Archive | May 2012

Chapter 3: What is a Family?

As promised, here is the first extract from The White Cuckoo. Tammy is daydreaming and speculating on the nature of a family.

Harry and Jessie blossomed like leaves on a tree, thought Tammy. They withered and perished, but nothing had changed since they had first arrived in Lyverton nearly a hundred years ago. The blackbirds were still singing, the cuckoos calling, the hawthorn still blossomed and wafted its pungent smell on the spring breeze, just the same as ever, and the sun was shining down on the village – exactly as it had on midsummer’s day in 1910 when they’d turned up at the vicarage asking for help because Jessie was ill.

Tammy knew something far bigger than her was cradling her in its palm, bringing her home to Lyverton. She was not a lost child of her parents’ secrets, after all.  She had a place in the world, and it was right here in this village. Her eyes filled inexplicably with tears of happiness and the words on the page became blurry. As the hymn ended, she glanced sideways at her sister’s hands. They were hands that had shaped and formed from a disparate bundle of cells fifty years ago in the same womb that had created her. She breathed in a delicate smell of a distant perfume and felt the breeze from the open door on her face. Her mother’s soul was infused within them. Harry, Jessie and Alice seemed strangely a part of her, too. They may not have been related to Tammy by blood, but nevertheless they were claiming her for their own now she had come to Lyverton.

 

For me, the above extract from The White Cuckoo, which appears over half-way through the novel, expands on my mum’s pure, simplistic vision of a family tree studded with flowers, and a baby girl being born in the future to take her place on the tree. Lovely though this vision is, a family should consist of much more than blood relatives. It should draw people in and welcome them, if they want to stay a while. It should cross-pollinate with other families and become a network of caring and support, casting materialism aside as it draws its strength and currency from the people who live within it, the time they invest and the things they do for each other.

As I sat quietly on the coach home from my day trip to London, pretending to be having forty winks, I knew I wouldn’t need the prompt offered by the scrap of paper nestled in my pocket.  I wasn’t going to forget the eavesdropped conversation in the Natural History Museum, and until Emily’s baby was born, mum’s prophesy of a newborn granddaughter would never be far from my mind.

When I write, it is with my readers in mind. Before the dangled carrot of publication was snatched away from my grasp by being the wrong type of writer and having written the wrong kind of story at the wrong time, I used to write only for my own pleasure. If the novel that became The White Cuckoo was to be written just for me to enjoy the writing, I would have dug a hole in the story and unceremoniously plonked mum’s family tree in its root ball into the hole.  However, this novel was not going to be just for me, was it? It would possibly have a readership, and people have always been very important to me.

I imagined a potential reader. She was sitting in a small, neat garden one summer’s afternoon, drinking white wine, reading my book. She had no children, was an only-child herself and her parents were aged. I imagined her reaching the part in the novel where I had written about flowers blooming in the form of new babies. Behind my closed eyelids, I watched her as she put down her wine glass on a small table, replaced the bookmark in her novel, took off her sunglasses and then wiped a tear from her eye with her forefinger. She was upset because there would be no more blossom on her family tree and she had visualised it as barren, withering and dying.

I couldn’t bear the thought that I might have upset a reader through my own idealistic view or opinion. It would somehow adulterate the precious words I had used to craft the story. I wanted my reader to build her own castles in the sky and fit the words to her own situation, not mine.

As we travelled back from London, I pictured my mum’s tree expanding to include a community, and I eventually wrote this paragraph, only a few pages into the novel, to plant this conceptual seed into my imaginary reader’s mind:-

Tammy smiled at her and mumbled a returned greeting. The woman could be a relative. How would she know? A lone blackbird launched into its happy repertoire as if in competition with the thrush. Was the blackbird calling out to the village that its lost daughter had returned, full of optimism for a new chapter in her life? She stared at the nearby hawthorn bush, laden with tiny white flowers that breathed the distinctive smell of approaching summer into the air. She was suddenly envious of the microcosmic community where birds sang, brand new green shoots sprouted and blossom burst forth, insects buzzed and spring exploded life, colour and a tapestry of smells and sounds into its miniature world.

The character of Tammy was already an old friend. She had drifted into an abandoned novel, then finding herself with nothing much to occupy her inquisitive mind, she had gone off to sulk somewhere.  She tapped me on the shoulder on the coach, saying, if you need a young, female character,  here I am – already created and ready to go! The trouble was, Tammy was a gentle soul and if she was going to fit the bill she would have to toughen up somewhat.

