Could you write a squirrel killer?

I can never see the body of an animal at the side of the road without terrible pangs of sadness and regret – no matter that their death had nothing to do with me. I know that I’m soppy about all things small and furry, or fluffy or feathered (except spiders, and the mouse that ate my crème egg, and the magpie that killed a baby sparrow – ok, there’s quite a few exceptions) but many drivers must pass roadkill without a second thought, many probably don’t see them.

I started reflecting on this after seeing a dead squirrel while I was driving along thinking about a character in my current wip who has elevated himself from a bit part to being fairly vital to the story. The brief sketch of him I had in my head was fine for his previous role but now I need to know more and be sure he’s not a cardboard cut-out or nothing more than a hastily assembled handful of characteristics – or worst of all a harmful stereotype – just because he’s a villain doesn’t mean that that that’s all he is.

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I read some marvellous advice recently that I heard before, but when you see it a couple of times close together it really sinks in – although that also means I have no idea whom to give credit to. It’s most usually applied to villains as a way to avoid clichés and it’s to simply remember that in his (or her) own story, the villain thinks they are the hero. They don’t sit around twirling their moustache and throwing puppies on the fire to flag up how evil they are – they get home on time to have dinner with their wife, take the dog for a walk and read their kids a bedtime story. They aren’t always in their lair plotting world domination, or if they are, they should have a better reason that wanting to destroy things – you only have to have look at prominent people in power at the moment to see that many of them (and their supporters) truly believe that they are doing things for good reasons and are making the world a better place; they see themselves as the hero saving the world, while we see them as destroying our future.

This advice of course holds for every character in a book, they are the hero of their own story. Sometimes this is obvious in a series where past and future protagonists show up; the fact that the author knows everything about them shines through, their voice and motivation are assured, their physical description is neither heavy handed nor sketchy or inconsistent, they leap off the page (occasionally to the detriment to of the supposed lead characters.) I’ve been guilty of having speaking characters who could just be farmer 1 and farmer 2 but that’s what later drafts are for, fleshing out those people and thinking what their story might be. It won’t impact the current story at all, but their voice will be more authentic. Even the person who shows up to deliver one piece of important news and is never seen again – we may not even know their name but they have a full life off page waiting for them to return.

Jennifer Crusie wrote a blog post some years ago when she was trying to nail down a character – I have searched for it to no avail, I think it was on a blog for one of the collaborative novels she wrote and looking for it means I have lost most of this morning reading the archives at Argh Ink, I’d almost forgotten how much great writing advice was there, along with possibly even greater humour. The gist of the post as I remember it was that Jenny asked “what would this character do if they hit a squirrel with their car?” I remember thinking “well I’d be horrified and upset – who wouldn’t? What character could I write who’d not feel that way? They’d be a monster.” Jenny went on to say that her character would feel remorse, but (possibly, I can’t quite remember) also annoyance and it gave her the key to that protagonist as being a reckless driver – not dangerous or cruel or unkind, just going a little too fast and not looking ahead for the pitfalls on the road, or in life.

I hadn’t used that particular device before when thinking about a character but it’s been invaluable this week. Many writers talk about interviewing their characters or have long lists of their likes and dislikes and taste in music, clothes, food etc. I have tended to plunder their pasts to see what made them this way, to ensure their motivation is strong enough, and I wrote about how what was on their book shelves or how they decorate their room can show the reader so much, rather than telling them.

I would never have thought I could write a character who wouldn’t care if they killed a defenceless animal by accident, even though I have written villains who have killed humans (always for what they think are valid reasons.) Maybe it’s the senseless nature of hitting an animal with a car, it can’t always be avoided but then most people would feel remorse or guilt. But what about the person who has just had such terrible news that they see nothing but the goal towards which they are driving? The parent dealing with squabbling children in the back seats? The lorry driver concentrating on some precious or fragile load? And conversely, just because an assassin is on their way to their next kill, they might still feel sadness or remorse if an animal starts across their path, as might the ruthless CEO who has just axed 500 jobs – or will he be more worried about his paintwork and coldly inform his chauffeur to clean the car as soon as possible?

