Category Archives: Mum

Why you won’t be in my story

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To follow on from my last post, I truly am fascinated by people.

And I am writing a book.

The book has characters. Each character has attributes: their looks, their speech, what happens to them, even their name.

So how do I create and fill out characters without using the appearance, words or experiences of people I know? I do not want to be sued for libel or defamation and I certainly do not want to cause upset. So I’ve been coming up with some rules for my work.

Looks and characteristics

1. I can use generic attributes. There is nothing libellous about giving a character a long beard. Or a speech impediment. Or a red face when they get angry. What would be wrong would be to associate fictional attributes with a real person (dead or alive). Details about fictional characters must not identifiably connect with any single source; no one person could claim I was writing about them.

2. I can humanise my characters. Each fictional character has a set of qualities and flaws of their own, just like each of us. Individual hurts, feelings and private agendas, along with what they value and their annoying habits. This combination of qualities and flaws need not match any person I know; I just need a good mix.

3. I can use or avoid stereotypes. So, I would avoid a stereotype where I wanted to make a point – a dramatic clue for the reader. However, I would use a stereotype to aid the flow of the story. It doesn’t need to be a bland or tired character you may have seen elsewhere. Sometimes I get ideas for a character’s personality based on the features of an animal, a musical instrument or a plant. A character based initially on a banana plant may be tall, expressive, easy to peel (an ‘open book’?), prone to pranks and with a silly sense of humour.

Speech and Dialogue

4. Where I am creating dialogue, I can produce original speech. In any case, spoken language in this book needs to be reasonably terse and punchy.

5. Where I want to use idioms resembling those of the historical period, I can alter them for my purposes. I love phrases like “in the spring, at the time when kings go off to war” (2 Samuel 11:1). My narrator sees things from a different perspective to the writer of this phrase, and will put a different interpretation on the world around her.

6. In this particular project I do not need to concern myself with linguistic details of accents or swearing, but I am interested in riddles, memory aids, parallelisms, repetition and multiple meanings. I am keen on close readings of texts and want my work in progress to unlock beautiful linguistic details for readers. The form, as much as the content, is all part of this artistic and creative experiment.

Experiences

7. I could draw entirely on my own experience and memories, making it an utterly self-absorbed and painfully autobiographical tale, but we all know that is not a clever solution. My characters must be absorbing and irritating in their own right. Perhaps they have no children. Or many children. Or six toes. Or they wake before dawn. I do not identify easily with these things, but I can use observation and imagination to fill in the gaps in my experience. I can listen to those who know and keep learning.

8. My story is based on characters you can read about in the Old Testament, and it is not for me to tell you whether they were real or not. Make your own mind up on that. However, I made the conscious decision at the beginning of the writing process that I could not use a living person’s story. I value people too much to take real experiences of pain or loss and bastardise them into something I could assert was new. Elements of my story could look familiar to some who know me, but they may only be included if the experiences are not unique to individuals and families. Plot detail must be based on the text I am working to or its time period, or be original material inspired and created in the process. Many of my elements come by merging a couple of ideas together or by taking a thought for a walk. They arrive when I least expect them and need noting down before they walk off again without saying goodbye. Some of the best ideas come utterly uninvited but still stand the tests of rewriting.

9. This exercise is not about therapeutically working through a set of my own emotions (I’ve already done that) but about finding ways to express truth – using story. Healing truth. It would be rather silly therefore to create wounds in the process. When the time comes, I want to run the manuscript past people whose own experiences may come close to those I am writing about, because they will resonate the closest and can tell me where I am wrong.

Names and Naming

10. Some of the characters have names straight out of the Old Testament text I am working to (one is altered deliberately, with a shortening).

11. All names have to be appropriate for the time period, so no Jacks or Kates. Some of the names around at the time happen to coincide with names of people I know or are related to (including my mum). Where I want to use a name which happens also to be a name of a contact, I need to be wise to how it could be interpreted.

12. There is a case for inventing names – I’ve researched naming patterns in the Old Testament and the results are fascinating. I could use animal names, place names or word names for new characters and not break my own rules. I could even use the OT patterns of names closely tied with their characters’ stories if I felt that was helpful. I could translate all the names into their English equivalents (for example, Deborah: Bee), but I have decided that would not necessarily make things easier for the reader.

