Interviewing family members

btA close relative of mine has Alzheimer’s and for a long while, I’ve had the longing to interview her. The way the disease is affecting her means she has virtually no short term recall, but her long-term memory, particularly of her childhood and youth, is intact. I’ve been surprised and delighted on many occasions by the tales and anecdotes she’s come out with, many that I’ve never heard her talk about previously. I am all too conscious that a time could soon come when she may be unable to articulate these precious memories anymore.

I’ve had some time off recently, so I took the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with this relative and ask her questions about her past. (I made sure to ask her permission several times throughout the process about recording our conversation, and she was very happy for me to do so).

It was fascinating to hear about her early experiences of childhood and young womanhood, even seemingly mundane things about her first job as a typist, what she used to wear and how she styled her hair. From a family history perspective, I was captivated by stories of her early family life and her relationship with her husband. It also made me realise how rare it is that I sit down and ask anyone in my life these sorts of questions, even though it’s these early experiences and our significant relationships that shape who we are.

Although I’m not quite sure how I will use the interview yet, I am so glad I found the time to do it, not least because it was a lovely bonding experience and she expressed how much she had enjoyed sharing stories of her past.

As well as thinking about a potential non-fiction piece based on the interview, I also found it hugely beneficial for my fiction writing. It reminded me how important it is to get to know characters in depth, even if only a small snippet of this makes it into the final story. It’s the only way to make characters feel ‘real’, with the human flaws and motivations that make people who they are.

I’ve been so inspired by this undertaking that my plan is to work my way through interviewing other family members. Not only will this help me to learn about myself and where I come from, but will also increase my understanding of the complex human condition. It may even throw up some interesting untold stories from my family’s history!

If you’re interested in doing something similar, here is a link to 20 questions when thinking about interviewing relatives.

 

How to answer the question – ‘Are you a writer?’

I was on the phone today having a lovely chat, thinking nothing of it, when the person at the other end came out with;

“You’re a writer, aren’t you?”

I hesitated for a second. A few days ago my answer would’ve rolled off the tongue without a second thought. Something like;

“Well, I’m trying to be”

Or

“No, not really, it’s just something I’m pursuing in my spare time.”

As I ummed and ahhed for another second, a thought-provoking series of tweets sprung to mind from Joanne Harris. Earlier this month she tweeted #TenWaysToFightImposterSyndrome. (Look it up).

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I’ve been referring to myself as an ‘aspiring writer’ without a second thought. Because;

  • I’m not *really* published (even though I am but everyone on the course was so it doesn’t really count)
  • I’ve never been paid for my creative writing
  • Not many people have ever read anything I’ve written
  • I don’t write enough. Definitely not every day

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I agree with Joanne. What’s also true of me is that;

  • I write
  • I love writing
  • My creative writing is getting better
  • I will have something published in the Spring
  • I work in public relations and I actually write all the time in my professional life

So really, I am a writer. And if you’re reading this, it’s very likely you are too.

After an awkward pause on the phone today that probably lasted too long, I eventually did answer “yes”. And I will do next time I’m asked.

My writing is rubbish. What’s the point?

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Some questions I have been asking myself recently…

Is there any point?

Will my work ever be as good as the stuff I love to read?

Is writing a waste of time for me?

Is that piece I submitted a few weeks ago actually any good?

You get the gist… I’m led to believe that I’m not the only aspiring writer who feels like this. In fact, it seems to come with the territory.

Once you start looking, though, there are so many ways to tackle this and an amazing community of writers out there who are ready to help you get your motivation back.

One thing I’ve found immensely helpful is a podcast I’ve recently discovered called The Write Now Podcast with Sarah Werner. I only wish I’d found it sooner! Sarah is a writer too and is hugely passionate about it, but like most of us, she struggles to juggle writing alongside her other commitments, she gets disheartened sometimes and on occasion suffers from ‘imposter syndrome’. Aka, she’s just like me.

