One woman’s clutter is another’s motivation

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What does this picture tell you? That someone treasures their pony books as much as their older fiction? That they have eclectic reading taste – Gothic, Ancient Greece, Medieval Britain, Hollywood noir, spies? What about other things on the shelves? The stash of Cadbury’s crème eggs, the clutter of perfume bottles, the envelopes of photographs – is this an historical picture? The small brick-like mobile phone and the audio cassettes suggest this is a pre-digital time, or is it a current photograph and this is where things go before they are thrown away? Or are they all precious? Pine cones and bits of stone?

This was my bedroom in my flat and everything on that bookcase was put there very lovingly when I set up my own home at last. I had lived for four years in a bedsit; one room, a tiny kitchen and freezing bathroom. A sofa bed. This is why I bought a super kingsize bed for one and would lie there every weekend morning feasting my eyes on beloved books and prized possessions that had lingered in boxes for years.

But many visitors or a burglar would have overlooked them. Why did I have these things on show?

  • The cat statuette that looks more like a fox painted black was a present for a University friend that I have lost touch with. I regret that and keep the ugly little figure as a reminder not to be so careless again.
  • The cut glass bottle was my gift from the bride and groom when I was maid of honour at my best friend’s wonderful wedding. Inside it is the toenail that got flipped off as I moved into the flat. A reminder of the day it was finally all mine and useful if I ever disappear and the police need some DNA for any reason.
  • They could also use the wisdom tooth on the top shelf, kept because I still can’t believe I had a root that big pulled out in my lunch hour.

There are three small pieces of red pumice stone, collected at the top of an extinct volcano in Iceland. After pocketing them I careened down snow clad slopes in a mild blizzard. The sight and feel of those lightweight rocks in my hand brings back the harsh beauty of the country, the blue of the glacier we crossed, the toilet with no door that looked over a lake, the five days of trekking across the island and how on our return we went to a karaoke bar as it was the only way to keep drinking all night. I remember watching my fifty-nine year old father singing along to Dancing Queen before stumbling down to the harbour in Reykjavik to watch the sun rise even though it had barely set and then standing outside a youth hostel drinking whisky from a hip flask and trying a cigar to celebrate having had my first shower in seven days.

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There are at least two bits of red pottery there. One from an archaeological dig in Hampshire where, again, I only showered once a week – slightly worrying theme developing here. The other is from Tiryns, a Mycenaean site in Greece. It was closed for refurbishment when we tried to visit and lots of small fragments of pottery had been dumped outside the gates as waste.

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These two horses date back to when I was seven or eight and my sister and I stayed for a few days with my step-grandmother in Bognor Regis. We’d only been away from our parents once before and it was both exciting and scary. Although she must have been in her late 60s or 70s she was full of life; she was a volunteer at “Hep the Aged” because she didn’t consider herself old at all, she swam in the sea every day and tried to teach us how to do underwater handstands. I remember her driving excitingly fast in her Mini around the town and taking us to visit a distant relation who lived in an Edwardian terraced house crammed full of dark antique furniture, dusty chandeliers and enormous mirrors. The pewter pony was bought in Bognor’s largest department store and the carved wooden foal in one of the charity shops that my granny helped out in. One evening, she walked us through the town park and as the shadows deepened under the trees and the roses turned to sepia, she taught us how to waltz in the deserted bandstand.

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So many memories that can be summoned back by a few simple trinkets, or dust magnets. And what of the bookcase itself? It used to belong to a library and you can still faintly see where years of sunlight on the etched glass signs have marked the shelves for Art and Sport. I paid only ten or twenty pounds for the shelves when the library had a reorganisation and got the complete Oxford History of Britain at the same time for about the same price.

I could go on with everything in sight.

  • The broken gold bell that is older than me and that I always hung on the Christmas tree near my presents so its clear chime sounded whenever I picked up a parcel and wondered what lay beneath its layers – it’s yellow bead clanger is still waiting to be reattached.
  • The hat-brush painted with the name and profile of the first pony I looked after at a riding school when I was nine.
  • The shell that I picked up at Agios Konstantinos, a small port on mainland Greece that a boyfriend and I reached after a night flight, a taxi driver who ripped us off and a dusty battered bus drive through endless Athens suburbs. It had not been a good start to a holiday and then we arrived at the port, bought tickets to Skopeleos and the sun came out. I found the shell as we waited for our ferry and knew that things were looking up.