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There are many questions or scenarios to consider when fleshing out a fictional character and Jenny Crusie’s example has always stayed with me, even if I hadn’t used it. But as I pondered my secondary character and how vital he is making himself to the plot, I wondered how he would react if a squirrel darted in front of his car? I already know that his key emotions when dealing with my hero and heroine are selfishness and carelessness – the sort of person then who might not give a squished squirrel a second thought – but no, I knew that he would care, would be frustrated and annoyed at the incident, angry at the waste of life (even though he’s a man who shoots game birds competitively and for food.) Why would he care about a squirrel more than the effect he is having on my lead characters?

Selfish and careless; how he has become like that is not as important as what happens when he sees himself like that, when he finds out how others see him and what he has become by tiny steps – he doesn’t want to be an accidental squirrel killer, he wants to be the one who stops and takes it to a refuge to be healed – no, more than that, that’s what he thought he was, he does a huge amount for charities and good causes, but in his day to day life he’s forgotten to care. The book literally ends with him stripping naked, remembering the man he was, the one he thought he was, and the one he plans to become, discarding the trappings of power and revealing another truth he has hidden from himself, and from us. And meaning I have to write his story as well now.

So I have gained lot of character background and new insights into my villain, and therefore new thoughts about how he impacts my hero and heroine and how they will react.  Everyone’s’ goals and motivations have been sharpened and more focussed as a result, and I’ve gained a sequel. All from looking at a deceased squirrel. Maybe its death wasn’t totally in vain.

 

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Finding your daily squirrel

It is the little moments, sometimes almost unnoticed as they wiz by, that make up a life. And a year. Globally 2016 wasn’t the greatest (nor the worst) but I wanted to remember the positives that happened personally. When I worked in Oxford I had many commutes over the years; but whether walking, sitting in a traffic jam or waiting at a bus stop, the day could be immeasurably brightened by the smallest or silliest of things. The easiest was a squirrel, anytime, anywhere, even rooting through a bin. When you walk the same streets twice a day you can see the infinitesimal changes in gardens and trees, tracking the growth of furry magnolia buds in spring, or hearing the scuffling of your feet get louder every day as more leaves fall in autumn. I’ve been very lucky to work in places where I can walk through parks or have to cross a river to get to work; the sight of tiny brown ducklings makes me smile just remembering it. Little positives are everywhere and finding the ones that lift your spirit every day, is, I think, one of the secrets of life.

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So, after a classic Tangent Alley overlong opening paragraph, here are a few of the things that I had almost forgotten made 2016 sparkle amid the tears and fears. (Quite a few of which are illustrated here in my what we did on our holidays post.)

  • Climbing the first Welsh One Hundred for a few years. My partner Dr J has a book about the highest one hundred mountains in Wales, and in our first year of dating we added several more to his list of those achieved. Small children have hindered such adventurous walks and climbs for a while so this was a great achievement, especially as our 6 year old walked all the way herself (the 2 and a half year old was in a back pack much of the way.)
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The Gruffalo’s Child climbed with us
  • Lots of days on beaches –I think of this as mostly for the kids but I had far too much fun building, and destroying, dams on beaches this year.
  • Many ice creams, even ones that make your tongue go blue.
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Not my tongue
  • Many picnics, in woods, up mountains, in the garden. Everything tastes better outdoors and this was the year I finally got to appreciate tuna mayonnaise.
  • When we gave the girls the choice of what to do on a day out our eldest said “Mummy likes castles and waterfalls best.” I am lucky to have a generous daughter with a great memory – but then  I do go on about it a lot I suspect. This year has indeed been  very rich in castles.

As for waterfalls, I was treated to a wonderful wet walk at Nantcol in Wales, where I fell in a bog and got filthy feet and loved every minute. I looked at the pictures recently and wondered why I was grinning like a fool in every picture, then I remembered, I was having such a perfect day and wanted to be sure the family knew it. It’s a little alarming to realise my happiest face looks so deranged, but hey, they seem to love me anyway.