There’s over fifty podcasts to listen to and I’ve been bingeing on them on recent car journeys (and listening to them all out of order). They are packed with genuinely motivational tips from herself and other writers. Themes include how to overcome writer’s block, careers for writers and the most important questions a writer can ever ask. She also regularly interviews really interesting people in the writing community who are experts in everything from nonfiction to flash fiction and online marketing. Sarah’s podcast is definitely my ‘go-to’ now if I’m ever feeling disheartened.

After listening to hours and hours of her podcasts, a few things have particularly stayed with me.

1. Done is better than perfect 

This is a great mantra for anyone who is tempted to self edit or reads back a draft and tosses it aside because it’s ‘not good enough’. Just finish it! You can always edit it later on and make it sound beautiful.

2. The most important question a writer can ask is – why?

E.g. why is your character doing that? Going through your writing and asking this question will help give your characters real motivation and therefore more depth.

3. The second most important question is  – what is the most interesting thing that can happen next?

As someone who struggles with story ideas and plotting, this is has been super useful and I keep going back to it.

4. Write for one person

I really like this idea. Instead of trying to second guess what everyone in the world might think of your piece, or that one really critical person who has never liked you and therefore your writing, picture one person when you are writing. Write for them. It might be a family member or a particularly inspirational and supportive tutor.

5. You are good enough!

Every single writer struggles with rejection, lack of confidence, writer’s block and all those other issues at some point. The best thing I can do, as someone who loves to write, is just write. It’s never wasted time.

Thank you, Sarah, from your latest subscriber.

 

Review: My DIY Writing Retreat in Whitby

20170226_093029I’m sure you’ve seen the adverts for those dreamy sounding writing retreats in rural Cornwall or sunny Provence. Well, I wanted in on that. But unfortunately my budget and diary wouldn’t quite stretch. I wasn’t going to let a couple of minor details like that stand in my way, though. So, I decided to try my own DIY writing retreat in Whitby.  In true traveller style, here’s my review in case you fancy trying something similar.

Location (5 stars)

I used to visit Whitby regularly as a child, so from a nostalgic point of view it was great to go back to places which hold so many fond memories. It hasn’t changed much at all in 20 years. That aside, Whitby is a dream location for aspiring writers. Its connections to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its famous folklore tales and ghost stories are just the start.

If anything, my head was bursting with too many ideas for story settings after a couple of hours in Whitby. The brooding Abbey, overlooking the town below from its proud position on the cliff top, the 199 steps curving their way up the hill to St Mary’s Church with its ancient graveyard, the narrow cobbled streets with higgledy little cottages and specialist shops – the possibilities really are endless. It was a delight to just wander around exploring Whitby’s little ginnels and go hunting for fossils on the beach. I also made a brief trip to the idyllic Robin Hood’s Bay. That could be a separate weekend in itself.

Accommodation (4 stars)

20170226_072256I stayed at the YHA Whitby Abbey House. Sleeping arrangement-wise, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a basic budget hostel (late-night tussels about who’s bagsied which bed included). But everything else – wow. It’s easily the best location in the whole town. It’s based in a Grade 1 listed mansion immediately next to Whitby Abbey. The building itself is impressive and the grounds are absolutely stunning. It’s got its own delightfully well-tended garden to stroll around too. Look right and you’ll see the ruins in all their glory, look left and you’ve got an immense view of the North sea and the town below. The hostel has a gorgeous conservatory overlooking the Abbey, as well as a couple of other cosy lounges. Lots of quiet corners to set up a laptop or get out your notebook. You can’t really beat this for a writing view.

‘Low budgetness’ (5 stars)

My main expense was petrol and my night in the hostel was just £15. I didn’t actually eat in the hostel cafe but they do serve breakfast and lunch and also provide a self catering kitchen. Whitby itself has lots of lovely independent cafes to fall into as well. Depending on how disciplined you are, you could really do this trip on a shoestring.  