So I hope you will be pleased to hear that you won’t find yourself in my story. You should find truths which apply to many people and these elements are part of what makes a story gripping and dramatic. In fact, I hope you will find elements which do resonate, as I believe that identifying common experiences can help unite and heal.

The thing with the words

Can you use short words? Can you use just a few words? Does it help? Would it help the people who read the words?

Can you say a lot with a little?

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Many thanks to the rather wonderful xkcd site for this explanation of Saturn V using only the 1000 most common words in English.

I have a love-hate relationship with vocabulary. I do know many, many words. I use far fewer in writing, and a tiny subset verbally if it can be helped. Frequently I cannot remember the mot juste in the mother tongue these days. Not helpful when playing my parents at Scrabble online and the only words allowed are words none of us know. It turns out there are many, many words I do not know.

I am working on a book. I have had an idea for constraining my writing. Apparently lots of other people do this sort of thing. I am including a character with a learning disability, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should limit the words I am allowed to use, either by how common they are in English or maybe by whether it could be seen to be read neatly in the context it is set in. This exercise would actually be far from simple; I would need to be certain which words and versions of words I would be allowed, structure and plan carefully and try hard to make the prose read well. For example, I stumbled across something today which made me worry that perhaps this may result in something quite wooden:

A text for students of English:                                                                      It was a bright sunny morning the week before Christmas. Grandma Burns was knitting busily. The snow was deep and its crust shone like silver. Suddenly she heard sad sighs outside her door. She opened the door and there was Peter and Jimmy Rice, two very poor little boys. Their faces were in their hands and they were crying.

The same text written for native speakers of English:

Grandma Burns sat knitting busily in the sun one bright morning the week before Christmas. The snow lay deep, and the hard crust glistened like silver. All at once she heard little sighs of grief outside her door. When she opened it there sat Peter and Jimmy Rice, two very poor little boys, with their faces in their hands; and they were crying.

I think I am going to need to play with the idea and try out some different ways of running with it. I’d love it if the book I write could be accessed by people with a simpler range of vocabulary. Vocabulary can unlock so much emotion, nuance, connection and depth. However, it also has the capacity to act as a language barrier within a language. I have worked with many young offenders and students with low academic ability and have wanted to communicate meaningfully with them without patronising them or imitating patterns of speech I can’t use honestly. (Dja get me?)

Depression Toolkit #24: Good times

I am on the upward curve, and the view is improving.

Not long ago, if I had spent more than ten minutes in public I would have been like this inside:

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This weekend, I managed two long train journeys, 8 hours in company at a fabulous wedding and the proof-reading and checking of a 10,000 word thesis for a friend. The sustained improvement in concentration and general absence of panic are hugely satisfying. I can honestly say I am feeling drained but fired up at the same time. Some elements were important in this, not least the medication, positive thinking and allowing myself not to need to be perfect. Also the presence of my husband, the kind and thoughtful university friends, games on my mobile, inspiring reading matter and the opportunity to take many many photos were a blessing in their own ways. We visited the amazing Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition in Durham; I highly recommend it should you get the opportunity this summer as it ticked many boxes for me. We had the comfort of knowing that the children were being very well looked after by my parents too, despite forgetting to transfer the car seats and causing extra work for them.

There was also incredibly good news from my brother and his wife. Their fourth child arrived safely on Saturday and completes the family. They now have two boys and two girls, and it was a huge relief and joy to hear the news, despite worrying in advance that I wouldn’t be able to manage hearing about a new baby in the family. One of my concerns has been in finding identity as a mother of two when I would have loved four children. Future child-bearing is not a decision which has to be fully decided at this point however – and we will probably stop at two in all likelihood. This season of life has given me much opportunity to think and has softened my heart towards those whose nests are, for whatever reason, less full than they would like. I was overjoyed and excited at the good news of my new niece’s early arrival. Far more than I would have anticipated. I can’t wait to see her photo and in time to hold her. She is utterly special and unique and is our little princess.

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Depression Toolkit #16: Colour

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Beauty comes in many forms, and the colour around me these sunny summer days is startling. The tighter I withdraw myself from normal routines, the more detail I notice. The slower I go, the more I see and the more I trust. There are SO MANY colours in nature. I took some photos in our small garden and found a rainbowsworth in no time (click it for a larger version). I just want to drink it all in, to lean on the beauty and learn the colours. I never even saw them all before. The grace of it all. The sheer madness of abundance. And that’s just in the part of the light spectrum I can see.