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  • Having other people be happy is of course one of the very best things that can happen, that’s partly why I think of picnics as being such a highlight of the year; the glee on a small child’s face when you show them you brought their favourite snack is an utter joy. Who knew scotch eggs and pickled onion flavoured crisps were so valuable?

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Sadly this year hasn’t featured as much reading as I would like. It started well with my passion for ancient Greek dram still in full flow, but then I realised those precious two hours when my youngest slept would be better used to write rather than read. As I said,  you have to give up something for writing  and this year it was my reading. I don’t regret it, but I do miss my books and am determined to find some more reading time (tv watching has already gone by the wayside so I think it will have to be bath time, I don’t like showers but they are a bit quicker – or else I have to get used to reading in the bath again. Since I needed reading glasses the steaming up problem and condensation running down my nose has meant it’s not as easy to lose myself in a  book while the bath water goes cold.) Oops, this is supposed to be a positive look back at the year, luckily for me, the few books I did read were excellent and I plan to blog about them later this month.

Speaking of reading though, this was the year I discovered Gimlets, all due to Raymond Chandler. I enjoyed rather more than I should have on sunny evenings, and actually, having just bemoaned the lack of reading time (I think my memory is biased because I’m still reading two books I started in the summer holidays, I know I’m a slow reader but this is ridiculous) I did have a golden patch of reading in the dusky evenings after tea. One memorable night I had to turn on the outside lights as it was so dark but still warm in the garden – sadly the rustling noses by the door when I went in for a top up of my drink put me off staying out too late; mice and gin don’t mix.

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A highlight of any year is a trip to London to see my best friend and visit the theatre. This year even more people will envy me when I confess that I saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, all due to the organisational skill and generosity of my friend gemmaw700. That trip also deserves its own post, partly due to my first visit to the revamped Foyles where I could have happily spent the day, but also because I have only once before heard an entire theatre gasp in such shock as they did at one line of dialogue and I can’t remember the last time I cried so much with laughter as I did at one scene – the fact it involved a library was just an added bonus.

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A few other moments that I have been reminded of when looking for photos to accompany this:

  • How many people ever actually have the cliché happen to them of a crab nibbling their toes? I did!
  • And I saw a snow leopard! (Not at the same time as the crab, that would be quite a dream. The leopard was at Dudley Zoo, awaiting a mate, and looking beautifully healthy and content.)
  • I went back to Avebury, one of my favourite places in the world.
  • I discovered  Dunraven Bay and castle, a new favourite place.
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Our broken dam flooding Dunraven beach

One major thing which has brought me pleasure, (and occasionally stress when I’m late, like this week, oops) has been finally starting a blog. OK, so I’m ten years behind other aspiring writers I mixed with back then, most of whom are now published. But the time was right for me in 2016; back then it would just have been another thing to distract me from writing and to then feel guilty and stressed about when it dwindled into nothingness. I haven’t quite stuck to my Thursday posting each week, but I’m still enjoying it and planning to continue.

The main personal achievement last year, and cause of a great amount of happiness and inner glowing, was that I finished writing a book. OK, the first draft. I have completed books before but this one has been written and – especially the last half – finished with such delight and a drive to get the story out there. It still needs work and I’m not happy with all of it, but the overall story and the characters and what they have to go through still move and excite me (rather than the “oh god I don’t know how to finish this book and can’t wait to see the back of these dammed people” feeling which did rather haunt the ending of a couple of previous manuscripts. These are people I want to revisit in editing and make sure I’m doing their story justice, every time I think of the final scene I feel full of trepidatious (is that not a word? It should be) hope and happiness.

None of these miniscule moments of happiness are meant to in any way diminish the things that went wrong in 2016 or the fact that so many people (individually and as nations) are facing an uncertain future. I’m just trying to remember for myself the little moments that make day to day life brighter and better and that give us hope. It’s why authors are continuing to write; because we all want those moments of escape, and the promise of love helping people to thrive. We’re all looking for our daily squirrel.

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