My downfall was visiting the treasure trove that is Whitby Bookshop. I should have known there was no way I’d be leaving that place empty handed. It’s definitely a must visit for any bibliophile. A great selection of fiction, young adult, local interest, music, travel and much more. Plus there’s some gorgeous stationery and homeware. One of my purchases was ‘Strange Whitby Tales’ by Chris Firth and guest authors, a really interesting delve into some of Whitby’s myths and folklore stories which have been passed down the generations, plus a few new ones. It made perfect bedtime reading and a was great way to spark ideas. I even tried my hand at my first ghost story.

Writing success (3 stars)

Admittedly, I did spend the majority of my time exploring rather than sitting down for long writing stints. This still counts as research though, right? It was a great opportunity to observe people who could evolve into characters, get ideas for story set-ups and take photos which will serve as writing prompts in future.

I was so inspired by what I saw in Whitby that my biggest struggle was probably knowing where to start, as I had so many ideas swimming around my mind. I took my trusty copy of The Five Minute Writer by Margaret Geraghty – these writing exercises are a great place to start. As a result of this trip I have two short stories on the go and a pad full of ideas.

Would I go back?

Absolutely. I’ve learnt so much from my first DIY writing retreat experience, not least that I’m a lot happier in my own company than I thought I’d be. I would wholeheartedly recommend a similar trip to anyone who just wants a break from whatever routine they’re in. For anyone creative, whether that’s 20170226_102846art, music, performance or writing, Whitby should be top of your list.

Now that I’ve got the sight-seeing out of my system, I’d definitely go back again and feel happy to sit and get more words down. Another great location to set up is the cafe at Whitby Pavilion. An ideal place to sit and watch the world go by with yet another priceless view. I could literally sit there all day…

I’m already planning my next trip. I’d probably spend the extra money and go for a private room at the hostel and set myself some challenging but achievable goals. Going with a group of writers would be brilliant too and I can’t think of a better base than the YHA hostel.

Now, only time will tell if the ideas from this trip translate into finished pieces I can be proud of.

 

Planning my DIY writing retreat

I keep fawning over adverts for writing retreats in beautiful remote places, dreaming of the escapism, the torrent of ideas I’d come up with and the pages of stunning prose I’d produce away from the daily grind.

Whilst unfortunately I don’t have umpteen hundred pounds and unlimited days to spend researching and drafting, I have managed to earmark a whole weekend to dedicate to writing later this month. That feels like luxury to me.

Of all the atmospheric, inspiring, literary places I could choose to spend it, I’ve chosen Whitby. I can hardly think of anywhere more packed with fascinating places, characters and historical intrigue. It’s also a place full of personal memories, as I spent a week in Whitby every summer as a child for the folk festival.

I haven’t let a shoestring budget hold me back, as there is an imposing YHA hostel a literal stone’s throw away from the famous abbey, with a view of the North sea in the other direction that’s just as haunting.

I haven’t made a plan or set myself any specific goals. (Maybe I should?) But I’m hoping to come away with a bucket full of ideas and a couple of works in progress. If anyone has any suggestions of how I could make the most of my DIY writing retreat, I’d love to hear your suggestions. whitby

How to write flash fiction

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Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending an inspiring workshop on flash fiction, led by the brilliant Linda Grierson Irish, whom I met on the Comma Press short story course.

I have dabbled with the form before, naively assuming that because of short word counts, flash fiction pieces would be quicker and easier to write than what’s traditionally described as a short story. I soon realised the error of my ways.

There is a real skill in being able to create a world, bring a character to life and tell a whole story in just a few hundred words, or sometimes less. Some of best examples have an ending which ‘rings like a bell’, leaving the reader to continue the story in their minds. (This particular story by Kit De Waal has really stayed with me).

I’m now on a mission to try and improve my flash craft. Here are some flash fiction top tips that have stayed with me from the session. Thanks Linda!

