Reading as a Writer

Writers need to read. When successful authors give advice to aspiring authors, one thing that comes up again and again is the need to keep reading.

Fortunately for me, this is not a problem. Reading is second nature to me. I will read anything, and have, in the past, done just that. At work in the bookshop, I would read proofs of books I would never dream of buying, and I learnt how to skim read a novel out on the shop floor without anyone noticing. Even a rubbish book is better than no book.

However, between the demands of family, work and writing my own fiction, I don’t actually read that much these days. So when I do, I try to only read books that I know are well written. I don’t just want a decent story and interesting characters, I want beautifully crafted writing, with cliché-free combinations of words that give as much pleasure as the plot. I know enough about the literary fiction market to know which authors I am going to enjoy and admire. Sometimes the only surprise is that it took me so long to get around to reading some authors, such as William Boyd, Ian McEwan, Matthew Kneale, Colm Toibin and Anthony Trollope. It is a joy to finish a novel and know that that are other by that author to be enjoyed another day. There are some authors that I admire so much that it is almost painful to read them, knowing that their writing is so perfect and brilliant that I can never hope to put words together in the way they do. David Mitchell, Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantell, how I devour their books, rereading them over and over again, hoping to soak up their genius, but all I get is a uncomfortable reminder of how pedestrian my own writing is compared to theirs. A novel like Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End is a kind of exquisite torture; it is a miracle of a book but every page, every sentence is an example of the best kind of writing that I could never dream of achieving. And maybe I could console myself that these are experienced writers who have crafted their art over years of writing. But then I read Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, authors new to fiction, and it depresses me that they are so good, so perfect. They have already jumped into the game way ahead of what I can achieve. I’m not being modest; I know what I am capable of, and how my writing compares to theirs. It is a double-edged sword, to be able to recognise and appreciate outstanding writing. I wouldn’t want to live without good fiction, but oh my god, I wish more than anything that it was mine.

So it has been quite refreshing to recently read something that wasn’t so brilliant. I did something I never do anymore – I bought a novel in a bookshop by an author I’d never heard of, simply because it was recommended. I won’t say what it was, because that’s not important. The point is, it wasn’t that good. It wasn’t bad – it had an intriguing plot and I raced through it to find out how it ended – but it wasn’t especially well-written. It was rather clichéd, and as I went along, I was noting all the phrases that I wouldn’t have written, the kind of writing that I am trying to strip out of own work. And instead of despair, I was reassured that my writing is better. Of course that’s just my opinion and I could be wrong, but it’s given me a new perspective on my writing – I might not know how to be a brilliant writer, but I do know how to not be a bad writer. If I have any confidence in my work, it is that I am not a bad writer. So surely there must be a place for me in the fiction market.

And here is my advice to aspiring authors (including myself) – read good fiction, but also read bad fiction! Only by learning to recognise what you don’t like will you know what to avoid in your own writing.

DSCN3248.JPG

The past – so floppy and unsubstantial

DSCN2678.JPG

 

As part of that essential decluttering I had planned, I turned up a box full of old floppy discs. I hadn’t actually forgotten about them, but they haven’t crossed my mind for several years. As an archive, they are not very satisfying; I don’t think we have a device in the house that will actually run them, so their contents are locked away. Plus, I know that they only contain early versions of work that is either saved elsewhere or has been edited and rewritten, nothing lost or forgotten. If I were able to read any of it, I would probably cringe over the quality And yet they represent such productive period of my writing that I am struggling to get rid of them along with the rest of the clutter. After all, I still have all the old notebooks that I also used for writing, and I wouldn’t dream of throwing them away. And at the time, these discs were really important to me. The labelling hints at that – multiple back-ups, chapter lists, dates. After all the years of handwritten or typed work, I loved writing on a computer, but I was paranoid about losing work. Writing on a computer was so much more productive than handwritten work, but at the same time, it had the potential for bigger losses, either by human error, or the dreaded loss of a computer by theft or fire. I once even gave my fiancée a back-up disc to keep at his house in case of the worst case scenario! I am much more relaxed about it these days – or should that be complacent? All my work is now stored in the virtual cloud, available through multiple devices, and some of it openly accessible on the internet, thanks to KDP and this website. But how safe is that? There are still worst case scenarios that could extinguish all my words that are so terrifying that I don’t like to think about them. (Have you read The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell? He writes a vision of the future that is both nightmarish and believable.) All I will have left then are the notebooks and the few hard copies I ever printed out. The Most Beloved Boy has never been printed out ever; it could disappear completely, only existing in my head. But I suppose that will be the least of my problems if that ever happens. And the floppy discs will still be useless. All the same, I don’t think I will bin them yet. Maybe they can go back into the loft for another ten years.

