Although this summer I’ve been largely offline, due to holidaying in areas without wifi (sooo restful), I haven’t been idle. In fact, I’ve been beavering away at every opportunity with old-fashioned writing technology (i.e. a pencil and paper – very enjoyable until you realise how long it takes to type it all up when you get home). While in Scotland, I finished writing my next collection of short stories, Marry In Haste, which will be published in October.
But I’ve also been travelling in time, taking stock of short stories I wrote many years ago. I’ve been surprised at just how many I have tucked away and forgotten about.
New Outing for Old Story
One result of my trip through the archives is that I’ve decided to reissue the very first short story of mine to be published, decades ago, in a Woman’s Realm Summer Special. When earlier this year I came across The War of the Peek Freans Light Wounded , a short story set in 1939, I was nervous of rereading it in case I found it embarrassingly bad.
They say that to be able to critique your own work, you should first put it away in a drawer for at three months, to give you time to forget what you’ve written in any detail. Three decades should therefore have been more than enough, especially given my middle-aged memory, but I still didn’t trust my own judgement, even though the story had the validation of being previously trade published. I sought the assurance of trusted friends and beta readers, and their encouragement and praise gave me the impetus I needed to publish it once more. It came. Thank you, my friends – you know who you are!
This time, its publication came about via technology that I couldn’t have imagined when I first wrote the story: formatting it as an e-book on Word and rustling up a cover using Canva software, all in the comfort of my own home. The original draft was written on a manual typewriter, and only after leaving university did I acquire an electric typewriter, which was cutting edge technology in its day!
How different is it from stories I write today? Firstly, its historical setting – I only write contemporary fiction now, and am in awe of historical novelists. There’s a naive and misplaced self-confidence in my writing about an era of which I had no experience beyond schooll history lessons and conversations with my grandparents. It’s also more sentimental – or maybe less jaded, as one might expect from a very young writer.
But the embryo of me as a grown-up writer is still there – the humour, the odd dark undertone, and a sense of fun, even flippancy. After all, I can’t think of any other author whose main focus in a story about war would be biscuits (cookies to you, my American friends) – or at least the biscuit tin which is home to the main character’s collection of toy soldiers. If you’d like to read The War of the Peek Freans Light Wounded, it’s now available to download from all the usual ebook outlets. Just key in the title and my name and it should pop right up. Best read with a cup of tea in hand, and, er, a biscuit…
A post about writing fiction and finding inspiration in public libraries
For the first time today, I decided to take a mini writing retreat in my local public library, and I’m jolly glad I did.
I’m lucky enough to have my own study at home, in which I’ve squeezed both a business desk for my freelance work and, for my fiction writing, a tiny upright bureau that used to be my grandfather’s. Even though it’s currently in a relatively tidy state, I needed some cooler air in which to write. My study’s upstairs, and all the heat in the house seems to gravitate towards it and stay there.
As I had to go into our nearest town anyway to run an errand, I decided to take my notebook with me and sit in the calm, open-plan space of the Yate Public Library, where it might not be much cooler, but at least the air would circulate better.
Like a human thermometer, I roved around our large, single-story modern library, trying to decide the best place to settle. It’s a new, light and airy building, thanks to a National Lottery grant a few years ago. Easily the coolest spot was the children’s section. This was also one of the quietest, as I was there during school hours.
After I’d been scribbling away happily in my new notebook for half an hour, a small girl aged about 3 arrived with her mum. She made a beeline for the open boxes of picture books and quickly made her choice. “But you’ve had that one before!” complained her mum. Undeterred, the little girl curled up in a chair to read it, or at least, to read the pictures – a great way to develop future reading skills, by the way, as is enjoying the same books over and over again.
Seeing how much pleasure this little girl was gaining from her favourite story gave me a real filip. It reminded me that writing stories isn’t really about the author getting words on the paper, to satisfy his or her own compulsion to write, but about filling the reader with pleasure. What better incentive could there be to any writer? I carried on writing…
On arriving home, satisfiedwith my morning’s work, I was torn between whether to close my eyes for a few minutes (gosh, this heat is enervating!) or to plough on with writing my story. While deliberating, I had the urge to check whether I’d received any new reviews lately. (Yes, authors do this a LOT.) To my delight, there was a new one against my Christmas collection of short stories, Stocking Fillers. Though the review was brief, it said enough to make me happy:
This weekend, I was privileged to take part in a special evening of live performances by 10 Gloucestershire authors of their short stories, chosen for the latest Stroud Short Stories programme.
Not only was my story, which also appears in my collection Quick Change, chosen from among 128 entries for inclusion, but also the event was named after its title: The Alchemy of Chocolate.
