Saturday, 7 January 2017

Taking My Cat for a Walk

This is Bernard. He's 13 and has FIV: feline immunodeficiency virus. Translated, his immune system isn't very good. It just means that we have to be a bit careful with him, and not hesitate to get him to the vet if he seems poorly.

But he's contagious to other cats. And since his old favourite pastime, before he was diagnosed, was doing his flat-out best to achieve alpha-cat status over every other cat in existence, he can't be allowed to roam free.

He loves going outside, though. I mean, loves it. So in our old house in Hampshire, we had a special fence around our garden, like this one:

Those roller-things spin if a cat tries to climb them. Bernard never even tried. He took one look at the Spinning Fence of Doom and thought, "Forget it."

But we've recently moved to the Scottish Borders. And our new home has a much bigger garden. Miles bigger. Fencing it isn't an option.

Bernard was unimpressed with the idea of being a house-cat. With the great outdoors denied to him, he became grumpy.

When he's grumpy, he gets vocal.

Very, very vocal.

He does not have an attractive meow. Sorry, B-cat, I love you but it's true. You sound like a rusty door-hinge, and in fact I suspect that you secretly practise your yowling techniques in private to make sure they're as UTTERLY OBNOXIOUS AND PIERCINGLY LOUD AS POSSIBLE. Because you know that we can't stand the noise and eventually we'll cave.

Only this time we couldn't, because FIV, contagious, etc.

So my husband had an idea. This was the idea:

He brought it home and I said, "Ooh, is it time to play Torture the Kitty?" Because cats, as you may know, usually take a dim view of the whole harness-lead concept.

"Let's just try it," said my husband.

Bernard, in general, is a fairly chilled cat. And he surprised me. He took to the harness with no trouble at all. In less than half an hour, we were able to take him outside on a lead and let him prowl around and explore and sniff the bushes, and oh my god, he freakin' LOVED it.

It's his new favourite thing. In the morning, he wakes us up (rusty door hinge) and then runs straight past his food bowl to the back door. We take him out twice a day and he's a much happier cat now.

So this morning it's my turn to take Bernard out. I'm not at my best in the mornings. Bernard has to jump up on the bed several times, shouting in my ear, before I move.

Finally I get up. I don't bother to brush my hair, but pull on fleecies and boots, groggily make myself coffee (Bernard yelling at me the whole time), and finally put his harness on him and take him outside.

A grey morning, but not unpleasant. Bernard wanders around on his extendible lead, practically humming with contentment. I follow after him, not humming but still content enough, sipping my coffee.

We round the front of the house. Our new home is on a fairly busy road, but on a slight hill, set back behind some trees, so I guess B-cat has gotten used to the sense of isolation.

Well, we get in sight of the drive and suddenly a truck comes pulling up.

Needle. Record. Scratch.

Bernard stops short, wide-eyed. I can see now that it's a milk truck. I'm standing there with my cat on a lead, my hair like a wild thing, clutching a cup of coffee and trying to pull off a general air of nonchalance that I do not feel.

The milk truck stops. The driver and I look at each other.

I say, "Hi! I don't think we've ordered any milk."

"Oh, I know," says the driver, who's now noticed that I have my cat on a lead. He, too, is attempting a general air of nonchalance, as if he sees this every day of the week. "I was just wondering if you'd like to start having it delivered?"

At that moment, Bernard, who's seen both trucks and people before, abruptly decides that the combination of the two is THE SCARIEST THING EVER. He tries to make a run for it. He comes to the end of his lead. It goes about as well as you might imagine.

He. Freaks. Out. I rush over (sloshing coffee) and try to calm him. The second his lead slackens he runs for it again and meanwhile I'm still trying to pull off a breezy air of "Ha ha ha! This is so normal!"

"There's a long story as to why I have my cat on a lead," I say to the milkman.

He smiles politely.

Bernard crouches in the bushes, glaring at him.

(Mr Mikman is so going to be telling everyone about the wild-haired, coffee-drinking American woman with her cat on a lead in the pub tonight.)

I'm in a sort of mild frenzy myself by then, and find myself ordering dairy products that I don't need and have no desire for, to be delivered once a week, because hey, why not traumatise my cat every Saturday morning, just for the hell of it.

The milkman finally leaves. Bernard dashes around to the side of the house. I give him lots of strokes and cuddles and finally he decides to brave the front again...when OMG A PERSON WALKS UP THE DRIVE!!1!

It's the guy delivering our newspaper. Bernard freezes, then darts into the bushes. Dreading a replay of before, I lurk in the bushes along with my cat, sincerely hoping that Newspaper Guy doesn't notice me.

Or my cat.