End of term, beginning of summer

As of this week, I am a free woman. The college course I started last September is over. Two days ago, I attended the last session and handed in my portfolio. Most of it has been marked already, so barring any minor rewrites in the last unit, the work is done. And it has been a lot of work – I don’t think I did this much work for my degree! The completed portfolio, fat and chunky with all my writing, was very satisfying, and I have enjoyed putting my words to another subject I love. But now my words are my own again. I can use them how I choose and write only what I want write. What shall I do first?

Well, obviously, I am writing this blog first. Writing the blogs has been the one thing I have kept up, and I am very glad that I did. It provided a little recreation for my brain, a chance to play and explore away from the world of supporting leaching and learning. When the complications of school policies and the horrors of safeguarding got too much, there was always a blog to write. At a time when only one portfolio was important, it reminded me that I have another portfolio, a collection of work in its varying finished and unfinished states, and no-one can take that away from me. Whatever happens next in my future career, I will always be a writer, because I have written novels and have ideas for more. And now I can write my blog without feeling guilty or anxious – like now, sitting up in bed on a Saturday morning.

But what next? Well, there are still all the usual jobs to do. The house needs a good clean, the ironing pile is horrendous, there are berries growing in the garden that need turning into jam, the kids need new clothes for the summer, and old clothes must be cleared from drawers to make room for new clothes. That’s fine, I have plenty of time for those things now. I would even enjoy a marathon ironing session, with a DVD boxset, and the only thing I need to worry about is choosing between a Lord of the Rings film or working my way through Firefly again. That’s not a chore, that’s a privilege!

And of course, there are quite a few books I want to read. I usually have one or two books on the go, or three or four; even this year, I have not been able to resist. I read Portrait of a Lady to the end for the first time since I bought it when I was a student, and was very glad I did. I heard something by Matt Haig on the radio and just had to buy the book and read it for myself. And despite my good intentions of saving David Mitchell for the summer, I just couldn’t say no to Black Swan Green – but as a perfect rendition of how awful education was in the eighties, that counted as research! The last few weeks, I have been confining myself to The Famous Five, quick and easy escapism which wouldn’t distract me too much. But now I can think about the growing pile of books that I have been dutifully ignoring. After all, writers need to read just as much as they need to write.

And then? Will there still be time for writing? Yes of course, because the summer holidays are just two weeks away. Six whole weeks of freedom. It’s not just for children. Not only is it a break from work but it’s a break from the washing and ironing of school uniform, and making the packed lunches every morning, and having to nag the kids to do homework/get dressed for school/pack school bags etc. My kids are old enough now to entertain themselves during the holidays – in fact, they actually prefer it and moan when I suggest alternatives that drag them away from their devices. So this summer, I intend to let them have as much screen time as they want, so I can spend time at my laptop. I already have a plan. I need to do another edit on The Most Beloved Boy; I am aware of some mistakes in the edition on Kindle, and as I’m going to have to go through the whole novel to correct them, I will probably end up polishing up other bits as I go along. Not a rewrite, just a re-edit. I’m looking forward to it.

And if after all the ironing, reading, rewriting, there’s still any time left, I might just start writing a new novel. There is an idea that has been taking hold, another old idea that has been quietly waiting, dormant but not forgotten. Now its turn has come. I’ve been making notes, adding new plot lines, and falling in love with old characters again. Oh yes, I shall definitely find time to start writing again. It’s time to turn this little laptop back to its original purpose…

20180707_133108

 

 

No Such Cold Thing

In my last blog, I wrote about doing Nano Wrimo and writing a novel in thirty days. I started that thirty day challenge knowing that I was writing a novel called No Such Cold Thing, which is important because, like my earlier novel Have You Got That Book? this was another novel that started with the title. Coming up with a title for a novel that is already in progress can be quite hard, but coming up with titles for novels that are never going to be written is a speciality of mine. If I had kept a record of all those titles, it would read like a library of novels, all with such fantastic names that you would wish they had actually been written. If only there was some way of selling them to other writers – how much would you pay for a great title and the bones of a plot? Any takers?

