, men can be quite useful.’
Or if sorrows come in, it’s Matthew Arnold’s painful comment filled with longing, ‘Ah love, let us be true to one another,’ because he believed that one another was all we have. (Dover Beach).
There’s always another wonderful sketch of words from someone who lived many years before my time. Or a contemporary. Or the next generation. We all use and need words.
And because of this, none of us can ever come to a text, for the first time, or the tenth, ‘cold’ or ‘new’. There is really no neutral approach in the human soul. We bring with us the sum of all our experiences and emotions, our world-view and our beliefs, and those inform what we read, and mercifully sometimes, what we read can inform all those things too.
When I was studying literature ‘back in the day’, I remember The Waste Land was one of our set texts. Critics deplored it, dismissing it as a pastiche, a patchwork quilt of other peoples’ work, revealing only a good memory for quotations. Students shuddered and declared it was one of the worst experiences of their life. But for some of us, there was a sense of ‘wow, I never knew poetry could be like this!’
When I read his words, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ (line 431), I said to my tutor, I think he is saying that literature, that words, will save us in times of crisis, bolster us when we are at a low ebb. I was told I was wrong, but in spite of that, I still choose to believe this could be one meaning of these, for me, immortal words. These fragments of remembered stories, poems, previous experiences, feelings, of words, I have stored up, internalised, to use as a defence, shored against my ruin, my unhappiness, times of want, misery, sorrow and confusion. Ruin.
For me it is a reminder that many things in life are transient, passing, temporary, but I will always carry within me the sum of what I have read. Just read Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 and tell me I’m wrong. It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s got a cheeky grin at the end. It’s perfect, and all human life is there.
This is a cheap and nasty slight rewrite of a post from two years ago. Sorry. My brain just isn’t working today. Readers of a nervous, highly moral or religious disposition, please look away now.
These days we aren’t as shocked as we once were when someone drops the F-bomb. In fact pretty much everyone seems to say it now. Even I do – my mother would have been horrified, if she had still been with us. I think we’ve just got used to what we usually refer to as bad language. so used to it, it’s practically become everyone’s favourite adjective or adverb.
I’m in danger of lapsing into one of those scenes so typical of the older generation: You know them. The sort of thing that starts with an old bat saying, ‘When I was young…’ But there’s no denying it was a different world. Do you remember how the newspaper used to headline such things as ‘The Filth and The Fury’? That was when the Daily Mirror blasted the Sex Pistols for their language in 1977? Or what about the infamous December 1976 Bill Grundy interview where the interviewer goaded Johnny Rotten into using the F-word on TV ‘for only the third time in the history of British Television!’
‘Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!’ exclaimed Marcus in surprise. ‘Oi, Marcus, what you on about?’ Burt and Harry wanted to know.
You could hear pearls being clutched for miles around. There was public outrage. Or so we were told by the media. Middle-aged people all over the country shook their heads over the decline of social morals and called for national service to come back. Elderly gentlemen said that was not why they went to war.
I privately thought, so what? But I was a teenager back then, and I think most teens probably thought the same, even then, when away from our parents or teachers, we routinely used the worst possible of language.
Does anyone remember Mary Whitehouse and her campaign to clean up Britain? She wanted to rid the country of ‘filth’. She said references to sex were ‘dirty’, and bad language was disgusting. Not just any actual sex scenes, but even just talking about it. (She was perfectly lampooned in an episode of the detective TV series, Endeavour.)
‘Well hush my mouth.’
But bad words are practically as old as the Ark. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them sprang from that time. Can you imagine trying to herd a bunch of animals into a boat and getting poo on your foot or a slobbery tongue in your face and NOT swearing? We all know cats are notoriously slow to come inside, you stand there for ages with the door open, trying to coax them. I know I would have had a few choice words to say. Probably, ‘Stop mucking about you idiots, and get on the f-ing boat, I’m getting f-ing wet here.’