On a lead.

In the bushes together.

"He's probably perfectly nice," I hiss crossly to Bernard. "DUDE. HE COULD HAVE KITTY TREATS FOR YOU! YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW!"

Bernard so wasn't buying it.

To make a long story short, that was my morning. Bernard had a second breakfast when we got inside to soothe his frazzled nerves, and I had another cup of coffee to soothe mine. Later I took him out again and he prowled around happily, the very picture of kitty-contentment.

This is my new normal.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

So here we are in Scotland. Oh, and have a short story.

*blows cobwebs and dust away*

Oh man, this blog has been so neglected. Painfully neglected. If it were a puppy, it would be staring at me with big puppy-eyes, silently asking why I don't love it anymore.

Sorry, everyone. I've been busy writing lots and lots of words, and have had some real-life stuff going on. Those two books up above are part of the reason for my silence -- you can blame them. But the complete Broken trilogy is now completed (PARDON ME WHILE I PUNCH THE AIR AND DANCE AROUND THE ROOM!), with the last book, Black Moon, soon to come out in March. Look at that cover. I'm in love.

Meanwhile, my husband and I have moved to the Scottish Borders. Yeah, just a tiny little jaunt away from Hampshire, where we were previously. Our cat is just about speaking to us again after the long drive.

We're still unpacking. (There are TOWERS of boxes everywhere; it may take us a while.) And I came across some of my teenage writing, and thought it would be fun to share it. So here's a story I wrote when I was 16 or 17. If I were writing it now, there are a few things I'd do differently, but in general I still like this. The author in me couldn't resist cutting two lines that weren't needed. Apart from that, I haven't changed a word. Hope you enjoy it!
The fair arrived at dusk on a warm summer night, and the men worked for most of one week and part of the next to get the rides in order and the booths set up. Kate Cranshaw watched the proceedings with a mild sense of obligation and a lot of boredom. Once she tried to help Doug set up the Ferris wheel (advertised as the largest in the Western Hemisphere), but he, along with the other men, yelled at her to get out of the way. So she wandered back to Doug's jewellery booth, set up on the outskirts of the fair near the gates, and curled up to sleep in the sleeping bag which was tucked neatly under the counter.
She awoke when Doug came back, tired and dirty.
"Do you want to rest awhile?" she asked, getting up.
"Yeah. Thanks, honey." He lay down on the bag, not bothering to get in it, and went to sleep immediately, which irritated Kate, who often had to lie awake for close to an hour before sleep came.
She sat down cross-legged on the counter and stared at the country road which would soon bring people from all over the county to have a good time. All those people, Kate thought, and every single one had parents, and a family, and friends...each one had had a different childhood and had a different story. Each one had hopes and dreams and fears that marked them as unique. And soon they would all come to pass by Doug's booth, and she'd see a little piece of their lives.
Such thoughts were on par with trying to comprehend the eternity of the universe to Kate, but she enjoyed wondering about things like that. She had fun travelling around with the fair, selling jewellery in Doug's booth and thinking about the people she sold it to. She loved talking to people and getting to know them; Doug was always complaining that she did "more jawin' than sellin'," but he didn't really mind.
"What town are we in, baby? Do you know?"
Kate turned around. "You didn't sleep long."
"I didn't go to sleep. I was just dozin'." He stretched and put his hands beneath his head. "Are we still in Arkansas? No, we left Arkansas last week, didn't we?"
"Thursday. We're in Louisiana."
"What town?"
"I don't know. I don't think we're in one -- just between a whole bunch of small ones."
He shut his eyes and nodded, and they fell into companionable silence. She studied him idly. When she had first met him -- what was it, ten years ago? No, nine -- God, how time flies -- he had been the best-looking man she ever set eyes upon. Big like a football player, he should have been woefully out of place in the little jewellery booth, but it was obviously a well-loved part of him. He had dark brown hair and blue eyes. Warm, deep velvet blue eyes, shining with joy and happiness and pure love of life. She had just run out on a husband who was a "little weasily rat who cheated on me and beat up on me -- that's where I got the black eye -- and anything else you'd care to name. So what else do you want to know?"
And his warm blue eyes had looked at her with concern. "One more thing," he said. "How long ago did you leave him, honey?"
She almost crumpled. Joe had stopped calling her pet names a week after their marriage.
"I left last night," she whispered, leaning against his booth. He looked at her again, this time taking in the circles under her eyes, her slight unsteadiness on her feet, and the old Army duffel bag, stuffed full, clutched in her hand.
"Look," he said. "You've had a rough time, OK? And I want to help. Now this husband of yours, he's
going to be mad, right?"
"He'll kill me." It was a fact, and she stated it with certainty.