This particular title comes from a poem. If I tell you that it is a poem called The Flower by the metaphysical poet George Herbert and was written in the early part of the 17th Century, I’m going to sound much more highbrow and learned than I have any claim to. In truth, I never really liked the metaphysical poets when they came up on my English Literature degree. I only came across the poem much later when the choir I sing with learnt a song which set the words of it to music. At one rehearsal while we were learning the song, I looked at the line “Grief melts away like snow in May, as if there were no such cold thing.” And I thought, hmm, that would make a great title for a novel.

What happened next was one of those wonderful thunderclap moments, when two ideas and one glorious coincidence all came together in perfect harmony. As I said in my previous blog, this was a time when I had finished a first draft of The Most Beloved Boy and wanted a new project. I had in mind that it would be nice to write a novel that my children could read. My eldest daughter was eleven and she loved to read, so I would write a children’s novel for her. I even had a good story to work on, an old idea gathered from my trick of turning every day events into narrative. This came from picking raspberries in the garden of my childhood home, which had inspired a story about a girl living in a big mansion, who makes friends with the gypsies who live in the grounds, and how she tries to help them stay on the land when her evil uncle wants to evict them. It was another of those old ideas that had wormed its way into my memory and clung on, getting itself written down in a notebook in 1997. It was the perfect idea for my next project, a historical novel for children.

Then came the glorious coincidence. As the choir practiced The Flower, I daydreamed about a novel called No Such Cold Thing, wondering what it might be about, and if it might fit with a historical children’s novel. I knew nothing about George Herbert, but I thought it might be nice to use the poem if I could. So I looked George Herbert up on Wikipedia and discovered that as well as having a fairly successful career as a poet, he had been a clergy man in the early decades of the 17th Century. He had been the vicar of a parish near Salisbury, and his tomb is still in the church there. It wasn’t very inspiring, except for the location. One of the key features of my story was a rural mansion, where my heroine was going to come and live following the death of her parents. If you’re thinking that sounds a bit like The Secret Garden, you’re right, it is exactly like that. But instead of Yorkshire, I saw how I could set my story in Wiltshire. It was going to be about a fictional family, but with marital connections to the Herbert family, descended from none other than George Herbert. (I made all this up too, by the way, there was minimal research involved – apologies to anyone who might actually be descended from George Herbert!) And that detail was the spark that lit this novel up. It was unbelievably perfect. The poem is about trusting in God to heal pain and grief, like the flowers that disappear in the winter but return in spring, no worse off for their sojourn underground. My fictional family, the Levinsons, are locked in grief and mourning, not able to move on from a tragedy of several decades ago. My heroine, Kitty, comes from a branch of the family that migrated to America. I decided to not make her an orphan after all, but have her come to live with her English family when her father has to go and work in Alaska. She is a plucky, intelligent girl, who loves poetry and is thrilled to discover that she is related to a famous poet. She is not so thrilled with the Levinsons; she doesn’t understand them and they don’t understand her. She is very pleased to make friends with a young gypsy boy, and takes their side in the debate about their forthcoming eviction. As heir to the house and estate, she wants them to be able to stay but knows that by the time she inherits, they will have been evicted by her uncle. Somehow, it is up to her to change her uncle’s mind.

