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How can a writer hope to compete?

I’m writing a wedding scene. Weddings are great from the author’s point of view, for a variety of reasons. A wedding is usually the only time that that exact collection of people will ever be together in one place. Unexpected meetings can take place that would be very difficult to set up in any other way. And then, of course, there are the emotional currents that may be sparked by the nuptials of two people from different backgrounds.

In the scene I was writing, I was helped by factors I had already written into the plot. The bride may or may not once have slept with the groom’s cousin. Her mother disapproves of the groom’s family and believes that her daughter is marrying beneath herself. The bride and her mother have not seen her father for twenty years and he is about to astound them both by walking into the reception and demanding a glass of champagne. Then a fight breaks out.

I could see no reason why I could not make the fight seem authentic because I’ve actually seen fights break out at weddings. (Something I didn’t mention earlier is the tendency of guests to drink too much and then remember why it is that they don’t like some of their fellow guests).

But when I began to think of the fights I had seen, doubts crept in. I was staying one weekend (on business; I wasn’t there for pleasure although, as you will see, enjoyment came to me) at the Runnymede Hotel near Staines, West of London. The Runnymede is yards from the Thames which is canalised at that point; the only thing that separates hotel from river is a towpath. It was a sunny afternoon and I was on the towpath, leaning against the lock gate with a glass of beer in my hand watching the mallards and a solitary swan while inside the floor-to-ceiling glass doors I could see a wedding reception in progress. It was a posh wedding, or at least a moneyed one (they’re not necessarily the same thing). Some extremely expensive clobber and jewellery was on view. I became aware that the amount of movement inside the reception room was increasing rapidly when suddenly the doors burst open and a brawl flooded onto the towpath. Expensively dressed women were taking wild swings at other expensively dressed women; men in morning suits were punching seven bells out of each other. One by one, wedding guests were going involuntarily into the river. I saw one man who under normal circumstances I would imagine to be a significant presence in the world of Commerce and who stood well over six feet and weighed more than 200 pounds deal with three lesser opponents in this manner when a beautifully dressed girl aged about ten with a face of unimaginable sweetness punched him with such force in the one place where no man wants to be punched that he doubled up, retching, and was heaved easily into the Thames by a man standing by. The man and the sweet young girl high-fived each other before making once more for the safety of the hotel.

On another weekend I was staying at an hotel near Sunderland of which a tender Providence has erased the name from my memory. I do remember that a golf course was attached to it. On this occasion there were two wedding receptions and something caused ill feeling between them. Maybe one party was made up of Toon supporters and the other of Mackems – I have no way of knowing. Whatever the cause, the fight that rolled back and forth across the lobby was so fierce that furniture, vases and windows were smashed with abandon and the fun only stopped when the police arrived in force.

I was still thinking about these sources for my wedding scene when an old school friend who returned to the north-east a few years ago sent me by email a joke about an Irish wedding. (Am I going to tell it to you? I think not; if I were to list the best Irish jokes I’ve ever heard this one would not get into the top one thousand). I told him my stories and he responded with this:

There was one in this area a couple of weeks ago where the bride to be gave birth at Hexham Hospital,  then discharged herself and the baby immediately so they could all leap into a van headed for their wedding at Gretna Green.  The party then went to the Anglers Arms at Kielder village (very remote) where the groom “glassed” the best man and they all ended up in jail.

How accurate a rendition of the true story that may be I have no way of knowing but it does leave me a little depressed when I contemplate the scene I have to write. To be taken seriously, fiction must bear at least some relationship with what people see as fact. When weddings in real life give rise to this sort of thing, how is the poor author supposed to compete with reality?