Chaucer and Shakespeare used their own versions of our modern insults and foul words, and paved the way for colourful terms to enter everyday English. (which were removed from ‘school’ texts…much to our teenage frustration!) These bad words greatly enriched our approach to incidents, frustrations, injuries, and annoyances that require relief through a vigorous use of very expressive language. Because apparently, studies have shown that swearing relieves stress and enables us to cope in stressful situations. I know it helps me!
‘I say Barbara, your mother’s language is a bit rough, what?’
I should just add, in Britain we call it swearing. That is to say, using bad language. Not making an oath in a court. That’s a whole different kind of swearing. No, I’m talking here about what in America is often called cursing. But you could call it all kinds of things: blaspheming (possibly), using expletives, foul language, or as we say in Britain ‘Effing and Blinding’, (a euphemism for saying Fuck and Bloody).
The term for this is using a ‘minced oath’ or ‘minced words’ – to take a profanity and adapt it to render it less offensive. We use this in everyday speech when we say of someone ‘They don’t mince their words’, which basically means, they are extremely forthright in what they say, usually offensively so. Some examples of minced oaths: Feck, Blooming/Flipping Heck, Oh Shoot, Darn it, etc.
While we’re discussing the differences between the US and the UK, let me just say this: Bloody was not traditionally a mild swear-word. I’ve seen blog posts and social media stuff where they ‘define’ certain English words and they always say ‘Bloody’ in England is the same as ‘Damn’ in America. That’s just not true.
‘He made me do it; I just couldn’t cope anymore with his Effing and Jeffing!’
It used to be the third worst word you could say when I was a kid, and its use would certainly bring a very stiff penalty in terms of punishment both at home and at school. It’s not mild. Or rather, it’s only mild in comparison with the F-bomb and C-word. It used to be fairly normal to have one’s mouth washed out with soap if using these words. It would make you vomit – obviously – and was definitely a very unpleasant experience designed to make you think twice about using bad language again. Usually the threat of it was enough to make you reconsider your choice of words. Damn was a much milder word, but still forbidden.
Tibbles had hoped his new owner would have a little more class. But no, the same old F-words morning, noon, and night.
Now in my contemporary trilogy, the Friendship Can Be Murder books, there’s a fair bit of this kind of bad language. We see it in society, it’s used all around us. And it’s used as much by the well-to-do, like my ‘heroine’, Cressida Barker-Powell, as by people from other walks of life. Although when she is about to become a mother, she makes a determined effort to guard her language, keeping the ‘eff’ part of the word but discarding the rest of the letters. I wanted my contemporary books had to reflect the world they are set in, for me at least, to make the characters seem more real, more natural and believable. I do not believe in censoring ‘bad’ language.
But when it came to writing my 1930s murder mysteries, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, that required a whole different approach. Because the Dottie Manderson books are far more polite, more traditional, almost (but by accident rather than design) qualifying for the ‘clean’ subgenre of the mystery or romance categories.
‘Pardon my French.’
Now I know—I guess we all know—that the kind of language we hear today all around us, was not all that different back then in the 1930s. But there were several provisos: it was not ‘ladylike’ to use bad language. There was a strong paternalistic, protective culture of ‘Ladies’ present’, which meant, ‘Guys, there are women about, mind your language’; and then there was a much stronger emphasis on politeness, being conventional, being acceptable and so on. If a person used bad language, it called into question their respectability and good breeding. Bad language in public in particular was far less common and just not socially acceptable. But it did exist. Even in the 60s and 70s, we used to be told that if a policeman heard us swearing, we would be arrested and locked up and given only bread and water for the rest of our lives.
So in my Dottie books, I stick with tried and trusted old favourites such as ‘blast’, ‘bother’, (my mother’s favourite was ‘Botheration!’), ‘Good Lord’: you couldn’t say Good God except in cases of sincere anxiety or shock as it was believed to be, ‘taking the name of the Lord in vain’, or people would think you were drunk, immoral or even worse, poor.