These were the bones of plot that I began with in November 2014. The only planning I had in place were the characters. I had worked out the family tree and Kitty’s place in the chain of inheritance. I had made some slight changes to the Levinson family, establishing them as a sick great-grandfather, a stern great-aunt who had very fixed ideas about children staying seen but not heard, and I had replaced the a evil uncle with a kind but weak great-uncle. The connection to George Herbert was through the great-grandfather’s late wife. The other characters were the gypsies, a boy called Tam who Kitty befriends, and his great-grandfather, who was promised the right to camp on the land for the term of his life but now he is old and frail and the agreement ends when he dies. For Kitty, helping the gypsies seems to be linked to the mystery of what happened to the Levinson family that caused so much grief, and if she can solve that, she might just find a way to save the gypsy camp. But that was as much as I knew when I started. I honestly had no idea what the mystery was going to be, or how a twelve year-old girl was going to convince her family to change their minds and let the gypsies stay. Well, I had some ideas, but they were flimsy, like translucent ghosts, nothing more than suggestions lurking in the shadows, only glimpsed in the corner of an eye. The thing about Nana Wrimo is that you don’t have time to stop and plan. But as I wrote, the characters began to grow, and some ideas began to gain strength, naturally developing by themselves. The character of Toby, the pathetic great-uncle, took shape in ways I had never expected. I developed a back story for him that was so tragic that Kitty, and myself, couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. But then it is his grief that has caused the stagnation in the family and it his attitude that causes Kitty the most problems. He was a very interesting character to write, and creating him drove the narrative forward, as he was sometimes nice to Kitty and sometimes frustrating. His tragedy was the mystery, a simple tale of loss, not such a mystery after all. And through it all, the poem weaved its beautiful words, echoing with the themes of love and death that were emerging in the story. I even managed to combine it with Hiawatha, which American Kitty tries to teach to her new English friends. In the end, it is the poetry that guides Kitty when things seem most bleak. The pressure of writing 1666 words a day took me to a climax that could not have been more perfect if I had planned it for months. Not only did I finish Nano Wrimo with 50,000 words and a complete children’s novel, but also a novel I was extremely proud of.

And I’m happy to say that my daughter did read it, and liked it very much. At least, she said she did. Of course, it’s perfectly possible that was just being kind to her old mum, but her word was enough for me. Once she had read it, I wanted it to be available for anyone to read; even though I wrote it for children, I think it’s an interesting enough story for adults to enjoy too. It’s for sale on Kindle alongside my two adult novels. You could decide for yourself – was she just humouring me?

No Such Cold Thing – Taster

Screenshot (11).png

Nano Wrimo

These days, I love editing. I think I like it just as much as the process of writing original content. To me, it is just part of the process. I wouldn’t dream that anything I wrote could not be improved. These days, I edit as I am going along. When I read back, I can see where I was trying to fill a gap, and realise what I should I done instead. If I don’t like the direction a scene is going, I can change it and make it behave. I take great pleasure in slashing superfluous waffle or over heightened emotions. Sometimes, you just don’t know if something works until it’s written; if it doesn’t, it’s not a problem, because it can all be reworked and rewritten. A first draft is always just an opportunity for improvement, as is the second draft, and the third.

The problem is, THIS NEVER ENDS. There will never be a time when I think “Yep, that’s perfect.” Even if I did think it for a while, I would soon change my mind. This might make for better writing, but what’s the point of that if no-one ever reads it. There has to be a finished product for people to read. And to achieve a finished product, a writer has to get to a cut-off point, where they accept that it is the best it can be at that time and stop. There is no way of knowing when that point should be, and a writer might get it wrong. But they still have to make that decision.

Once I had finished the first draft of The Most Beloved Boy, I instantly started rewriting it. It had taken me so long to write that the beginning didn’t really match the second half of the novel, as I had developed new themes and ideas, and had honed the style I was going for. It was a pleasure to go back and make it the novel I wanted it to be. And I could have go on with that forever. However, with the goal of publishing on Kindle, I knew it had to be brought to an end eventually. It was also getting in the way of me starting any new projects, as it was consuming all my attention and imagination. I needed a break from it, but was finding that very hard to do. But then I discovered Nano Wrimo.

Actually, I was already aware of Nano Wrimo. If you haven’t heard if it, it is the National Novel Writing Month, a scheme that anybody can join and commit themselves to using the month of November to write 50,000 words. It’s quite a big commitment, requiring an average of 1666 words a day. When you sign up, you can track your progress on charts and see encouraging statistics. It is a great way to incentivize writing. If you reach the target by the end of the month, you get a certificate. More importantly, you have 50,000 words of writing, which might be a completed novel or at least a big chunk of novel to continue working on. For people who have always wanted to write a novel but didn’t know how to start, or never got around to it, it is a brilliant kick-start. However, I will admit that I was dismissive of the scheme. After all, 50,000 words was nothing to me. I had already written three novels much longer than that and I hadn’t needed encouragement to do that. I was also sceptical that 50,000 words written in just 30 days could be any good; one of the only ways to reach the target is write continuously and never go back and edit. What’s the point of 50,000 words of drivel?