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The reason for listing all this, apart from giving more background on me than anyone could ever want, is to show how one item can have a history and meaning for a character in a book that is far greater than its appearance or size. I wrote before how the ways each protagonist views a room tells us as much about them as it does the setting, and likewise the importance the person places on a seemingly insignificant object can reveal so much about their personality, or about their past. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as X picks something up and says “what’s this junk?” before Y tells all about a fascinating or traumatic incident in the past, but a writer can imagine that scene and then allude to its significance elsewhere.

I’ve spent plenty of time planning or describing the locations my characters inhabit and I feel that I know their back stories and motivation, but I’m always looking for new ways to convey that rather than introspection, information dumps or stilted conversations.  Far more interesting to have Y pick up the object and have X watch how their face and posture changes – in sadness, joy, regret, anger? X can ask why later, or Y can reflect on it alone, it gives a solid tangible sense to pure emotion and is hopefully showing, not telling.

When the idea for this post first came to me I tried to picture my current heroine’s bookcases and wondered what oddments she would have like this. I could think of none, couldn’t picture such a shelf. Then I realised that that was key. She has given up her own career twice for her family and not yet had a chance to rebuild a proper home. All such mementos are packaged away safely and that in itself tells me and the reader a lot that we need to know. Someone who has locked away precious memories and daren’t bring them out yet, who doesn’t feel at home anywhere, or not proud enough of herself to display her desires or achievements to anyone else. This is only very obliquely alluded to in the manuscript but it’s helped me a lot in having a rounded picture of my heroine and gave me the key to a later confrontation scene where things locked away in a bookcase are highly emotive.

I know that my next heroine has a large collection of art postcards but very little else, and I know why. And suddenly I wanted to give one of my Egyptian jackal heads to another heroine; making her have a passion for Egyptian history and archaeology has opened her up to me in ways I hadn’t thought of before.

What trinkets, junk or precious objects are on your characters’ shelves? Or what are the stories behind some of the treasures you look at every day?

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Where orchids now grow

The sheared off wall of golden stone loomed out of the trees with no warning, its naked window frames reaching like broken fingers through strangling masses of ivy. A sight as abruptly alarming in this mist wreathed wood as a shark’s fin cutting through the surface of a boating pond.

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The first rule of exploring was that you veered off the main track at every fork or side turning. Most led to padlocked gates or narrowed into woodland paths barely big enough for a fox to follow. The second rule of exploring was that it was always the eldest sister who investigated first and she was already slipping her feet out of the stirrups and handing her reins to her younger sister. She too, however, was quick to dismount. It was easier to control two ponies from the ground and besides, it felt wrong to remain mounted while her sister was going exploring, even if the taste of chocolate in her mouth was suddenly making her feel sick.

“What is it?”

“A church, stupid.”

“Yes, but, why?”

She watched her sister pick her way carefully among gravestones tumbled like discarded dominoes, many were flat on the ground, others leaning precariously against their neighbours, barely any still intact.

She wanted to call out “Is it safe?” But since when had that been a concern for her sister? She looked up again at the end wall of the church, golden Cotswold stone turned wraith-grey in the drizzle and mist that coiled around the ruin in a duel with the choking ivy.

Earlier in the day the sun had made them curse the cheap, heavy waterproof coats they were wearing. The very first side track had led to a small cutting at the side of the path, as if someone had taken a giant ice cream scoop to the crumbling rock of the steep hillside. An old quarry said the younger girl and after loosening the ponies’ girths and taking off their coats she had searched for fossils among the tumbled limestone and primroses. Her sister had tugged old flimsy branches into the clearing, at first with the idea of making jumps for the ponies and then to form a barricade.

“We could come here often and untack the ponies, let them have a proper break while we explore.”

Images of picnics and adventures as in all her favourite pony books fired the younger sister and she joined in gathering armfuls of long brittle grass to leave to dry like hay for a future visit and patted it into comfy cushions on a ledge where they sat and ate their sandwiches, sharing the apple cores with the ponies and devouring Lion Bars.

The next clearing they found was directly on the main track, neatly stacked piles of wood showed it was for logging. The usual arguments ensued as the elder girl moved wood obviously intended for sale into improvised jumps and the younger one tried to measure the ground for a dressage arena. It was just large and flat enough to canter an egg shaped circle. After their own pony had had enough and tried to canter for home, and borrowed, tired old Sam gave up after half a circuit at a trot, they moved on into the denser woods.

The track wound up and down, never following the contour of the hill for long, they manged a few hare-brained canters with the ponies’ hooves squelching through mud or ringing out alarmingly loud where the path became stony. Gradually the track narrowed and a walk was as fast as they could go, the trees crowded in on either side and branches whipped their faces making them duck low over the ponies’ necks. The sun had withdrawn behind ominous clouds and the closer barricade of branches and leaves trapped the steamy air around them and made them sweat while they shivered.