Bone a Crone Night at the Coed-y-Go Country House Hotel

It’s a few weeks since I last posted a short story on my blog for readers to download free of charge so I sat down to write another. I don’t know where the idea came from but the words flowed quite easily:
It was Bone a Crone Night at the Coed-y-Go Country House Hotel and Constable Emlyn Davies was in the shrubbery with Mary Flynn when a chair was thrown through the ballroom windows and he heard the sound of raised voices.
Torn between Mary’s charms and his duty as a police officer, Emlyn made to pull his pants up but Mary had not been seen to for weeks and she was not letting go now. When Mary Flynn lies on you, you get up when Mary lets you and not before.
When she was done she eased back onto her haunches, reached for her pearlised hessian evening bag and took out a packet of Silk Cut.
Emlyn, an astonished look on his face, was staring into space. ‘I could do you for rape,’ he murmured.
She held out the pack. ‘Want one?’
Emlyn took a cigarette and waited for Mary to light it for him. ‘Hell of a row going on in there,’ he said. ‘I should go in and find out what’s happening.’
‘I’d let it calm down first. You’re off duty, aren’t you? If he needs help, the landlord has a phone.’
‘That could take some time. From here, he’ll call Oswestry. There’s no-one there. So the call will be switched to Shrewsbury. There won’t be anyone there, either, so it’ll route on to Telford or Wolverhampton. I can’t see any cars getting here for an hour or so.’
‘We can be gone by then. Why don’t I show you what my husband used to like?’
‘I didn’t know you’d been married.’
‘Common law. You want to try his way? Or not?’

“His way” demanded concentration. When it was over, flashing blue lights were visible in the inky blackness above Emlyn’s head. It took him a moment to realise that they really were caused by his fellow officers from West Mercia Police and not by the experience Mary had just led him through.
‘Come on,’ said Mary.
‘You want your colleagues to find you here?’
‘They’d want to know why I hadn’t done anything.’
‘We’d best go, then.’
‘They won’t be letting anyone out of the car park.’
‘Let’s take a look.’
But Emlyn had been right. When they emerged from the bushes on the edge of the car park, it was to see a note pinned under one of his windscreen wipers. ‘Constable Davies. See me.’ It was signed by an inspector Emlyn had never heard of.
‘He’s in there.’ One of the two PCs assigned to prevent cars from leaving pointed at the porticoed main door to the hotel.
‘Can I go?’ asked Mary.
‘Have you got any ID?’
Mary pointed at Emlyn’s retreating back. ‘He’s just taken down my particulars.’
‘Better clear off then. Before you get in the same mess he’s in.’
When I reached that point I was quite pleased with the way things were going but a little voice somewhere in the back of my head was becoming ever more insistent. ‘What do you think you’re doing? Sixty per cent of your readers are women. You had someone object to use of the word “slapper” in the title of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. What the hell do you think they’re going to say when they read the first line of this? Okay, you know and I know that Bone a Crone is merely the local take on Grab a Granny – but your readers don’t know that. You’re asking for trouble; you’ll lose the lot of them with one story. A story you won’t even have been paid for.’
I don’t know who it belonged to but the little voice was right. I put Constable Emlyn and Mary Flynn to one side and started a new story with:
She’d known for weeks he had something to tell her. Married forty years, most of it okay and some of it – more than most people had, she thought – actually happy, you know when there’s something you’re not being told. She had a damn good idea what it was, too. What she hoped was that when he finally found the courage he’d tell her straight. Not, “I’m checking out,” sounding like Barry O’Brien when he told them he’d accepted a new job. There was no new job in prospect here. A big adventure, perhaps. Unless that turned out to be fiction, and all you did was lie there in the ground and rot. Not, “I’m a goner,” like some actor in an old time Western. She’d never forgotten that joke Terry had told her, back in the days when jokes like that weren’t told to nice girls like her. The one about the Lone Ranger being bitten by a rattlesnake right on the end of his word a young man couldn’t use in those days to a well brought up girl and he’d had to gesticulate but she’d got the message and he sends Tonto into town to find a doctor. And the doctor says the only cure for a rattlesnake bite is to suck the poison out through the same hole it went in at, and without that there is no escape from death. And Tonto rides back to camp, and when the Lone Ranger asks what the doctor said Tonto says, ‘He say you gonna die, Kemo Sabe.’
I’m pleased with where this one is heading and I’m going to stick with it. I can’t quite shake the sadness, though, that I may never know what happened after that chair came flying through the window of the Coed-y-Go Country House Hotel. Perhaps someone else will take it up and finish it for me.