So there you are – two extracts for the price of one.  What is your definition of a family? Apparently, according to the news earlier this week, there are now thirty-five different types of family set-up in Britain.

Next instalment on 1st June.

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Chapter 2: No Paper, No Pen

THE WHITE CUCKOO – THE BIRTH OF A NOVEL

Chapter Two: No Paper, No Pen

Chapter One is still available to read by clicking on the sidebar or on the main page, ‘The White Cuckoo’, above.

Rule No. 44672 in the Writers’ Rules states that Writers should never leave home without the basic tools of their trade – a small notebook and something to write with.

‘Tips for a stress-free day in the capital of this wonderful country’ indicates that unessential accessories should not be carried in a handbag and even the handbag is considered by some to be unessential.  Well – that was fine by me. In fact, it was more than just fine. When I was sixteen I used to pride myself on stuffing money in my jeans pocket, a comb in my back pocket and leaving everything else at home, in my future hubby’s pocket or in a friend’s handbag.

Uh-oh. We had a slight problem. The White Cuckoo could have fluttered and died, right there in the Natural History Museum, and become as completely extinct as the Dodo we had just admired. I was too lazy to cart my heavy handbag I didn’t want to risk taking my handbag to London, which contained several very interesting examples of the basic tools of a writers’ trade amongst a few other fascinating objects. (If you want a more lurid description of the horrors that lurk in the bottom of my handbag, Tammy in The White Cuckoo carries one just like it – coincidentally.)  One look at Grandad’s face when he scrutinised the receipt for the food told me it was probably not the best time in the world to ask if anyone had a pen so I could write something on the back of it.

Over lunch, I was a bit quiet – the creative side of my brain was firing off ideas like a machine gun. Could this interesting snippet of a conversation be nudged gently into the plot of a book I was currently working on? Going Back had started its life as Sunlight on Broken Glass but its title was snatched rudely from beneath its feet as it slept. It was then stolen away for good by its ruthless author who, at the time, was on one of the blanked off roads to publication by a big publisher. (Details in the archive on the right hand side if you are interested  in how this happened.)

I glanced over at the family-tree-stealing woman.  Nah … she didn’t provide me with inspiration. She was not my character. She didn’t look even remotely like a tree-stealer.  I started chatting to my family, not wanting to appear antisocial, and the memory of the conversation began to trickle through the holes in my fifty-something brain like water dripping through a colander.

‘Anyone got a bit of paper I can write on?’ I said casually, before the drips stopped.

‘What for? said hubby.

‘Nothing, really. Just an idea,’ I mumbled.

‘Here,’ said my daughter, tearing off a scrap of paper from something in her handbag.

‘Err … and a pen?’

The pen miraculously appeared before I had finished the sentence.

I wrote something like this: “Natural History Museum Restaurant Queue – overheard conversation on researching someone else’s family tree. Own family not happy.

I stuffed the paper into my trouser pocket, content to let the memory of the eavesdropped conversation drip away from my brain and concentrate on the rest of the day out in London.

Lee helping the juggler in Covent Garden

In the afternoon we took the tube to Covent Garden, where Tyler was captivated by the street performers, especially when his dad joined in with helping the juggler. I can tell you, there was no prouder three-year old in the world, and just looking at his little face was enough to bring a tear to my eye as I took this photograph.  This memory will endure for many years, I hope, as he relates it to his children, and their children, and hopefully they will all know that this was the day his grandmother first thought of the idea that was to become The White Cuckoo.

Emily was pregnant when we went to London, and as we sat having a last drink in Covent Garden before heading home, it was inevitable we would talk about the lovely family day we had just spent. Even when taking the extortionate London prices into consideration, between us, the cost had not been that great.  We speculated on the sex of the baby, and talked about my mum, who sadly would never see her new grandchild, or those that came afterwards.

On her deathbed, five years ago, my mum’s last ever conversation was with Emily, who was attempting to say her final goodbye to her much-loved grandma. As the eldest grandchild, Emily and my mum had always shared a wonderful bond. My mum’s final words to Emily were this:-

You know Emily, we are like the flowers. When one bloom dies, another takes its place in the world. My flower on our family tree is dying but one day you will have a daughter and she will bloom in my place. As long as the tree is alive, no one in the family can really die because there will always be other buds forming and other flowers to come.

This picture was taken as we sat in Covent Garden, having a drink before heading home. Tyler was very proud of his roaring orange dinosaur.

Emily sobbed as her heart broke. She pleaded with her grandma to let her know, somehow, that she was safe and with Grandad (who had passed away five years previously). Grandma promised.  In all her life, she had prided herself on never, ever breaking a promise to a child. To her, Emily would forever be a child, even though she was a mother herself. (The first British serial rights to The Yellow Balloon have been sold to My Weekly. The story has not yet appeared, but when it does you will be able to read it in the magazine.)

Anyway – I digress. Back in Covent Garden, Emily was confiding in me that she was really worried her baby would not be a girl, but only because it would shatter her steadfast belief in her grandma’s rather lovely final words to her.  She, herself, had no preference as to the sex of her unborn child. I had to sympathise, because I knew those lovingly-spoken words meant so much to Emily, but I tried to give her some words of comfort.

‘Look at me, Emily,’ I said. ‘I ended up with three children – it could happen at any time in the future.  Grandma didn’t say anything about your next child being a girl, did she?’

Emily shook her head, unconvinced. ‘In a way, I wish we had found out at the scan,’ she said. ‘At least I would know one way or the other.’

I felt a tiny tug on my heartstrings as my brain connected with the scrap of paper in my pocket. My mum’s family tree vision was so pure and lovely, it couldn’t be wasted, could it?

Postscript to Chapter Two: Sophie Rose Ireson-Vaughan was born on 11th March 2009. First great-granddaughter of Margaret Rose Beasley (1932-2006).

Next instalment: 25th May. Read the family tree excerpt from the novel.

 

Chapter 1: Conception

About as old as you can get

THE WHITE CUCKOO – THE BIRTH OF A NOVEL

Chapter 1: Conception

 

When I took this photograph of my husband at the Natural History Museum little did I know that just half an hour later I would have conceived a cuckoo. (Oh dear, I appear to have uploaded the wrong image.)

A week earlier, an inconspicuous-looking email had nestled itself comfortably in my unread work emails. “Day Trip to London – Book your Tickets Now”. it said seductively.  I clicked on it first, before all the other unread messages You know how absolutely essential it is to get these type of emails out of the way before knuckling down to a hard day’s work, so a cup of coffee, a biscuit and couple of phone calls later, it was all arranged. We were going to London on Saturday. Yipee!

My then three year old grandson could hardly sleep the night before (and nor could his mum and dad).  Inspired by his grandad, Tyler was fascinated by dinosaurs and all things ancient, so the Natural History Museum was probably the most exciting place in the world.

The coach trip was largely uneventful, except for Tyler who, indignant at being made to wear a nappy was determined he wasn’t going to wee in it. Not only that, he made sure everyone else on the coach knew that he was far too grown up to do such a thing.

‘I’ve done it,’ he announced eventually. Everyone on the coach turned round and smiled as his mum searched for something that wasn’t there on the floor.

Grandad was a bit of a fidget on the coach, and his constant whining “are we nearly there yet” was most annoying to the poor people who had to sit in front of him.  More than once, Tyler had to tell him to stop kicking the seat in front and to sit still.

Finally, we arrived in London. Very helpfully, my son-in-law pointed out to me that I was holding the tube map upside down as the coach party said their goodbyes to each other and set off in opposite directions to spend their days in various parts of the city.

It was a long walk to the Natural History Museum, even after taking the tube.

‘Are you puffed out, Granny?’ said Tyler.

‘No.’ I said.

‘You liar,’ said Tyler’s dad, turning around to grin at me. ‘You sound like an old horse.’

‘She’s getting old – can’t hack it,’ added Grandad.

‘Speak for yourself,’ I retorted, sticking my tongue out at Grandad.

My daughter rolled her eyes in a look that told me she was expecting it to be a very long day.

We arrived – eventually, and having wandered around for an hour or so amongst the impressive exhibits, clutching his grandad’s hand, Tyler made an announcement:

‘I’m hungry,’ he said. ‘Can I have some chicken nuggets?’

Tyler’s dad looked at his watch. ‘Okay, we’ll check out the restaurant.’ he replied, and we all trooped off to the Natural History Museum restaurant.

I would have been glad of a bit of a sit down. My legs were killing me. We found a table and Grandad collapsed into his seat, completely overcome with shock as he studied the basic menu and not-so-basic prices on the wall. Tyler’s dad trooped off to join the long queue and I shuffled along behind him, as Grandad grinned at me in a macabre, mocking kind of way and I received the telepathic message that there was no way in the world he was going to stand in a queue for hours when his feet were killing him.