The younger girl had suggested turning back several times. Her sense of direction was better and she knew if they came to a road it would be a long slow ride home, and if they didn’t come to a road they were definitely lost. And then came yet another side track on their right; narrow, twisting, yet very well worn.

Without a word, the elder sister urged her pony to scramble up the bank and then on through smaller scratchy shrubs, and then to a sudden halt.

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The wall in front of them was obviously that of a church. The tall pointed shape, the high arching windows even with no glass in them. One side wall joined it, the opposite one was a tumble of rubble, moss covered stones rolled among the drunken gravestones. There was no roof, and no slates scattered among the debris, roof beams lay crumbled in the interior of the church like the staved in ribs of a crushed animal.

“Your turn.”

While she had stood with their tired ponies she had felt annoyance at having to wait; now she felt no eagerness to explore. “Is here much to see?”

“Go and look.” There was the perennially frustrated voice of an older braver sister.  So she went, picking her way among the crumbling graves, craning her head to see the grey scudding clouds through the tree canopy, somehow looking everywhere but at the gutted church with its blind window frames that seemed instead to be watching her. No wind reached through the dense wood, yet the trees rustled and sighed behind her.

She finally peered through the doorway but couldn’t try to push past the piles of fallen masonry and saplings thrusting their way up the length of the nave. How long would a place have to be empty before plants took root, or pushed through the stone floor that must surely have been there?

Stepping back out into the wood she gulped in the moist air, and tasted smoke; through the trees she saw more walls and heard a dog. A cottage, as dark and dreary as the ruin, carved wooden eaves that belonged on a gingerbread cottage dripped dankly, drab curtains hid the inside, as if the grime covering the windows weren’t enough to shut out the dismal day.

She scurried back to her sister. “We should go.”

“Why?”

“Someone might see us.”

“And?”

“I don’t think we should be here.”

Her sister wanted to explore further but the dog barked again and they heard a door slam and soon were back in their saddles and hurrying to the main track. Without a word the older girl turned left and back home the way they had come, their thirst for exploring and adventure quenched for now, the warmth and comforting smell of damply steaming ponies gradually making everything normal again.

That evening they asked their parents if they knew about the church in the wood. They didn’t and had never walked that way, but the location rang a bell with their father. He searched a local history book and found reference to the grand house in the Ridings, built in the 1820s and pulled down a little over a century later in the 1930s, only the lodge houses and church in the woods being left. Their father remembered a friend from the pub who had talked about it and attended the auctions when the house was dismantled; he had bought some beams from the house to use in his farm’s barns.

A few days letter a very formal letter arrived telling the girls that their permit to ride in the nearby woods did not cover the Ridings. It was a shock. They had been seen by someone, and recognised. They had only recently discovered that they needed a permit for the other woods and knew that very few of their horse riding friends had bothered to apply for one; to now be chastised for their exploring seemed deeply unfair.

They never went back. Not with their ponies. Sometimes the younger sister would think of those armfuls of grass they had so eagerly and optimistically gathered to dry. It would all have blown or mouldered away, or maybe been used as nests by mice or birds.

Many years later they went that way again, with their parents, the jumping clearing had more coppiced wood stacked in it and they walked on, keen to reach the ruined church.

Which wasn’t there.

No stones, no beams, no carved window frame remained. Just a large stone cross on its side in a bank of earth to record the church that had once stood there. The cottage gleamed with fresh paint and a new conservatory and well-tended gardens that reached back into the woods where the graveyard had once been. Not one gravestone remained.

They were following a map, sure not to be caught out for trespassing or being off the beaten track. As they struck out across the fields that had once been the parkland for the vanished  country house the younger girl kept looking back, as if hoping to see one wall of the church still poking through the woods and beckoning her as it had years before.

They’ve walked that way once or twice since; it’s a picturesque if long way to a good country pub. One time the younger sister walked it with just her mother and they found bee orchids growing in the logging clearing. Brambles and saplings were reclaiming the cleared ground, the few piles of cut wood were crumbled and past being of any use except to hedgehogs and woodlice as a home. There wasn’t room to canter a circle now and she fleetingly wondered how many precious plants they had sliced apart with their long dead ponies’ steel shod hooves.

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She persuaded her mother to turn back soon after that, she couldn’t bear to walk past where the church that once frightened and awed her in the mist should have been.  Where long forgotten graves slept silently beneath the whispering branches. They took away all the gravestones, but what about the graves, what about the bodies?

She wishes they had been left to crumble, alone.