 "Well, don't worry. He's got to find you first. You did good, coming to the fair. Whole county's here, I think. Now, look. Here's some money -- no, wait a minute, lemme finish -- here's some money. You go take it to that little restaurant set up over by the fun house, and get you something to eat, OK? Then come back over here. There's a sleeping bag set up under the counter here -- see?" He moved back so she could look. "And you can sleep for a few hours. We're movin' out tonight, and you can come too. Then when we get to the next town, you can do what you want. You can go off and start a new life for yourself, or maybe you'd like to hang around here with me for a while. You know, sell jewellery and stuff. You know? What do you think?" He looked at her hopefully.

Kate started to cry.

"You don't even know me," she said through her tears. "Why are you doing this for me? What's in it for you, anyway?"

He smiled slightly. "I don't like to see pretty ladies cry, that's all," he said. "Now go get something to eat."

Now, nine years later, Kate was still with him, and was quite content. It had never taken much to make her happy, and the life she had now was more than enough.

The sun rose without fanfare, and the day grew hot and dusty. Crowds of people were at the gates, waiting to attack the rides and food and games. Finally everything was ready, and the gates were
opened. The people streamed in.

The day went from hot to hotter, but Kate was enjoying herself hugely -- she had met an aspiring actress from Monroe and a mysterious looking man who, she fancied, was probably a gangster -- at the very least...

"Goodbye! Enjoy the fair!" she called after the nice young couple who had, after much deliberation and help from Kate, purchased two friendship rings.

"S'cuse me, ma'am, how much are these?"

Kate turned around and faced a pretty young blond with grey eyes, clutching the arm of a rather tweedy young man. Kate followed the pointed finger. "Oh, aren't these nice? See, it's two parts of a heart, and each one's on a chain. I print your name on one half and your boyfriend's on the other. Then you wear the half with his name, and he wears yours. Ten dollars for the both of them. They're a set, you know."

"What a sweet idea! What do you think, Harold?" She smiled almost shyly at him.

He looked bored. "I'm not wearing any necklace. Anyway, it's juvenile. You're in college, for God's sake. Grow up."

"But I -- I don't know, I just thought it was a sweet idea...some of the other girls have them..." She bit her lip and looked down, her fingers tightening on his arm.

He shook her off impatiently. "It's infantile. I thought you were more mature than that."

She looked up quickly, her hands scrambling for his arm again. "I am, Harold, really I am. I'm very mature."

Her eyes sought his, but he only grunted and stared pointedly off in the distance. His arm hung limply in her grasp.

Kate carefully began to dust the counter, watching the couple from the corners of her eyes.

The girl was searching Harold's face anxiously. One finger crept to her mouth, and she nibbled at it.
Harold turned suddenly and barked, "What the hell are you doing? Get that finger out of your mouth!"

She jerked it out, and stuttered in confusion, "I'm sorry! -- I didn't -- Please, I wasn't..."  He glared at her until her voice trailed off and tears started to her eyes.

"I can't believe it," he snarled. "You're in college, for God's sake, and you're sucking on your finger like a baby."

Tears crawled down her face, but her voice was fairly composed. "Please, Harold. It's just -- just a nervous habit."

He snorted in disgust. "You're a nervous habit," he said coldly, and he turned and walked away.

The girl caught hold of the counter for support as she began to sob. Kate hurried around the booth and put her arm around her.

"Don't you worry, honey, don't you worry," she said as she guided the girl to a bench and sat her down. The girl stopped crying abruptly, and sat, shaking slightly, her hands clenched in her lap.

"What's your name?" asked Kate gently.

The girl sniffed and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Gloria," she said in a low voice.

"Hi, Gloria. I'm Kate."

Gloria managed a smile. "Hi."

"Look," said Kate, "this is none of my business, but don't you think he was being awfully hateful to you for no reason?"

Gloria shook her head vehemently. "It's my fault," she said. "If I wasn't so stupid, he wouldn't get so angry with me." She looked down. "Maybe I do act like a kid sometimes," she said.

She began to trace a pattern on her skirt with a finger. "Besides," she said with sudden conviction, "he's not really like that. He...he loves me a lot. He just..." She shrugged helplessly, and looked at Kate, her luminous grey eyes begging her to understand.

Kate was silent for a moment. "I was married to a boy like that," she said finally. She smiled faintly. "Guess I still am. I never bothered to get a divorce...I just ran without looking back." Gloria made no comment, but her eyes never left Kate's face.