Man-made beauty can also make me stop in awe. Sometimes all I need to jolt out of a depressive rut is a bright colour. Colour is powerful. My husband used to have a set of mugs at university which included a bright yellow one to cheer people up. I found it comforting, but when it broke we needed a replacement. Thankfully Lily decorated one with my mum as a Christmas present. It still cheers me up. We all need a cheer-up mug sometimes. I highly recommend it.

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I choose colours to wear according to how I am feeling on many occasions. And if the garden can be decorated with so many hues, it is probably ok for me to wear red sometimes. Or blue. Or green. Maybe you want to wear colours according to your mood. To be able to send a message that you just need a blue jeans and neutral top day. Or a bright orange day. Or a shocking purple day. To be seen. To know that what’s inside has a colour and to feel ok to express that.

…he views the ends of the earth
    and sees everything under the heavens

Job 28:24

Jam tomorrow or ‘jamas today?

I am not sure I should give you this whole post today.

But in the interests of getting straight to the point, and also as I may well forget to, here it is. I’m pondering Deferred Gratification again today.

My children are increasingly keen to have their material needs and wants met, and know exactly who to ask for satisfaction. I am repeatedly amazed at my son’s confident trust in expecting a pleasing result, or his tenacity in alarming responses should less preferential alternatives be suggested. What keeps me going is knowing that his sister (who still checks in frequently with requests) is now able to accept a refusal more often than not should the request go beyond the egg/fish category. It is ok to be firm, fellow-parents. It is appropriate to say No to children at times, even when the price is right. My daughter Lily recently explained to Joe that we couldn’t get something because it was ‘too much money’ which wasn’t true, but was also happy for me to correct her. Am I a mean parent? Not at all; I recently had to forego a large proportion of my comfort Pop Tarts in the interests of making mealtimes a happy experience for all concerned. Who wants their children to grow up not knowing what things cost or where they come from? Joe asked me this evening if chocolate came from paint. Nice thinking. Perhaps we should be writing some kind of letter to Cadbury’s…

Ah, but all this talk of confectionery, and no Jam.

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I was at mum and dad’s recently, discussing the perfect state of jam. Dad and I agreed that the pleasure derived from starting a new jar of jam was far greater than the scale of the thing, especially when you consider going back to it the second time. Second day jam? Not  special. But then dad pointed out that finishing a jar, knowing you have made space in the cupboard, and also anticipating a new jar to start the next day – that really is something special. Jam indeed tomorrow. And jam today, so doubly happy. The best experience of jam could well be finishing the jar.

 

Tomorrow I don’t know if I’ll have jam.

Tomorrow I would ordinarily be running a toddler group and racing around with my control-freak head on. We usually get around 40 children a week, and there is a lot that happens to make the group work. Tomorrow marks the first session I won’t be there for a while, ‘signed off’ for a sabbatical half-term. I will have to make other plans to keep Joe amused. We can’t stay in pyjamas all day. Actually, we could, but it would not befit the school run or hanging out the washing.

Tomorrow I’ll miss the people, the activity and the joy of seeing my little boy running around in church playing and having fun. But I am not sure that tomorrow or any tomorrows in the near future I would be capable of what is required of me: meeting people and not panicking, staying in a room full of noise, remembering the details, watching a number of activities, training, leading, guiding, opening up ideas. I will post more about what is happening to me soon – maybe tomorrow. For now, this jam jar is right out of jam. But finishing the jar is sometimes really the better part of the whole experience.

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Who knows what’s in the cupboard for tomorrow?

Game boys and girls

The kids are sick. This is not modern youth speak indicating their coefficient of cool; they are actually sick. Joe is ‘nose runny again’ and taking out shares in his parents’ bedroom by night and Lily has been off school for a week and working on her amateur dramatics skills at every opportunity with her parents. In my opinion she still has a long way to go. Nothing big, exciting or clever in the illness department. They will recover and all will be well again. And in the meantime I am grateful for being able to grab a few hours today to make progress in a number of important areas as my parents have bravely stepped in.

I have not been able to interest the children in crafts or other messy activities and would not want to while both have the attention span of a goldfish in a forgettery. Parking children in front of a TV (short programmes only) or allowing them to play educational games on the CBeebies website has been particularly successful, but not the ideal situation. They are not in a useful state for helping with chores, sadly.

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So I raided my brain and realised that there were some other ideas. Back to Old School play.