Then, in the autumn of 2014, I realised that I did need incentive and encouragement – incentive to stop editing The Most Beloved Boy and encouragement to start something new. I already had the idea, I just needed to get on with it. So I went to the Nano Wrimo website and signed up. I was instantly hooked. You create a profile and add a synopsis of the novel you are planning to write. You can read other writers’ profiles. There are message boards where you can link up with other writers who are doing similar projects. You can make buddies, and encourage each other along (or compete, if you are that way inclined). There are inspirational blogs from successful authors, with advice and encouragement. And the charts are addictive; watching the daily word count go up is intensely satisfying.

Screenshot (8)

So 1st November came around and I started writing a brand new novel. It was another old idea that new inspiration had given fresh life to. I will say more about the novel itself in my next blog, because I want to concentrate on this new way of writing. And it was new and exciting to me. I had the basic plot of the novel mapped out before I started, knowing how it was going to end and what themes it was going to deal with. But how it took shape sometimes surprised me, and the need to get something written introduced new ideas that I hadn’t been expecting. It was quite a challenge to write 1666 words every day – even for me, and I wasn’t working at that time and had all day to myself. It really was a case of writing, writing, writing, and not worrying too much about the quality. And I realised that it doesn’t really matter, as there is plenty of opportunity to go back at the end and edit. As I said before, you don’t always know if something works until it’s written. The point of Nano Wrimo is to get something written. After having all the time in the world to dilly dally over my writing, it was good to feel a deadline, and to have the urgency of having to write every day, like a job. I was determined to finish; my pride in myself as a writer would not permit me to fail. So I plugged away, making steady progress every day and reached the 50,000 word target by day 27. WOOHOO!

Needless to say, I now have a completely new opinion of Nana Wrimo. I think it’s a brilliant idea and I would recommend it, to anyone who ever had an idea, or anyone who imagined their name on the spine of a book, or even went so far as fantasising about bestseller charts and signing books in Waterstone’s. Because to get to that stage, you have to have written something, and 50,000 words is a very good start. And it’s fun. I have done it twice now, and a Nano Wrimo camp. If October comes around this year and I still haven’t started a new novel, I should sign myself up again and do it again.

Nano Wrimo

Screenshot (9).png

 

Nothing could ever stop me writing, right?

 

Scan_20180317 (3).png

Writing has always been not just a part of my life but a part of me; ideas come spontaneously, and the desire to sit down and write is not just compulsive but intensely enjoyable. It comes so naturally that I have adopted it as my motto – the only thing I cannot imagine is NOT writing. I was writing all the way through my GCSEs, A-Levels and Degree. When I started work, I would use my lunch hours to fill notebooks with scribbles. There were plenty of manual tasks that allowed my brain to wander off and create narrative. I once found myself thinking that if something terrible happened to my nearest and dearest, my writing would provide something to live for. Even if I was never published, I would always write. Nothing could get in the way of that.

And then I had children.

It sounds like such a cliché that it goes against all my instincts to write it. But between the birth of my first child and the day when my third child started pre-school, I wrote nothing. That’s a period of seven years. Seven years! I’ve never stopped to add it up before and it has shocked me. How did I let that happen?

Well, obviously, I was pretty busy being a mum. Three children are pretty time-consuming. I had the privilege of staying at home to look after them full-time, something I really loved. Those days of going to the park, and playdates, and games and reading stories were great fun and I enjoyed being able to spend so much time with my children when they were young. I wouldn’t change that for the world. Besides, it wasn’t the lack of time that stopped me writing. I’m sure if I had really needed to, I would have found the time to get something written, just like I had done all my life when I was supposed to be busy with other things. The truth is that the reason I stopped writing was because I just wasn’t having any ideas. My head was so full of the children that there just wasn’t room for ideas. Children are hungry for attention and they even consume your thoughts. When I was with them, there was no opportunity for idle daydreaming, no paths to those narratives that had been the lifeblood of my ideas. And being a stay-at-home mum meant I was with my children on a permanent basis for all those seven years. So I finally learnt the one thing that could stop me writing – no time to think.