But there was always ‘My Goodness’, ‘My Word’, and ‘What on Earth…’ to fall back on. I love some of the very mild exclamations of that era, such as ‘Well I’ll eat my hat’ or ‘Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs’ – completely meaningless and bizarre words!
When I hear ‘goodness gracious’ or ‘goodness gracious me’ I always think of ladies who spill tea on their frock when pouring it from a Spode teapot. Obviously these ladies are sitting at a picnic table in a sunny patch of the garden, and are wearing a straw hat. They have on a print dress and pearls. It’s a meaningless phrase and completely pointless. But covers the embarrassment of clumsiness and gives relief to the urge to scream when the hot tea soaks through the frock onto their leg.
‘Lots of people are going to the foot of their stairs’ Daily Telegraph March 17th 1973
Only very occasionally do I permit a gentleman to say Bloody or Damn in a moment of anger. Even then, he’ll be expected to apologise afterwards. Obviously. Or he wouldn’t be a gentleman.
There was then virtually no use of the now almost universal OMG, or the long form Oh My God, which I have even heard from 5-year-olds, which seems wrong. These days we also have the popular phrase, ‘Shut the front door’, which is a minced version of the surprised, often disbelieving retort, ‘Shut the fuck up’! and basically means, ‘I can’t possibly believe this tall tale you are telling me.’
With the recent translations of the first four Dottie Manderson books into German, there had to be some discussion about the ‘levels’ or severity of naughty words. It was quite difficult to explain some of the euphemisms we use now, or back then, and hard to find an acceptable and era-appropriate equivalent. I also had to apologise for our use of ‘Pardon my French’ which is a term we Brits still use to apologise for using bad language. Sorry, sorry, sorry, to French-speaking people everywhere. I recently heard a new one on TV (The Goes Wrong Show!) where the show’s ‘director’ apologised for the show’s swearing ‘Or as my mother calls it, Scottish language.’ Again, so so sorry to all my friends from Scotland – but this one made me spit coffee all over myself.
‘Goodness gracious me!’ said Lady Maud as the hot liquid splashed onto her afternoon gown. ‘Now I’ve got to change my sodding frock.’ ‘You mean your sodden frock, Maud,’ said Sir Reginald severely.
T-bar sandals, stretchy hairband and an anorak – my outfit screams the Swinging Sixties!
This is an old post that I am re-sharing today. In fact it’s a life writing piece, based on my memories of my ‘auntie’ Zonya. So it’s not a fictional piece, though I might not be remembering it exactly! When we look back on a memory we add layers of our accumulated experience onto the memory, and of course the passage of time means that all too often we look back and remember the colours far brighter, the events far happier than they perhaps really were.
But Auntie Zonya was a unique and wonderful lady. Her real name was Doris, but she had been, many years earlier, a dancer and had changed her name to sound more in keeping with her exotic stage life. I only knew that later. At the time–we’re talking about 1964 or so until around 1974, I knew her only as Auntie Zonya. She was tiny, she was plump, she had the reddest of red hair–again only later did I realise this was not a natural red, but out of a bottle.
A Georgian house, similar to ours in the street where we used to live.
She turned up living in a room across the corridor from my mum and me where we lived in a lovely old Georgian villa that had been converted into cheap bedsits. She was older than my mum by about thirty years, so she kind of became a big sister/surrogate mum to my mum, and a very loving aunt to me.
Anyway, one day she was ‘babysitting’ me and we went shopping. For knickers. Here’s what happened:
Thinking back to when I was a child, I remember once being in a department store, in Tunbridge Wells, England, in the mid-1960s. I can picture the scene as if I were an onlooker.
I’m buying big knickers with Auntie Zonya. It’s a lesson in economy versus quality. I am wearing a skirt my mother made me and a jumper. My hair is in a long dark-brown plait down my back as always, and I’m probably wearing either a frock my mother made me or stretchy leggings and a home-knitted jumper.
I mean, they’re huge, right? And making a comeback!