  • Start late and leave early – Don’t worry about setting up the place and the character’s back story, there aren’t enough words. Start in the middle of the action and trust the reader to fill in the gaps with their imagination.
  • Every single word needs to work hard – Do you really need those two sentences when one is enough? Be brutal and chop out unnecessary adverbs. E.g. She shuffled slowly.
  • Show don’t tell Nothing new here, but it’s really important to remember this when writing flash. As readers, we don’t want to be spoon fed every detail, but the story still needs a good scaffolding.
  • Don’t introduce too many characters – With so little words, things can get confusing. Think about one or two characters and what can be revealed through this small window on their world.
  • Experiment! – Flash in itself is an experimental genre. Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself with language, setting, pace or point of view. Once you’ve written your piece, why not flip the ending round completely? Or give your character a different quirk or accent. What does this do to the piece?
  • Titles are really important – A tip I’m definitely guilty of forgetting. Titles should be used wisely, to give readers some additional insight or help set up the story. Don’t waste the opportunity.

Any more to add to the list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Revisiting old writing – ‘Waiting for Bill’

This is the first complete piece I ever wrote. I entered it for a competition organised by Liverpool writing group, The Poised Pen. They required flash inspired by the ‘Another Place’ sculptures at Crosby beach. I was absolutely flabbergasted when my name appeared on the long list. It was such an important confidence boost as I took my first tentative steps into writing. Despite there being lots I would do differently as I re-read it two years later, I’m proud of it.another_place3_edit2

Waiting for Bill

Janelle Hardacre

Bill always wonders off. One minute I’ll be telling him what bits we need to buy, the next I turn around and he’s disappeared. Gone.

The mist is opaque today, like there’s a physical wall between me and the sea and everything is bathed in brown. If I hold my hand out it’s like it belongs to a ghost, and come to think of it, it looks like there’s something wrong with it. The skin is all loose and crêpey and I can see lilac veins snaking towards my fingers.

There are a few men on the beach. Alone. Standing straight, arms by their sides, staring out towards the horizon. I don’t know what they can see through the murk. The low cloud is softening them so they’re shadows. I can’t make out which one’s my Bill.  He’ll be back in a minute.

I love coming here. Even on a day like this when the sand and the sky have smudged together and you can’t even see the sea until your toes are in it, it still has a beauty. Bill always says you know a place is beautiful when you still want to look at it even on the harshest days.

I’ve just realised I’m shivering.  I can feel the icy gale piercing right through every stitch. I think I’d like to go. I can see Bill now. I wonder what he’s thinking?

I want to shout him but I think I’ve lost my voice.

Here, what’s that? I can hear a call. Is that him?

“Barbara! Baaaaarbara!”

It’s not Bill.

How does this stranger know my name? She’s coming towards me. Oh hurry up Bill. Her coat is black and puffy.

She’s saying “What are you doing out here? You’ll catch your death you’re only wearin’ a cardi. Come on hun.”

I try to tell her but the words aren’t coming out right. “But Bill’s just there, look. I don’t know what he’s doing; he’s just standing there at the sea.”

“Come on Barbara, I’m sure he’ll be back. Let’s go home shall we and get warmed up?”

Falling off the writing wagon

 

imageOk, so my new year’s resolution was to write a post each week. Alas, this hasn’t happened. But I’m going to bypass the huge temptation to just shove the blog idea to one side after just three posts and treat it as a small pothole in the road.

Every writer is super busy. There will always be tasks that have to come higher up on the priority list than writing. I’ve read all the advice and digested all the tips but basically, the only way to get around it… is to write. Even for ten minutes a day or ten minutes a day three times a week. This is what I need to do now. Amongst a million other things such as actually telling a few people about this blog and finishing the three pieces I’ve started. Then I just need to get submitting. I’ve got a long old way to go to reach my target of 25 rejections in 2017.

I’ve fallen off the writing wagon and it’s only January. Ouch. But I’m getting back on today.

Review – Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

britt-marie-was-hereI have never been as moved by a book as I was when reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. It’s the most memorable story I’ve read in years, probably because Backman so elegantly and subtly reminds us that people behave as they do for many different, complicated reasons, which gives them a totally unique viewpoint on life. How often do we forget that others don’t see the world through the same eyes as us?