Kate sighed. "My daddy was a weak man," she said. "Or maybe not weak, exactly, but he sure didn't have any backbone when it came to my momma. It was shameful the way he let her bully him. I never could respect him for that, and I swore that I would never marry a man who would let me boss him around." She laughed dryly. "Well, I sure didn't. I met Joe, and I thought it was just wonderful to be with a man who was strong. I married him a month later.

"But it turned out that he wasn't strong at all -- he was weak, maybe even weaker than my daddy. 'Cause, see, he didn't feel strong unless he was yelling at me or putting me down or hitting me. It took me a while, but I finally figured out that if he was really strong, he wouldn't feel like he had to prove it by picking on me all the time. He didn't love me. He just wanted someone around he could feel superior to. So I packed my bags and got the hell out of there, and I haven't regretted it for a minute."

Neither said anything for a while. Then Gloria said slowly, "Well, I don't think Harold's like that. I mean, he does yell at me a lot, but I don't think...I mean...well, I love him, and I know he loves me too. We'll probably get married..."

"Probably," said Kate.

Gloria sniffed again and smoothed her wrinkled skirt. "I better go find him," she said. She rose.

"Well, thank you," she said to Kate awkwardly. She turned and started off into the crowd.

Kate sat on the bench alone for a few minutes before she walked slowly back to the booth.

Doug looked up from the display he was working on. "What was that all about?" he asked, and then, seeing her face, "Kate, what is it? What's the matter, honey?" He put his arm around her. "Tell me," he said gently.

Kate shook her head. "Nothing," she said. Her voice caught a little, and she buried her face in Doug's chest. Doug started to say something but thought better of it. He held her and stroked her until she pulled away from him.

"Guess I better get back to work," she said. She smiled quickly at him and smoothed her hair. She turned to a customer, and Doug heard her cheery voice:

"May I help you? Oh, aren't these nice rings? Genuine turquoise, too, and for only fourteen dollars...a sweet gift for your wife..."

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Great UKYA Egg Hunt 2015!

The UKYA Egg Hunt 2015 is now officially CLOSED. 
No more entries will be taken.
(But read on for news of my new book!)

It has officially been a Very Long Time since I've blogged, so I'm thrilled to jump back into the fray with the UKYA Egg Hunt! 

If you've happened on my blog from another link in the hunt, you may be scratching your head and thinking, "Who is this person?" So here's me: 

My name is Lee Weatherly and I write YA fiction (that sounds like I'm at a 12-step meeting for authors, doesn't it?). 

Specifically, I write big, epic YA fiction. Sometimes with a paranormal twist, such as the Angel series, and sometimes not, such as the Mysterious New Project. More on that later!

OK, so. Official Stuff. Here's what's going on, my little Easter bunnies:

"Welcome to the UKYA Easter Egg Hunt! One very lucky winner will win a huge grand prize of signed books by over thirty YA authors who write and live in the UK.

All you have to do is read this blog, count up how many UKYA branded Easter eggs you see in the blog, and follow the link at the end to the next blog. Keep going until you get back to the blog where you started, and add up how many eggs you’ve seen along the way. 

Email your answer to: A winner will be chosen at random from all correct entries, and contacted by email. This closes at noon (UK time) on Sunday, 5th April, and is open internationally.

So get finding those eggs! And some awesome UKYA authors and books along the way. Good luck!"

Let's just take a moment to digest that. Over THIRTY authors are taking part. If you win, you'll receive over THIRTY exciting packages in the post, each containing at least one signed book from a UKYA author. Pardon me while I fan myself and hyperventilate a little. This is such an awesome prize that I'm tempted to sneak into the contest and enter it myself.

My contribution? I'm offering a signed set of the Angel trilogy.

Willow knows she's different from other girls. And not just because she loves tinkering around with cars. Willow has a gift. She can look into people's futures, know their dreams, their hopes and their regrets, just by touching them. She has no idea where she gets this power from...but Alex does. Gorgeous, mysterious Alex knows Willow's secret and is on a mission to stop her. The dark forces within Willow make her dangerous - and irresistible. In spite of himself, Alex finds he is falling in love with his sworn enemy. 

So if you win, your package from me will be INCREDIBLY HEAVY and your postman will probably rupture something and hate you, because these are BIG books. If you like romance and action and even more romance and even more action, you'll hopefully enjoy the Angel series. 

Not to mention the 30 or so other packages you'll receive, which will have an amazing mix of books representing the whole span of UKYA fiction. There are some incredible UKYA authors out there, and I'm so proud to be one of them. If you win, you'll be curled up reading in your little bunny-hole for MONTHS after this. I'm jealous of the winner already.