They look the same—same size, shape, style and colour, yet these knickers are less than half the price of those others. I’m learning the difference between branded goods and their cheaper, store’s own label counterparts. Zonya, in other ways so stylish and chic for an older woman, favoured the larger undie. Knickers built like modern cycle shorts—up to the waist, down to the knees—and incredibly, sometimes even with a pocket in the waistband. Crimson, stretchy cotton with a little line of black lace trim at the waist and knee.
I can’t imagine wearing anything so huge. By comparison, my underwear at age six or seven or whatever I am is really quite skimpy and small.
We are in BHS or somewhere like that, comparing their own brand of cheap-and-cheerfuls with a far more expensive generic brand-name knicker. Seeing my doubtful looks, she assures me these are warm, comfortable and very, very durable. I’m not convinced. Maybe they will swallow me whole. And the colour! Red like holly berries or Zonya’s lipstick or red like a London bus or a pillar box. Really, really red.
We snap the elastic a few times experimentally. It seems sufficiently sturdy and reliable and so economy wins out and the cheapy knickers are purchased.
I remember it as a fun, ordinary outing, one of the few memories I have of shopping when I was small. I realise now never did ask her how she got on with them.
Sorry it’s a bit grainy. This is Zonya and I at London Zoo, 1965.
This week, during a conversation with a nice marketing expert, I was asked what or who was my target demographic. In other words, who do I imagine is reading my books, who am I aiming to reach? My initial reaction was probably the same as most writers: Everyone!
After all, we writers want to reach as many people as possible, don’t we?
It puts me in mind of board games where it says on the side of the box “fun for the whole family: aged 8 to 80”. (Sorry all you 81-year-olds, this game is not for you!) And that’s kind of how I feel about my books: I hope they will be enjoyed by people older than me and younger, and those who are my (approximate) age.
We want to reach as many as we can with our work, and are reluctant to rule anyone out. After all, we know that not all fantasy is read by young people, that not all family saga is read by older people. There are always plenty of people who don’t fit into marketing stereotypes. Lots of readers read a wide variety of genres and styles, from westerns to techno-thrillers, or from romance to locked room mysteries. We are reluctant to disregard them just because they are a bit different to what it says on the box.
But it would be naive of me to pretend that my books–much as I’d like them to–appeal to everyone. As I’ve thought about this carefully I’ve realised that probably 80% of my readers are over 45 years of age, female and prefer not to read anything too gory, full of explicit sexy shenanigans, or are depressingly similar to real life. In fact, they are rather like me. (I’m sadly over 45. Way over. Way, way, WAY over. In fact, it would be nice to be 55 again. Heck, I’d kill to be 60 again…)
Find that perfect reader and tell them your story!
I’ve read several times this week about the importance of having in your mind an image of your perfect, or some might say, average reader, and of writing your book as if you are writing for that one person alone. The idea is that it makes it easier to keep your book focused, and to maintain consistency of POV (point of view) and tense.
I’d go a step further. Use a real person. Most of us have are lucky enough to have that one person we talk to about our writing, or one or two people. Most of us run ideas past them for feedback, let them read the messy first drafts, and sob on their shoulders when we get a stinking review. These are–hopefully–the people who can look us in the eye and say “Sweetie-pie, I love you but in all honesty, this book sucks. Write something else.” Let’s face it, you already know this person so well, you know what they like, what they don’t like, their favourite colour, and their beverage of choice. It’s simply good sense to use them as a sounding board during the writing process, not just after it.
Picture your muse when writing your story
Stephen King famously writes for his wife as she always reads his work before anyone else. In fact, quite a few writers give their work to a relative or close friend as ‘first contact’ or as writers usually call them, alpha readers.