With this in mind, I was very excited (and slightly nervous) to read Backman’s other novels, which have been translated into English from his native Swedish. I’m currently reading his third novel Britt-Marie Was Here, which focuses, like Ove, on a misunderstood character who on the face of it seems like an unlikable ‘nag bag’ but becomes completely endearing and charming as we get to know her.

Backman has created a very ‘real’ character in Britt-Marie, a woman in her twilight years who thrives on order, organisation and cleanliness and abruptly finds herself separated from her rich, entrepreneur husband and violently shaken out of her beloved routine.  Britt-Marie lands a new job, in a new town and is thrown into a completely alien culture overnight. As the small, but beautifully layered story unfolds, we observe Britt-Marie as she tries to find her place in the town of Borg and adopt a new role as mentor to the town’s enthusiastic, football-mad but oft-ignored kids.We also meet some other curious, quirky, characters along the way.

While I’m still able to get sucked into a story purely for entertainment, it’s impossible not to read as a budding writer, and as I’ve devoured this book I’ve questioned what it is that makes it successful. The plot is well paced and there are turning points and unexpected calamities throughout. The reader also learns important information about Britt-Marie’s past, which adds real depth to her character and gives an insight into why she behaves like she does. Backman is also brilliantly observant, so the little exchanges and anecdotes in the story are often funny or poignant because we can recognise them from our own lives.

The writing is also wonderful. A couple of lines and phrases really shone out to me as I read

…his laughter fades, spills on to the floor and disappears.

He smiles in a way you’d hardly notice. She smiles in a way no-one would ever notice.

With a quarter of the book still to go I don’t think I’ve fallen in love as much as I did with Ove, but that would be an extremely tall order. I’d still highly recommend ‘Britt-Marie Was Here’ if you’re looking for a heartwarming and thought-provoking story, unlike any you’ve read before.

 

Short story ideas – headlines as prompts

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Right?

Someone tweeted this the other day and it resonated with me. A lot.

I do feel like I have something to say, multiple things, but when it comes to sculpting them into a short story with a clear plot, that’s where I often come unstuck. I have several ideas  (which I take to be a positive thing in creative writing), but sadly they are never packaged up in a way that suits the short story form. They need a lot of fettling and chiseling before they resemble anything like a story, which can be very frustrating when I just want to get something out.

It got me thinking about stories, more specifically stories that people remember or stories that sell. I’ve been trying to calculate how to make sure mine aren’t completely cliched or far fetched.

That’s when I remembered a website I’d come across at work, one of many news services which has made a business of selling ‘real life’ stories to media outlets.

Just clicking on their latest stories brought up literally hundreds of headlines which could act as fantastic short story synopses that are grounded in some sort of reality. There’s no need to even click onto the article and find out what actually happened if you don’t want to.

For instance:

61-Year-Old ‘ABSO Anne’ Racks Up Shocking Eight Notices For ‘Crimes’ Including Moving Bins, Gossiping & Supporting BREXIT

Dad Embroiled In Parking Row With Neighbour Has Driveway Blocked By CONCRETE BOLLARDS

16-Year-Old Girl Has Condition Which Means She May Never Eat Again

Britain’s Most Famous Butcher Has Created The Biggest Christmas Roast EVER – Stuffing 14 Different Birds Inside A Turkey

You get the gist.

I’ve already started working on a story which is inspired by one of these attention-grabbing headlines. I didn’t read the whole article, I just let my imagination get carried away.

I’ve been working on a couple of flash pieces recently too. I’m learning that the ‘smaller’ and more focused the situation the better, so it’s actually really useful to see how news reporters tell real life stories in just a few hundred words, sharing only the necessary details.

So next time you’re stuck for a story idea, why not try starting with a headline and letting the characters and stories follow. I’d love to hear if you have any success with this.