Finally, if you're familiar with my books (or even if you're not!), I'm excited to say that the silence surrounding my new project will soon be at an end. My wonderful publishers Usborne will be announcing the new series at the end of the month. I can't say much about it until then (which has been EXCRUCIATING, believe me!), but I'll say that it's older and darker than the Angel series. It has a romance, but it's not Romance. And I love the world and its characters and hope that readers will, too.

Ready to hop along to the next link? Here you go, my little bunnies! The hugely talented Sheena Wilkinson is up next. She's a friend of mine and I love her writing. You will, too. 

The UKYA Egg Hunt 2015 is now officially CLOSED. 
No more entries will be taken. But thanks for reading! 

Sunday, 16 February 2014

It's All About the Passion, Baby

If you've seen my Facebook author page or if you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that a few days ago, I finished the first draft of my MWIP (Mysterious Work in Progress).

Let me just repeat that: I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT! WOOHOO! It's currently 112k words and will need LOTS of editing...but at least that first draft is done. Joy!

The next step will be the frankly terrifying one of reading it through and seeing what kind of shape it's in. But not yet. Now, in that lovely state of post-first-draft and pre-editing, I'm thinking about why I write in the first place.
I love movies about people who have a passion for something. It doesn't really matter what. School of Rock: music. The Big Year: bird-watching (or 'birding' as it's apparently called). A League of Their Own: baseball. Stories about that incredible, single-minded drive when you're doing what you feel like you're meant to do. 

I just so totally get it.

In a way, it's strange that I ever had the will to become published. I'm not really the kind of person who keeps working and working at something until she succeeds -- which in my case with writing took years, if not decades. I'm actually kind of lazy, if you want the truth. And impatient. If I can't do/have/experience it NOW, I'm not interested.

Writing was always the exception.

One of my first memories is of writing a story when I was five. I was very serious about it. I included a few lines of made-up publisher and copyright information, because I knew published books had to have that and I was SO going to get this published. (If you're curious, the story was about a fox and a horse who were friends. My dim memory is that the horse was threatened with the glue factory. I'm hoping that the fox saved the day, but who knows; I was a dark child.)

Well, obviously that story wasn't published despite my five-year-old determination. But the intent was there -- and that has never left me.

More than that, writing has always felt like who I am. If I wasn't a writer, published or not, I don't know who I'd be anymore. And it wasn't until I reached a ridiculously late age -- probably my early twenties -- that I realised not everyone feels this way about something. Not everyone is obsessed.

So, yeah: movies about passion.

Have you seen The Big Year? Probably not; I don't think it did very well. I really loved it. It's a gentle, quirky film about 'birding' -- and about the price you sometimes pay for passion.

The Big Year is an annual US contest: who can spot the most species of birds in a single year? As a hobby, birding leaves me cold, yet I totally got the compulsion that would make the protagonists drop everything and grab a plane, just because a certain type of owl had been spotten halfway across the country. I know exactly what that kind of driving force feels like.

There's a cautionary tale here, too. Owen Wilson's character is determined to win the Big Year despite his faltering marriage. He lets his wife down in some very major ways, until at a key moment she asks him to put their marriage first for once, and not fly off to Arizona to chase the next bird.

He can't do it.

Birding is what and who he is. Winning is who he is. The final scene in the film shows him alone: still birding, but painfully aware of the price he's paid.

Sadly, I can identify with this aspect of passion as well. If it had been me, caught up in the midst of some writing obsession -- say, the final stages of editing, when the rest of the world ceases to exist -- my choice might well have been the same. I know my every instinct would have been shouting GO TO ARIZONA, even while gazing at someone I loved.

That's not admirable. It's not even healthy. And, in real life, I hope that if I'd been neglecting my marriage that I'd be able to put writing aside and heal things. But that all-or-nothing, cannot-stop element that was driving Wilson's character?

Yeah. I really get that.

Is this kind of passion worth it? I can't say; for me, it's too deeply ingrained to separate myself from it. I do know that writing brings me intense satisfaction, as does teaching it. I can't imagine not having the craft of stories in my life in some way.

And my suspicion is that worth it on a personal level or not, it's how things valued by society often
get done: the books, the art, the films, the bridge-building -- on and on. Learning to do difficult things well is so time-consuming that without passion to carry us through, we'd never get there.

Which is good, because for some of us there doesn't seem to be a choice: being geekily obsessed with whatever drives us is just who we are. For better or for worse. (Seriously, don't ever give me a glass of wine and start talking about writing. I will keep going for DAYS. Until your ears fall off, probably.)

I wish I could go back in time and tell that little girl writing the story that, you know what? It happened. You're a published author. Your copyright info is printed up by real publishers now, instead of being drawn on with a crayon.