My sister – the one who makes films – recently let me have her old Game Boy. Wow – that brought back a few 90s memories. I was so jealous of the kids who had these when I was younger. It was a very long ferry trip for the German exchange as one of the few 13 year olds not to have one. But they are good for heuristic technological play, as it turns out. My son can now play ‘Stack the Shapes into a Really Interesting Tower’ which – at Level Zero – buys me enough time to put a load of washing on. And his sister can practice her Being A Teacher and Telling Him All She Knows about technology from a previous generation. Because she loves history so much. And also how to make it start again.

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I expect it won’t be long before he is better than me, but I will not be publishing evidence of that, clearly. Then there’s the game of What Ancient Objects Can We Find In The House Which Can Be Used For Creating Music?

This is what Joe came up with when I found him amusing himself the other morning:

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He doesn’t really have an invisible left hand, that’s just his rhythm-copying. Educational? I should think so: international drums, music and history lessons all without trying too hard. I guess it goes to show you can always benefit from having a few things in the house that you don’t mind being hit by a two-year-old. Especially if they are not people.

And then I was feeling so nostalgic, and excited that Joe may be tall enough to visit Legoland this year, and enthralled to have discovered letsbuilditagain.com that I invited him to help me rebuild my Best Christmas Present Ever. Released in 1984, Lego Castle model 6080 is quite something. By this point Lily was back on the computer games, and I don’t blame her. What used to take an afternoon of sorting and building took three or four sessions with Joseph, much of which was spent explaining how to place things symmetrically and not to hurt your fingers or mix the wrong lego trousers and tops. Fashion, history, technology, maths… who needs school? I even had to get out two pairs of tweezers to rescue the lego string and had to substitute half a dozen pieces of highly hooverable shape from other sets of more interesting colour. This is proper lego. This lego actually weighs a serious amount. It smells of the mid 1980s. It makes me happy deep inside. All this was lost on Joe, who thinks it is a glorified drawbridge (it is a wonderfully glorified drawbridge in fact). It turns out several other female friends had the same set when they were younger. So perhaps I should shift the Lego Friends and pursue a more historical and adventurous agenda with Lily. When she gets off the computer, that is.

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I will not ever never forget you Beaky

I have this little daughter Lily. She is small and very funny. Lily has an imaginary dog called Beaky that no one else can see. She drew a picture of him here:

[Owing to errors in a previous post, I now cannot remember whether Beaky features to the right of the tiger, or on the right hand side of the tiger. I suspect Beaky is the one on the left.]

One day Lily said ‘Beaky died on his birthday’ and we asked how. ‘Beaky had a party and he died and now I have a new dog called Chadderly’.

‘Chadderly?’ we asked. ‘Chadderly? As in Chudleigh?’

‘No’ explained Lily, ‘Chadderly, from the London Advent Calendar‘.

‘Chudleigh from the London Advent Calendar?’

‘Yes. Chadderly.’

This did not make enough sense to us, so we asked about Chadderly. What did he look like?

‘Chadderly is the colour when you mix your ice cream.’

‘Do you mean when you mix chocolate and vanilla?’

‘Yes’

Lily then had to tell Beaky and Chadderly off for jumping on the furniture, despite neither of them existing and one having apparently passed away, which brought that conversation to an end.

The next time we visited Grandma and Grandad’s house Lily wanted to see Chadderly on their London Advent Calendar. It is not putting it too strongly to say that Lily is obsessed with the London Advent Calendar. She can tell you what most of the dates do and every day of the month she reminds you of the equivalent last December. The London Eye is the 3rd. The Restaurant with the scary silhouettes is on the 5th and therefore will be ok to watch when she is 5. Big Ben is on the 1st. The Three Boats Come Sailing In is on the 6th. There are a number of others, as you might imagine. Lily makes up songs about it. She talks about the animals. She tells stories about them. She has decided that her teddy Archie will go to the St Paul’s Cathedral school and church (17th). She looks forward to going to Grandma and Grandad’s house mainly to play with their London Advent Calendar.

Here she was at Christmas getting a big fix, in my absence.

Except there was a problem.

You see, Chudleigh (ahem, Chadderly), looks like this:

I don’t know when you last mixed chocolate and vanilla ice cream, but I recommend it. It does not, however, come out black.

The Real dog Lily had in mind was this one:

This is Bertie. So, goodbye Chadderly and goodbye Beaky. We will not ever never forget you. And welcome to the madhouse Bertie from the London Advent Calendar.