A trip down memory lane

This post came to me while I was driving last week. My sister took us to a woodland nature reserve that I’d never visited where the kids and her dog could splash and play in a shallow stream, she described it as being near a village but as we drove further and further I realised the wood was in fact in the middle of Inglestone Common, a place I hadn’t visited for at least thirty years. When it was time to leave I was sure that going on over the common and along the edge of the Cotswolds was a quicker way and so I headed off, much to my sister’s amazement – she was convinced I’d get lost. I didn’t, and every mile was crammed with memories.

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I have walked up and down this lane thousands of times in the last six years; in deep snow and gushing floods, on days when the cool green shade felt like a caress and one autumn day when I kicked a cider apple all the way down it until I was intoxicated by the bruised smell of the fruit. No matter how often I walk it, different things catch my attention – a new violet opening in spring, different bird song and glimpses of their plumage, a stronger gust of wind making the pine trees sing or sigh, a silent buzzard resting in the apple orchard. Twenty people could walk that lane a day and describe it differently, just as hundreds of romance novels are published a year but all tell the same basic story of two people meeting and finding love and making it work against the odds.

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The same lane in thick snow. It’s actually taken from almost the same spot – look at the leaning fence post on the right and the ivy-clad trunk on the other side of the road

I read something on twitter this week – I can’t find it now and hate to not credit it properly. Its gist was that all stories are about someone wanting something; in popular fiction they achieve it, in literary fiction they don’t. Given the flak that women’s fiction gets, especially romance, that made me smile a lot (and yes I do read literary fiction – I think. I rarely even think about how a book is classified until I have trouble locating in it a book shop (Really? Euripides in history rather than classics or poetry or drama?)). Romance readers and writers have to develop a thick skin, or a serious headache from all the eye rolling we do each time we hear that the books we love are formulaic, clichéd, repetitive and all the same. Do hill walkers and ramblers get told that all walks are the same? You end up back at your house or car, tired and possibly muddy after seeing some countryside, just like you did on your last walk, why do you keep doing different walks? Or even worse, why do the same walk again? Because as I tried to describe above, it changes every day, heck every hour.

No romance and no book is ever the same. There are familiar rituals and goals, but the accidental tangential diversions and the deliberate off-piste excursions described in my post two weeks ago can make them come alive in different ways, revealing each author’s distinctive voice. Just as the flower that made me smile yesterday can be eclipsed by the sight of a fox crossing my path today, so the breath-taking moonlit roof top chase in one book can be replaced by a champagne supper on a Mediterranean beach the next time, languid lovemaking between crisp cotton sheets in one story and frenzied still-half-dressed passion in a dusty cellar the next. I don’t need to tell other romance readers and writers this, but as well as the variety of plots, it’s the tiny details that count towards making the bigger picture different from author to author and book to book.

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Higher up the same lane in a freezing fog that was as thick as snow on the trees

What’s even better is that those tiny details can tell us a lot about the character experiencing them. Everyone notices different things depending on the situation and their background. A city girl and a country one will react to the smells and sights of a farmyard differently, a hero and heroine might react differently to a bathroom in need of a good clean. The words they use, the descriptions, especially the comparisons they draw and the memories that are invoked are deeply personal and can tell us so much about the character as well as the location. It can tell us what they are experiencing right now as they look around them – that patched old sofa covered in dog hairs will look disgusting or inviting depending upon how exhausted or in danger the character is.

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That same stretch of road in January sun, over a mile from home and our cat still accompanying us

The recollections can also be incredibly important. I’ve been guilty in the past of writing pages of backstory and then having to cut it. I still let myself sometimes because just thinking about a character or what has shaped them isn’t enough, I have to start physically listing it on the page or keyboard and then it comes alive and my fingers can’t keep up with scenes and anecdotes that have made that person who they are. Those passages will never end up in the finished work, but they are there for me and they inform everything else I write about him or her, I may allude to them, or show a brief snapshot of that moment in how they react to something in the present.

Which brings me back to Ingelstone Common. Last week, it all looked unfamiliar and then I recognised the very first road junction I came to; I hadn’t been that way since I was fourteen or fifteen and I had been on a horse, not in a car, but I knew it at once. The rest of the journey was one of crystal clear memories: the pace where my sister fell and broke her collar bone, the wide grass verge that provided the only place to canter for miles, the corner where there used to be a pig farm and our pony could smell that distinctive odour long before we did and would start snorting and shying. There were houses where I remembered fields, and houses that I had seen being built now looked tired with the paint peeling on window frames, the small village shop where we sometimes bought ice lollies was now a house. As I changed down to third gear for a particularly steep and winding hill I relived the moment that a thunderstorm passed over me and my horse and the thunder and lightning happened in the same split second.