The event was held in Stroud Valley Arts, a small, intimate venue with slate grey walls and a low ceiling, cosy and inviting. 75 seats were squeezed in to accommodate the audience. Such is the reputation of Stroud Short Stories as an entertaining and enriching event that tickets, a bargain at £5 each, had sold out weeks in advance.
On the subject of money, I ought to point out that this short story festival makes no money whatever – it’s run simply for the love of the short story and to give a platform to local authors. It’s also designed to give new, as yet unpublished writers the opportunity to share the stage with more established authors. The passion behind this voluntary project shone through in John Holland’s witty commentary and careful nurturing of both authors and audience throughout the night. Its impact was clear from meeting a young girl who had been brought by her mother to encourage her interest in writing.
Reading My Short Story
I was third up on the two-part programme – a great spot as it meant the audience was already warmed up when I took the stage, and after I’d finished reading, I could relax and enjoy the remaining seven stories. As I sat waiting my turn, I was glad my friend Caroline Sanderson, who features with me on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s Book Club slot, had come along for moral support and interest.
My reading went very well, despite spotlights shining so brightly that while on he stage I couldn’t see anyone in the audience. They could have all gone home, as far as I could tell. Fortunately, their copious laughter in all the right places in my story assured me that they were still there and hanging on my every word. I had to pause a number of times to allow the laughter to run its course, which made me feel like a stand-up comedian, in the best possible way.
It was gratifying to be approached by a number of people afterwards saying how much they had enjoyed my story and how funny it was. Several said they could relate to the heroine Jennifer, who discovers a secret recipe to turn chocolate into gold. It was lovely to see how the story chimed with them on a personal level.
I was also pleased to have several people approach me about the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, having recognised me from the website. (I’d leafleted the seats with flyers for the event, which takes place next Thursday.)
Meeting Other Authors
It was an especial pleasure to meet so many local authors whom I’d not met before. (I’m 25 minutes’ drive from Stroud, and the 10 of us are dispersed about the county.)
I also very much enjoyed hearing their stories, from moving tales about suicide and unrequited love to wry riffs about avant garde artwork and stem cell technology. All 10 of us had completely different stories to tell, cleverly ordered by organiser and compère John Holland, himself a gifted writer of short fiction, into a digestible and seamless whole. Here’s a shout-out for the authors and their stories:
Martin Spice Le Fromager
Philip Bowne Cows Can’t Jump
Richard Vick Ways of Seeing
Katherine Mitchell Daffodils
Rod Griffiths The Sweetest Smile
Anthony Hentschel The Giant Meets the Christ-child
James Sinkins The Casablanca
Chloe Turner The Bronze Garden
Mary Omnes The Spinsters
If you’d like to read these stories, plus over 70 more, you can catch them in the handsome new Stroud Short Stories anthology, now available to order via Lulu here, edited and published by Nimue Brown. The books are a bargain at £10 (including P&P). That’s just 12p per story – worth every penny. My copy is on my bedside table, ready to dip into for quick late-night reading, though I’m already finding it’s impossible to read just one story at a time without being lured on to read many more.
All in all, it was a memorable and rewarding evening. Although authors who read at any event must “miss a turn” to give others a chance the next time, I’m already looking forward to the autumn event.
Stroud Short Stories takes place every six months. The next event will be held in the autumn with a spooky theme. To be kept informed of event news and for details of how to enter the competitions, follow their website: www.stroudshortstories.blogspot.co.uk.
A report on my appearance on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s Chris Baxter Show yesterday
“I love this book! It’s festive, fun and a bit silly at times!” said BBC Radio Gloucestershire presenter Chris Baxter yesterday, when I was a guest on his excellent afternoon show. “It gets your imagination going, which stories at Christmas need to do.”
I’d been invited to talk about Stocking Fillers, my Christmas book of short stories, and I was thrilled to hear that Chris had been enjoying reading it on the train on his way to work that morning. We talked about the writing process, when I’d started writing them (high summer! – more about that here), and the challenge of writing short pieces.
After that, I was invited to read extracts from some of my favourite stories, which of course I was very pleased to do. I can now describe the book as “as featured on BBC Radio”, which is a terrific endorsement.
As ever, it was a joy to take part in a BBC Radio Gloucestershire programme, and I came away, as always, so impressed with what a great job they do bringing the community together and spreading goodwill throughout the county, not only at Christmas but all year round.
And this time, there was also something else to take away: a request from Chris Baxter for some ghost stories for next Christmas. Hmmm, I’ll have to give that one some thought…
In the meantime, if you’d like to listen to interview, for the next month you can catch up with it on BBC iPlayer here: