Friday, 14 August 2015

Welcome to the Ideas Factory!

While I take a rest between novels, I have returned to my first love – short stories. I find them enjoyable and remarkably easy to write, and I was lucky enough to see three of them in print in national magazines over a period of just eight days earlier in August. Here they are, all beautifully illustrated as usual!

My August 2015 published stories

I have to confess that I am not a great planner. I don’t agonise over plots and themes, bury myself in research, or delve around desperately for some great new idea or angle. I just write contemporary stories, about ordinary women in ordinary but emotional situations - stories that I believe the readers will like! So, in this month’s blog I thought I would take a brief look at that age-old question all writers get asked: Where do you get your ideas from?

What inspires me? What gets me rushing to the laptop or reaching for a pen? It can be a photograph of a person or place, a chance remark overheard in the street, or a human interest item in the news, but usually my stories start with nothing more than an opening line or a random thought that just pops into my head. I rarely know at that point who the story will be about or what’s going to happen to them. It’s not uncommon for me to have no idea at all about the ending either, or to set out with one in mind and then find myself heading off on a totally different route! Somehow, the emerging characters, and the situation I put them in, seem to draw me along in the right direction and the ending quite naturally writes itself, often surprising me almost as much as it does the readers.

The first of this month’s stories, Pink or Blue? appeared in The People’s Friend 1st August issue, and its inspiration was a very easy one. I wrote it just after the birth of my first granddaughter, and I even named the two main characters after my own daughter and
Illustration by Mandy Dixon
son-in-law. Should parents-to-be be expected to tell everyone the sex of their unborn child? What if they want to keep it as a special secret until the birth? And how would the prospective grandparents feel about being kept in the dark? Especially when they are eager to start buying and knitting baby clothes, but don’t know whether to pick pink or blue! I tried to inject a little humour into this one as various characters gossiped, guessed and generally got the wrong end of the stick. In my case, I was let in on the secret quite early on, so the shopping choices (pink, pink, pink!) presented no problems at all.

Next came Our Next House in Woman’s Weekly on 4th August. Most of my WW stories pop up in the monthly Fiction Specials, so it was nice to see one used in the weekly magazine for a change – particularly as it has a lot more readers! Having got married last year, the question of whether to move house has been on our minds lately, and looking at lovely houses online (especially ones we can’t afford!) has become a regular pastime. Who hasn’t wondered what it might be like to live somewhere else? In a bigger house, in the country instead of the city, perhaps close to a beach, or somewhere with a huge garden? Here, my main character is a single mum on a budget, so the reality of being able to live out her dreams seems way out of reach, yet we find her and her young son in a stranger’s house, struggling to figure out how to use the oven, confronted by a wary cat, packing up and trying to leave not a trace of themselves behind. Are they squatting? Have they broken in? No, they’ve found the perfect way to spend the summer, by house and pet sitting in a variety of lovely homes around the country, and it isn’t costing a penny!


The third story is called A Present for Max, and it appeared in The People’s Friend 8th August issue. This one started life as a twist ending story which the magazine didn’t like at all! But because I had been told which bits they did like, it was easy enough to rewrite it without the twist and turn it into a nice straightforward story with, I hope, a real emotional impact.
How I imagined Max!
When new neighbours Ella and Sam move in next door, retired couple Maureen and Gerald find that, despite the age difference, they all quickly become friends. The women have working with young children and a love of books in common (that sounds just like me!), and the men have their interest in the local football team, but what really brings them together is their childlessness.
In Maureen’s day, there was nothing that could be done, and she and Gerald have learned to accept their sadness and get on with their lives together, but for the youngsters (and for me!) it’s a different story. Medicine has moved on and IVF offers a possible solution, albeit one with huge emotional and financial implications and no guarantee of success. For me, twenty seven years ago, my fifth IVF attempt finally produced twin girls, but for Ella… well, that’s where Max comes in – a little puppy who brings unexpected joy and love into all their lives. Not exactly a surrogate baby, but surely the next best thing? For me, cats win over dogs any day, but this is fiction and the difference a pet can make is just the same, whatever animal you choose. And, of course, this time I just had to let art imitate life and give Ella her longed-for real baby by the end of the story, didn’t I?

The one thing all these short stories have in common is that they were sparked by the germ of an idea that came out of my own life and experience – becoming a granny, drooling over houses I can’t afford, loving a family pet, and remembering the stress levels that go hand in hand with infertility treatment, especially when it fails. But the idea is just the starting point, and what happens next often bears little or no resemblance to my own life. The people I create, how they think and talk and interact, the way their problems play out on the page, and the outcomes, whether happy or sad, are all fictional.

It’s a great compliment though, that my words sometimes come across in such a way as to suspend disbelief. I remember reading a poem I had written, called Losing the Left, to a group of delegates at a writers’ holiday a couple of years ago. It was about a woman who’d had breast cancer and had her left breast removed. I’d had a few health problems in that area, but nothing so drastic, and I knew that writing the poem in first person would give it a more authentic, poignant and emotional feel. What I didn’t expect after walking offstage were the looks of sympathy, the pats on the arm and the tentative enquiries about how long ago it had happened. One lady even told me how brave she thought I was to share such an experience with others in a poem. But all I wanted to say was:


I’m a writer, and it’s my job to sweep my readers up in my stories and poems, entertain them and, where necessary, deliver a liberal dose of emotion. To do that I often have to use a setting or situation that’s familiar to me, and tap into my own experiences, memories and feelings. If I can make my characters and their problems seem real, and can make a reader laugh or worry or cry alongside them, that can only be a good thing. It’s not my own life there on the page, but it’s that life that provides me with so many of the ideas that help me to get it right!