I live in the countryside where every other house seems to be called the Old Forge, Old Schoolhouse or Old Post Office; on that drive I passed the Old Bakery and felt even older as I recalled how we used to drive there on a Saturday morning and bypass the shop to go into the actual bakery and wait for the fresh loaves to come out of the huge ovens in the wall. I remember flour covering everything and the dim light coming through ancient leaded windows and the stifling heat. We had to wait for the bread to be cool enough to eat but it was best when still warm and soft and springy, by the afternoon, the top of a cottage loaf would have hardened to iron and when you bit it the crust would shatter and lacerate the roof of your mouth. I knew the bakery closed years ago due to the cost of modernising it, but it was still a slight shock to realise I am old enough to remember a place before it became the “Old” in a house name.

If I put any or all of the above in a book it would add colour, but also read like too much irrelevant padding/backstory, all it tells you is that I’m past the first flush of youth and I used to ride a lot in the British countryside. But just one anecdote alluded to, or given a wider context can add vital individuality to a fictional character. If the heroine knows her fear of thunderstorms is irrational, but only recalls later riding through that storm and her horse nearly bolting in fear; it gives her more motivation and rationalises her dread.

So my trip down an accidental memory lane made me think of my writing and back stories, about picking the right detail, and how when it’s done with skill I can read the same authors telling me tales of falling in love again and again because every time they show me something different and make me want to take that journey with them.

About me

I can’t remember a time when books weren’t part of my life. IMG_4814 (2)Our house was full of books and my parents always read to us at bedtime  – Mary Plain books, Winnie the Pooh and Narnia are those I remember best. Once I learned to read myself I was addicted; I kept books in the downstairs toilet cupboard to read before school, tried to hide books on my lap under a napkin during breakfast and read under the bedclothes with a torch at night – although that may have been partly due to thinking that books like the Famous Five ought to be read by torchlight.

Before long I was continuing these stories in my head and then writing them down – although to be honest plotting, drawing maps and making lists of characters was always more fun than actually writing the story (still is if I’m not careful). My other early passion was ponies and as soon as I was old enough I would walk to meet the mostly tame ponies living on the hill above us. I had devoured every pony book in the library – including the technical ones – long before I was allowed to have riding lessons (and as with so many things in life learned that theory and practice are very different).

Pony stories (I had over 300 by my teens) were what I wanted to write, and then I discovered Mills and Boon books and the similar pattern to so many of my beloved horse books captured me – the heroine was pony-less at the start, would work hard, learn, take many falls, almost lose hope (and maybe the pony) and finally triumph at the local show. They weren’t all like that obviously, and I’m not saying I compare heroes to horses – although a good ride is essential – but the familiarity and endless variety within a relatively compact book inspired and captivated me.

I actually submitted my first attempt at a romance to M&B when I should have been doing A level homework – and hence failed most of them and my book was deservedly rejected (it was, I now realise, simply a first draft with no plot, no conflict and no black moment. All it really had was a nice description of the Greek island of Cos).

My next submission was over ten years later and its rejection led me to join the RNA (Romantic Novelist’s Association) and to look on line for advice. Finding the forums with their seemingly infinite amount of help and advice in the community at harlequin.com changed my writing life, not least in directing me to the Silhouette Intimate Moments line of book (published here in the UK as Silhouette Sensation) later as Silhouette Romantic Suspense and now Harlequin Romantic Suspense. This is where my reading and writing tastes are now happiest.

I grew up in a small town on the edge of the Cotswolds and early memories and photos show lots of walks involving hills, woods and mud. After a degree in Ancient and Medieval History at Cardiff University (with too few excursions further into Wales and plenty of mud on archaeological digs), then 15 years living and working in Oxford (pretty, too flat and good for murders if you believe fiction and drama) I have ended up in the wilds of Worcestershire. Again within tantalising distance of proper Welsh mountains and where as soon as you walk out of the door you have to go up or down a steep hill. And where there’s mud.

I live with my partner Dr J who is a University lecturer and our two small exhausting daughters. Plus a ginger fiend in the shape of a cat and her ever expanding collection of corpses. We are lucky enough to have a garden that attracts amazing wildlife, mostly of the bird variety but bats as well and at night we are kept awake by the cry of owls, deer and foxes (not all of which are prey for the cat – yet).

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I have been using one photo as my on line presence for at least four years and it’s therefore a bit out of date, I certainly have more chins, wrinkles and grey hair now but am still wearing the same walking outfit. Here’s the complete picture with the first peak of Cadir Idris in the background, the one at the top is from a year earlier at my best friend’s wedding and is probably the last time I wore make up or earrings.