BUT… If you don’t have someone in your life like that, you can create a mental image of a perfect reader in the same way as you create the rest of your book and people its pages with characters. Okay, so they won’t buy you a G & T or a giant, airport-duty-free-sized Toblerone (all donations gratefully received) when you’re feeling down, but they can still be useful. Give your person a name and an identity, with the quirks and foibles of real people. See them in your mind and address them as if they were real and present in the room with you. Speak to them directly as you write–tell them your story. If it helps you could even put at the top of the first page of your rough draft, “Dear (insert name here!), I am writing to tell you the story of…”
Just don’t forget to remove this bit later! 😀
It doesn’t matter if your perfect reader is real or pretend, so long as they act as your creative muse, encouraging you to find your voice and get writing. You will be surprised at how much easier it is to focus on getting the framework of your story together with your new ‘audience’.
We at LaughingAtLife.org (not a real company!) have a new part-time vacancy for the role of armchair sleuth.
About this role:
You must be ready, willing and able to deliver timely advice to all suspects and potential victims. (But not too timely. Whilst we agree that forewarned is forearmed, if you’re too good at your job, you may find the number of victims drops alarmingly and you are left with no one to investigate/suspect which will lead to everyone at LaughingAtLife.org moving into the genre of romance. Or maybe Fantasy. No one at LaughingAtLife.org wants that to happen.)
You should be highly experienced in delivering comments such as ‘I knew that was going to happen’ or ‘You could write this (insert offensive vocabulary here) stuff yourself!’
If you have fancied taking part in shows such as Gogglebox, this job could be for you!
Eagle-eyed attention to detail.
Nerves of steel.
Ability to pick locks with a hair pin or safety pin. Or a lock-pick.
Suspicious of everyone and everything.
Able to sniff out spurious motives and supply educated guesswork.
Possess own monocle or pince-nez or (misplaced) reading glasses.
Should be able to demonstrate a long-established habit of putting your fingertips together in a thoughtful manner before speaking.
You must have a luxurious moustache which you continually fondle or trim or dye a suspiciously dark colour. This role is open to all genders.
Or, failing the moustache, you may have a knitting fetish, and take knitting everywhere with you so that you are ready at a moment’s notice to disarm suspects with your apparent inoffensiveness and the sense of calmness that you radiate.
Must be able to recall a long series of villagey anecdotes you can crowbar into any conversation.
Must know the difference between a colonel and a major. Must equally be conversant with the differences between life-peers and the other sort, whatever they are.
Must be able to shake your head sorrowfully from time to time and say ‘The world is a very wicked place’ or make some quote about the fallibility of mankind.
Additional desirable qualifications:
Knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible useful.
Must not be liable to scream or faint when confronted with a gory scene.
Encyclopaedic knowledge of deadly fungi and herbs could come in handy.
Must be able to dip fingertip in any powdery drug and taste it without dying and also must be able to identify said drug.
No salary, just the reward of knowing you did your best, and served your country. Or, failing that, completed at least one matinee jacket for the new baby of a friend of a friend.
No perks. There is no holiday allowance, as every time you go on holiday, someone will do something stupid and you will find yourself ‘embroiled’ in a new murder case. Even if you have a staycation, the grumpy colonel in the Old Manor House will upset someone who will then disguise themselves as a vicar and whack the colonel over the head 47 times with a fire-iron. You will of course realise that this was almost inevitable given the colonel’s manner, and also it will be just what happened with Mrs Castle’s little boy in Northampton when he skived off school that day.
There is no sick pay, apart from the satisfaction that your last days will be repackaged and sold as ‘Mr X’s, Ms Y’s or Mrs Z’s Final Cases’ with a picture of the actor who plays your role on the front cover.
I know I say this every year, but for me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings. I get quite excited about the approach of autumn and winter. Maybe it’s the cuddly jumpers, I don’t know.
It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-six years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!
New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.
I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of long print frocks, ladies in beads, feathers in their hair, tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, croquet. I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the doors open to let out the soft lamplight and the music from the gramophone. The music is softened by distance and the soft evening breeze ruffles hair.
I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’
I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?
I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.
I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, I’m lost in my thoughts. I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I see images in my mind, people, objects, places, and weave stories about these imaginary characters.
I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. What should he do? Has the time for action finally arrived?
I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.
I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder of his white cotton shirt. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?
If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.
‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.