I don't think she'd be surprised. She was so certain. But the me who actually got published -- the one who lived through all the intervening years -- still has to pinch herself every day. And, for me, it wouldn't have happened without that driving force that refused to let me stop. That same driving force will carry me through once I'm editing the new novel, having moments of both ecstasy and despair.

What about you? Have you got a passion? Tell me about it -- I'd love to hear!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Top 10 Signs That The Writing's Not Going Well

So here I am deep in the writing-cave.

Thanks for joining me -- pull up a rock. Do you like the decor? I suppose you'd call it 'Early Gothic', with those iron candle sconces everywhere. Maybe with a splash of 'I Dream of Jeannie' -- you've gotta have at least one comfy cushion, right? Even if the candle wax keeps dripping on it. (And I would totally let you use my cushion for that rock of yours, except that I've got a sore bum from sitting down for so long. Sorry 'bout that.)

You'll be glad to know that my time here has been productive: the new novel is marching ever onward, and the light at the end of the tunnel is nigh. In fact, if the writing-gods are kind, I should have a (very) rough first draft in place in a matter of days. Yes, I said DAYS! WOOHOO!

And that's not all. Over the past month or so in the cave, I've also been compiling a rather comprehensive list of what happens when the writing is NOT going well. Because, you know...swings 'n' roundabouts 'n' stuff.

But hey, there's no reason why my head-bang-wall moments shouldn't be shared for your blog-reading amusement, is there? Of course not!

So here you are:

The Top Ten Signs that the Writing is Not Going Well

1. You have a sudden and irresistible need to go tweeze your eyebrows. You cannot keep writing with those unruly things lurking on your brow for another instant.

2. You become fascinated by the concept of dust motes. Could they be tiny universes? Worlds within worlds drifting past?

3. That reminds you: your work space is dusty. How can you possibly write with all that dust everywhere?

4. Oh look -- here's a funny video of a cat barking on YouTube.

5. You spend an hour perfecting the fine art of making mouth-popping noises like Donkey.

6. You go to Cafe Nero to write, where you drink too many cappuccinos and look for vintage dresses on eBay.

7. You check on your pet spider, the one whose web you allowed to stay on your windowsill. You watch him for a very long time.

8. You rearrange all the icons on your Smartphone, then put them back again.

9. You stare at all the books by other authors on your shelves and occasionally flip through one at random and cry a little. 

10. You become distracted by writing 'Top 10' lists.

Thanks so much for joining me here in the cave -- it was great to have some company! But you know what? I think I'll have to ask you to leave now. Because I've finally worked out that tricky scene right near the end and I can hardly wait to dive back into it. *rubs hands together with glee*

(Do you have any signs of your own for when the writing's not going well? Leave a comment and let me know!)

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Road Trip!

I am maybe -- just maybe -- planning another US road trip.

I've become quite a connoisseur of them...all in the name of research, you understand.

That's true about the research. But the fact is also that I'm American, which means I'm hard-wired to find road trips pretty much the most fun it's possible to have while still in your car. There's just something mesmerising about them -- watching the US slowly slide past as you travel the old state highways (road trip rule number one: NO FREEWAYS). And, in my case, they're sometimes essential.

Pardon me while I do a happy-dance and thank whatever gods that be that this is my actual job.

Remember the road trip in Angel (Angel Burn in the US)? Alex and Willow drive from upstate New York to New Mexico, and from there to the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. As I was writing the first draft, I kept thinking, "It would be SO cool to make this trip myself." And then I thought... why not? I'd done a fair bit of travelling in the US, but there were still places on that drive that I'd never seen. And although Angel was fiction (well, I hope it's fiction, or we're all in trouble!), I still wanted it to feel as real as possible.

"I think I might take a road trip," I said to my husband.

He looked at me.

"See?" I said, showing him the map. "I'm going to rent a car and drive from here in New York state to New Mexico, and then on to California."

In case you don't know, this is a very long way.

My husband looked at the map -- all 3,000 miles of the trip. Then he looked at me again.

"I'm coming with you," he said.

Well, I had kind of envisioned hitting the road on my own -- just me and my characters, hanging out and bonding together. But the idea scared me a little, too. The US is a big place. Having my husband along turned out to be perfect. For one thing, he's lovely and funny and excellent company. For another, he likes to drive, so he did most of it, while I got to gaze out the window and occasionally take notes about what I was seeing. (Um, why exactly did I want to go on my own again?)

I'd gotten a lot of things right in that first draft, but some significant things wrong, too. Wow, who knew that eastern Tennessee was so hilly? Or that the panhandle of Texas was so INCREDIBLY flat, with its horizon a long, hypnotic line in the distance?