The queue was horrendous and my son-in-law and I chatted about nothing very much at all while we waited, our conversation silenced now and then as we both eavesdropped the two women who stood behind us.

‘She’s completely gone off her rocker, you know,’ said one woman. ‘Just look at her – she’s got that bloody notebook out again. She just can’t leave it alone.’

I turned around, curious. Once millisecond-long glance told me that the woman who was talking was about my age, the woman she was talking to was her elderly mother, and the person sitting at a table a few yards away, scribbling furiously in a tatty notebook was probably her sister. The two teenaged girls who sat beside her, silently texting on their mobile phones were most likely the old lady’s grandchildren.

‘You know how she gets obsessed with things,’ replied the old lady. She’s always been the same. Anyway, researching family trees is quite popular nowadays – everyone’s doing it.’

‘I wouldn’t mind if it was our family tree,’ the younger woman moaned. ‘But don’t you think it’s a bit weird to be researching the family tree of a complete stranger instead of your own family?’

‘I suppose so,’ the old lady sighed. ‘But what can we do? It’s completely taken over her life – she spends all her time sifting through old records and on her computer. She’s spent an absolute fortune on the internet …’

It was a conversation that lasted, probably, less than two minutes. As I stood in the queue, I desperately wanted to jot it down because that conversation was like a precious jewel that needed to be kept securely and safely in my handbag.  I felt a little flip of excitement in my tummy and a tingle down my spine.

Little did I know, on that grey November Saturday morning in 2008, that this conversation was going to change my life.

Next Chapter: Friday, 18th May.  This story of the conception, gestation and birth of a novel will be published in instalments in the form of weekly posts over the next six months, culminating in one final post on PUBLICATION DAY, which is 31st October 2012. It might even contain a sneak preview in the form of tiny excerpts from the novel, but you will need to buy the book to read all about the characters, places and mysteries of ‘The White Cuckoo’.  All the posts are collected together on ‘The White Cuckoo’ tab at the top of the website.

Unique Selling Points for Authors

Well to start with, I don’t have one. I’ve searched for it for the last five years to no avail. How on earth is my publisher going to find anything remotely interesting about me as a hook on which to hang their marketing plan?

I don’t have a degree in creative writing: I don’t have a degree in anything.  I was an eleven-plus failure and went to the utterly brilliant Henry Gotch Secondary School, where the list of famous former pupils can be counted on fingers. I left school at fifteen and meandered through life until I ended up working at the local Council. (I’m still there – 38 years later.)

I have been married for 37 years and lived in the same town all my life.  No exciting travels either – we go caravanning and occasionally dip our toes in the Med, but that’s about it.

Talking about caravanning – we went to Grafham Water Caravan Club Site in April. It rained almost constantly and keeping an almost-new caravan free from mud when you have two hyperactive Springer Spaniels and a lumbering, lazy old Labrador to contend with is, I can say with confidence, a challenge not to be considered if you can avoid it.

In the reception area on the site is a bookcase full of donated paperback books for people to swap.  Browsing through the books, I thought I had better make a start on promoting myself and, as casually as I could, told someone that my book ‘The White Cuckoo’ was going to be published in October. Well – talk about a completely unexpected reaction!  She wanted to know all about it, was thrilled to bits when I confirmed to her that it wasn’t full of swearing and misery and then made me promise to donate a copy for the site when it was published.  I then turned around to glance at a fellow caravanner, who had just walked into reception mid-conversation. I thought she was going to have a heart attack when I mentioned that ‘The White Cuckoo’ had been edited whilst we were on the site the previous year. The poor lady started blabbering on about meeting a famous author in reception and my face must have been like a burning picture of pure embarrassment as I fled, to leave the warden and the caravanner talking enthusiastically about how nice it is to read a proper book, with no ‘f’ words and a story that makes you feel good instead of in the depths of depression.

So I came to the conclusion that my unique selling point will be that I am a writer of heartwarming, uplifting novels. The White Cuckoo might give you the odd tingle down your spine, or make you wipe a few tears from the corner of your eye, but it won’t leave you feeling depressed or fed up at the number of (bad) swear words littered through its pages.

I most certainly am not the Mary Whitehouse of novel writing, but the principles she upheld were sound.  If your teenaged daughter or granddaughter picks up The White Cuckoo, you needn’t worry. You can be assured she won’t be corrupted by it too much (unlike me when I picked up ‘Forever Amber’ as a thirteen year old and got told off by my mum).

Mind you, that’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading the work of authors who are quite obviously talented in other, more, shall we say, exciting genres …