A Manly Tear

Cover 2

A friend of mine in California read an Advance Review Copy of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper and told me how much he’d enjoyed it. ‘Did you shed a manly tear towards the end?’ I asked. I realise now that I should have said at the outset that though he lives in California and has a US passport this friend is originally from England. We’ve known each other since we met on Soc Culture British more than twenty years ago, so anyone who was around that place at that time will have a feel for the sort of relationship we have.
Anyway, he assured me that the bittersweet ending of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper had brought no sadness to his breast and he went further to tell me that “manly” and “tears” were incompatible words. Men don’t cry.
Surely this can’t be right? I wrote Zappa’s Mam with a clear picture of my reader and as I typed the last twenty thousand words I was thinking, “You think you know where this is going. Don’t you? You think you’re reading a Happy Ever After/Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Boy Gets Girl tale. Don’t you? Well, my dear reader, do I have a surprise in store for you.” When I wrote the last line I thought, “If that doesn’t dampen the cheek of even the malest of men, I don’t know what will.” And now comes the message from California – California of all places – Men Don’t Cry.
I’ve written in the past on this blog about the story I read to pupils and parents from the stage of Benton Park Primary School when I was ten but that is not really where my desire to be a writer started. In my mid-teens I read Wuthering Heights and when I reached the end I was aware of a prickling at the back of my eyes. (No, not at the quality of the writing – it was my reaction to the story’s emotional impact).  I decided then that this was what I wanted to do. I don’t mean that I decided to write about people and their lives in a way that would tug at the reader’s heart-strings because fourteen year olds don’t think that way; what happened was that I realised for the first time how the written word could move the reader and I thought, “I want to do that”.
I still want to do it. And I’m not sure what all that California sunshine has done to my old friend’s humanity. Men don’t cry? Your child is ill, seriously ill, ill to the point of death and recovers – and you don’t cry? You watch a parent grow old and frail and the inevitable end comes – and you don’t cry? You’ve wanted for years to achieve something that has always seemed just beyond your capabilities but you worked and worked to study where you were going wrong and put it right and finally you get there – and you don’t cry?
I’m glad I’m not you.

He’s behind you! (Oh, yes he is)

I’ve been writing – fiction and non-fiction – for a long time. My first sale was an article to Good Housekeeping. I didn’t realise till later that I was starting at the top and would have to work very hard to stay there. If you’d like to hear the very first thing I ever sold to the BBC you can download it here. And I can go back further than that, to the age of ten when I read a story of mine from the stage of Benton Park Primary School in Newcastle upon Tyne to the assembled pupils and parents. Whatever I’ve written has always been full of false starts – an opening chapter or chapters that were only there as scaffolding to get the story going and had disappeared by the time I finally wrote END on the bottom of the last page.

The Making of Billy McErlane was different – and a very odd experience. I wrote the first sentence: All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. Then I sat there staring at it thinking, “Where on earth did that come from?” Then I wrote the rest of the first chapter. And it’s all still there. I started writing Billy Mac in 2013, it was published on February 1st 2015 and the opening line and chapter are exactly what they were when I started writing. That has never happened to me before.

All the way through the writing, editing and rewriting, the protagonist – Billy – was looking over my shoulder. There never was a Billy, he’s one hundred per cent my invention, but the was there. There. Watching what I was doing. Talking to me. “Tell them about the anger management.” “Don’t forget the bike.” “I didn’t know Regus then – that came later.”

I’ve had this experience of characters talking to me, guiding me, again since then – I’m currently polishing Darkness Comes and I couldn’t have written that in anything like its present form if I hadn’t had Barabbas and Ras Tafar butting in with their comments and demands, but Billy was the first. He took me to a new level of intensity in my writing. I’m grateful to him, though the experience was a bit like banging your head against a wall – nice when it stops.