Then in 2011, when my youngest child was 2, he started going to preschool, while his older sisters were at school. Just two mornings a week, but they were my first regular child-free hours in seven years. And I started writing instantly. I even had a new novel lined up ready to go, because by this time, some ideas were starting to creep back in. Rather surprisingly, the one idea that had come to the fore was a very old idea, one that I would never have expected to find so interesting. It was the story inspired by the marbles that I wrote about in my last blog, that I had dismissed because it was fantasy, and I didn’t write fantasy anymore. But somewhere amidst the fun of parks and parties and painting, the idea of turning this story from fantasy to a historical novel had broken through the blockade. I don’t remember how or when, probably because I wasn’t expecting it to happen. Some random chance made it happen just at the moment when I was getting my thinking time back and I took advantage of it. I was hungry to start writing again and used my free hours to write and write. As my son’s hours at pre-school increased, so did my writing time. When he started school full-time, I was able to write non-stop between the hours of 9 and 3, and that is what I did. It had always been my dream to write full-time and now I was actually doing that.

Even with all that time, it took me a while to write The Most Beloved Boy. When I began, I expected it to be quite a short novel, ending at one particular point. Then another idea came to me, one of those ideas that can’t be unimagined, which added a completely new section. So I kept writing. I was also beginning to feel that my writing was reaching a new level of maturity. I have read so much fiction by now that I know what I like and what I don’t, and I was applying this to my own writing, working harder on the style, being ruthless with editing. I finished the first draft in 2014, a whopping 39 chapters, the longest thing I had ever written. I instantly began rewriting it, and I worked on editing it for another two years. And when it was done, I knew it was the best thing I had ever written. Maybe that break of seven years had been good for me.

And other things had changed since writing my first novels. The days of printing off a manuscript and passing it around friends and family were behind me, thanks to the wonders of Kindle Direct Publishing. I researched this option while I was still writing the novel and was thrilled to learn that anyone can upload a novel to Kindle and publish on-line, for free! Even if I only did it to make it easier for friends and family to read, it was worth doing. I think writing the novel with this endgame in mind really helped, because there is nothing more soul-destroying than the futility of trying to find a publisher. I know there are thousands of people out there writing, and publishers can’t publish everything, but why should finding a publisher be harder than actually writing the novel itself? I was sure my novel deserved a chance to be out there, and finally I was going to give it that chance. So in October 2016, The Most Beloved Boy went live on Kindle. So far, I have sold eleven copies and made a grand total of £3.19 in royalties! Am I disappointed? Hell no, I’m only just beginning!

PS –  Here’s the link to The Most Beloved Boy on Amazon –  Publications  It only costs £1. You can even read the first three chapters for free!

 

 

Where do Ideas Come From – Part Two

I’ve come back to this subject because I know this is something that authors get asked about a lot; when my bookshop hosted an author event and some member of the audience asked “where do you get your ideas from?” I would inwardly groan and wish they would ask something more original. But actually, I think writers like to talk about where their ideas come from. I know I have enjoyed using this blog to track the origins of my stories, trying to pinpoint where that very first trickle of an idea came from, like trying to find the source of a stream and then following its course as it grew. Some origins are easily traced, like a spring bursting from under a rock. Others are more like raindrops, gradually gathering and filling an unexpected pocket. Sometimes it easy to identify where the water come from, other times it remains a mystery. There is no answer to the question, and I suspect that the rambling analysis might be of more interest to the writer than to anyone else. However, I have one more thing to say on the subject, about the origins of one very specific idea because it is a rather interesting story in itself. Basically, it starts with a jar of marbles.

Yes, marbles, the little glass spheres of differing size and colour. I had a nice collection when I was a child. But I didn’t play the traditional games with them, like you were supposed to. My marbles were too special for just that, and like all my toys, a way into a narrative. I gave names to my favourites, and they began to take on personalities. They were always brave and heroic, saving their friends and family from potential disasters. These little adventures grew into epic sagas as the marble collection became a sophisticated community with back stories and cultural hierarchies. They were grouped together according to size and colour to denote their family and some were more important than others. There was a royal family, who were bigger than all the others and had matching colours. The smaller marbles were divided by the type of glass; some were clear glass, others were opaque milky white. The milky marbles were particularly striking, having streaks of vibrant colour swirled into the white glass. They came in groups of dark red, sky blue, yellow and indigo. To me, this marked their family and it became a very dominant feature in their society. Family groups liked to stick together, but the best story lines came from cross-colour relationships.

My favourites mostly came from the milkys because their colouring made them easy to identify individuals. The first one to get a name had lovely dark red streaks and was slightly bigger than all the others. I called him Mark, and he was a true hero amongst the marbles. He had a best friend, from the indigo family, who had so much indigo pigment that you could hardly see any white glass on him at all. He was definitely the most handsome and high status member of his family. He was called Paul. These were names taken from boys in my class at primary school, which shows how far back this story goes.

Paul had a girlfriend, a yellow milky. That was a standard sort of match amongst the community; the yellows were abundant and pretty, good girlfriend material. Mark had a girlfriend too, but he had surprised everyone by choosing an outsider, a green milky. There were only three greens; two weren’t very nice but one was lovely. She was Cass, the perfect girlfriend for Mark.

The families grew. Mark had a younger brother, a small red milky with colours just like Mark. And Paul had a younger brother, with softer but equally beautiful indigo streaks. He was called David.

As my marble adventures became more and more elaborate, a new character emerged. There was one milky who didn’t fit in with any of the others. He was blue, but not the turquoise sky colour of the blue milkys, nor the vivid indigo of Paul and David. Neither family wanted him and the rejection made him somewhat angry and bitter. But it also gave him something to prove. Before long, he was stepping into the role of hero, saving the community countless times, even though he was never really given the credit for it. Only two other marbles stood by him. One was Cass, even though that displeased Mark. And the other was David. His brother Paul disapproved but that didn’t stop them from becoming the best of friends. Some of you might have guessed it by now, but that outcast’s name was Dan.

Yes, this is the source of my novel The Most Beloved Boy. Dan and David, the heroes of that story, started life as marbles. Here they are…

DSCN2124

(Dan, by the way, is named after I boy I liked in my first year of secondary school. So he must have been created at some time in 1985. I can be very specific about that!)

Back at the height of my fantasy obsession, I had hit upon the idea of turning my marble sagas into a fantasy trilogy. The first book would be Dan and David saving the community. The second book would follow their adventures as they stretched their wings and left the community to explore the world. And the third book would be their return, when they would face the old world with all the benefits of their new experiences. I scribbled the idea down in my notebook of ideas, probably sometime in 1989. I even wrote a few hundred words. Strangely, what I wrote was an extract from that imagined third instalment, when Dan and David return to the village. The other characters are pleased to see David, but Dan doesn’t get the same warm welcome. When it is discovered that David is very ill, they are even less pleased with Dan. That was all I wrote and I didn’t have a plan on what to write next. So I put it away and forgot all about it.

But you see, this is why it is essential to keep notes; once an idea is written down, it’s never really forgotten. Something about this idea lingered at the back of my mind, long after I had given up on writing fantasy. The characters of Dan and David – the plucky outcast and the loyal friend with deep integrity – remained appealing. The prejudice and difficulties they went through to be friends, with the struggles that would go on into their adult lives, was real life and didn’t need a fantasy setting. There was enough drama in that without the epic adventures. I didn’t need to tell the first two parts of the story to tell the third, which was where the true heart and soul of the story lay. Then sometime around 2009 and 2010, I had the answer on how to write their story; I realised that the marble community could be replicated by placing the story in a rural Victorian town. Paul’s sense of superiority and snobbishness was explained by making him a squire. Dan’s position as outcast became a matter of class, complicated further by social taboos. The marble community became the town, led by the Squire’s rigid sense of propriety to ostracise Dan and blame him for taking David away. Dan and David’s adventures around the world became real travels in the Merchant Navy. And their return, ten years later, would be the beginning of the plot. And there it was, my next novel; a tale of two characters who had been developing in my imagination for over twenty years. And when I started writing them into life, I discovered that they hadn’t changed at all. They were still the true heroes I had always known them to be and I loved them just as much as I had at the age of thirteen.

marbles group