The most important thing, though, was going to New Mexico.That's where my main character Alex was from, and I'd never been there. I was determined to find the exact spot where Alex's father's training camp was, where Alex had been raised.

We travelled all over the state. We saw so many places that could have been the camp's location... yet they just didn't feel right. Then we drove past a particular patch of desert. I didn't say anything, but thought, "I wonder if that was it?"

Suddenly my husband pulled over to the side of the road and turned around. "I think that might have been it," he said.

The psychic link had spoken. That was indeed it.

I walked through the sand to a fence and gazed out at the view. A hot breeze was blowing as I looked out at the location of Alex's camp. This setting is such an important part of the story...and now, for the first time, I could actually see it. I could touch the juniper bushes. Smell the dust in the air.

This is what a research trip is all  about. The internet is a great friend to writers: I use it constantly. But you can't actually feel the wind on your face or know exactly what that gritty soil feels like under your feet.

Then came Angel Fire. I was writing about Mexico City. I HAD NEVER EVEN BEEN TO MEXICO. Panic! Research time! I read book after book about my setting, and thankfully, we were also able to go there. Driving to our hotel, it was amazing to see the Zocalo -- one of the world's largest city squares -- with the Catedral Metropolitana rising up at one end. A major scene in Fire takes place there; it was like meeting an old friend.

And once we got inside, I realised it was an old friend that had been totally misrepresented on YouTube.

This is why you can't always trust the Internet. I'd watched every video I could find of the cathedral's interior, and not one showed that when you first step inside, all you can see is a small altar at the front. I'd envisioned a big, open space. Nope. You have to walk past the mini-altar to get to that. The solution was simple -- mention a cathedral redesign once the angels had taken over -- but without going there, I'd never have known there was a problem.

Same goes for the famous "Lions' Gate" outside the Bosque de Chapultepec, the city's largest park. See, there's this awesome gate leading into the park with huge lion statues to either side. In a scene where Seb and Willow have just met, I had Seb leaning against one of these lions. Great, huh?

Well, it would have been, if they hadn't TAKEN THE GATE AND THE STATUES DOWN.

"But why?" I bleated to the park attendant when I finally figured out what he was saying to me. "It's a really famous gate!"

(Yes, he thought I was mad.)

(Yes, I probably am.)

Warily, using non-startling motions and a soothing tone, the attendant directed me to some other lion statues inside the park. ("Wow, she must really like lion statues," he must have been thinking.) I rewrote the scene using these statues instead, and was able to keep the imagery of Seb leaning against the lion.

Does any of this matter? How many readers will even know if there are really lion statues outside a particular park or not?

I think it does. I'm writing fiction, yet I want it to feel as true as possible, as if you were there yourself. And if you know a place I'm writing about, I want it to feel like coming home. I'm sure all three Angel books have mistakes, but not for lack of trying.

We did an Angel Fever road trip, too. Remember when Willow drives from Nevada to New York State, by way of Canada? That's what we did. And I'd had no idea that Canadians have different road sign designs for each province. I should have guessed -- US states have different road sign designs -- but it hadn't even occurred to me to check.

It's one of those little things that count.

Now I'm working on a new trilogy. I'm doing lots of reading for research...but there are also some locales that need checking out. I was mulling aloud about where a particular setting should be, when my husband said, "How about Alaska?"

Bingo! Not only have I always wanted to go there, it's perfect for my story purposes. So these days I'm busy gazing at maps of Alaska and thinking about the trip we'll probably take -- from somewhere in that big, vacant interior down through Canada, and then the Western US coast to Los Angeles -- which just might, possibly, be another story locale.

I love my job.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Meet Me at the Prancing Pony

Which books have shaped you -- helped make you who you are and, if you're a writer, influenced your imaginary landscape?

For me, these come instantly to mind:

First, Lord of The Rings. I was 10 when I discovered it, and I devoured it in great gulps. I probably didn't understand half of it -- I know I skipped a lot; I wasn't a fan of long battle sequences -- but what got me was the world. It was real. That was all there was to it. I was positive that Middle Earth had once really existed, and that if I could just go back in time somehow, I could live those adventures along with Frodo and Strider. I even had the exact rendezvous point decided: I'd meet up with them at The Prancing Pony in Bree. (I think I even worked out the date, though of course it was in the Middle Earth calendar. Minor technicality.)

Yes, it's true: I was the sort of child who, even at 10, half-believed in going back in time. I was also the sort of child who would skulk through the woods near her house with a 'knife' made of stone, pretending to be one of the Lord of the Rings characters. I'd have died of embarrassment if anyone had seen me; I was laughed at enough at school already. But it still felt very real. Tolkien's work had touched something deep inside of me that had needed nourishing, and gave me a love of fantasy that has never ended.

From there I found the work of Tove Jansson (moomins!). And Carol Kendall's The Gammage Cup. And C.S. Lewis and Narnia, of course.

As a quick aside, I don't know how the Narnia series is published in the US now, but the editions I had back in the 70's didn't Americanise the text. There were still words like 'bluebottle' for 'fly', and 'row' for 'argument'. My father scribbled notes in the margins to translate all of this for me, and I LOVED it. The exotic-to-me words were part of the appeal: the sense that these stories happened someplace that was not the US, and gasp, shock -- they said things differently there! Pure magic. I'm painting with a broad brush when I say this, but in general I think it's deeply misguided to homogenise stories. Hey, let kids know that their immediate world isn't the only one that exists. This can only be a good thing.

Lloyd Alexander's The Prydain Chronicles was another series I wanted to step into and live in forever. If you haven't heard of Lloyd Alexander, you're probably reading this in the UK where he's not well-known, even though he totally should be (and his Prydain stories were inspired by Welsh myth). While it was the world itself that I really loved in LOTR (oh, and Pippin and Merry: the only two who seemed to have a sense of humour), in Alexander's work it was more the characters. Taran the assistant pigkeeper. Eilonwy the princess (who was totally kick-ass and not frilly in the slightest; oh, how I wanted to be Eilonwy!). Fflewddur Fflam the bard. I had a huge crush on Fflewddur. Taran the hero was too bland. Fflewddur was funny and brave AND HAD A GIANT CAT FOR A STEED. Seriously, who needed Taran? 

That was always my tendency, actually: to have a crush on the main character's sidekick, rather than the MC himself. Sidekicks were usually quirkier, with a better sense of humour; they seemed to have more intriguing pasts. I had a feeling that they'd be far more interesting to hang out with, even if they weren't as pretty.

Fantasy wasn't my only love; real-life stories had their place, too. One of my favourites was one you probably haven't heard of (but I'll be so excited if you have): The Secret Summer of L.E.B by Barbara Brooks Wallace. A blurb about it online says, "Lizabeth risks her popularity with the other sixth graders by becoming friends with the class outcast." And yes, it is about that, but there's so much more to it. The story is actually a very gentle romance; possibly one of the first I ever read. The class outcast is the truly lovely Loren, who got off on the wrong foot with the other kids and never recovered from it. I could identify with that; I was bullied myself in school until I was able to change year groups. AND Loren shared my love of Tolkien! He and Lizabeth bonded over hobbits! They met in an abandoned house which they began to fix up together -- and that idea of an abandoned place that you can call your own reappears again and again in my own writing now. In terms of the romance, all that happened was that Lizabeth and Loren eventually held hands, but I copied that passage out in my diary and swooned over it. I wanted a Loren for myself.

K.M. Peyton was the first author who broke my heart. I was addicted to her Flambards series, and SO in love with Will. (Spoiler alert!) When he died at the start of the third book, I literally couldn't believe it. I remember feeling cold, and immediately shutting the book and putting it back on my shelf. I couldn't bear to read it, not without Will. It was literally years before I picked it up again....and then, of course, I fell in love with Dick. And then discovered later on that there was a FOURTH book, where Christina's marriage to Dick doesn't work out and she falls in love with MARK. It was enough to make you dizzy, but Peyton pulled it off with her absolutely honest writing. I always imagined that she got Christina and Dick together at the end of book 3, and then started thinking about it: would that really work out? What would actually happen? (I met Peyton at a publishing party a few years ago, and was utterly tongue-tied.)

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton spoke to me with its grittiness and sense of truth. I sobbed over Johnny's death, and remember writing in my diary that I longed to be a writer of similar power someday: someone who could make people cry. I didn't know, then, that tears are sometimes easier to achieve than laughter. I hope I manage to do both now.

Finally, my beloved Barbara Wersba. She's another one you might not have heard of if you're in the UK, but her Tunes for a Small Harmonica saved my sanity as a teenager. Like authors Judy Blume and Norma Klein, Wersba said to me, You are not alone. The things you feel are perfectly normal.

And she was FUNNY. And bittersweet. And quirky. I love all her books, but Tunes was the first I discovered. If you've never read her work before, check it out. Believe me, you've got a treat in store.

Looking back at all of these, it's probably no coincidence that I now write fantasy which is heavily rooted in real life: the world as we know it, but with a twist. (And with romance, of course!) The books I loved growing up created that landscape, and I owe them so much.

What books have shaped you? Tell me -- I'd love to hear about them.