Life imitating my books

I do like researching. I’m a natural researcher when it comes to digging up information and for many years that was my main career: finding and managing information. These days, the closest I get to researching is watching programmes like Who do you think you are?  It’s not the celebrity that fascinates me, but the effort involved in discovering their family background, all of which is done before the programme is even filmed by unsung genealogists and archivists, combing through archives and online records for an elusive entry. It takes time. Patience.

While watching a foray into the family history of Paul Merton the comedian, the programme touched on prison life during mid-Victorian era. Now as it happens I’m writing a book that dips into this period in history, although the main story is contemporary. Merton’s ancestor was sent to Wandsorth Prison, the comparable location in my book is Lincoln prison in the grounds of the castle. An old gaol that once practised segregation and isolation, just as Paul Merton’s ancestor experienced during her prison sentence.

Prisoners wore masks so that they couldn’t see each other’s faces, this included the wardens, who were forbidden to interact with the inmates. The condemned were referred to by numbers and not by name, their crimes unknown. There was strict silence, nobody was allowed to speak to each other. Prisoners where kept physically separated at all times in solitary cells and when exercising they couldn’t come into close proximity. The idea behind this draconian practice was to force the prisoner to address their crimes and find salvation. But really, let’s face it, it’s a form of mental torture and unlikely to result in rehabilitation, just good old fashioned punishment. The Separate System didn’t last long and the concept was abandoned, but not on humanitarian grounds – it was costly and hard to maintain.

The TV programme showed an illustration of the chapel with its individual cells where prisoners stood unable to see each other, only the preacher on his high pulpit would be visible.

prison chapel

Surrey House of Correction, Wandsworth

Lincoln Prison’s segregated chapel still exists and is a popular part of the museum’s tour. It also features in my current work in progress – a ghost story where nothing is seen, just heard. My protagonist, Laura, finds herself seemingly alone in one of those cells. But is she really?

The final part of the visit was the chapel, a well-known exhibit, and she believed in savouring the best last. Facing the eagle’s nest pulpit was a honeycomb of tiered wooden cubicles in the form of four crescent rows of individual pews, each with their own divider and no view other than the pulpit before them. Plain and simple, the chapel was a tidy construction that ensured a prisoner never saw another; they were loaded into the row at one end and kept in a perpetual state of isolation until the service ended.

Laura entered one such lidless crate and shut the door. There was only space to stand or sit upon a hard bench. She tucked her elbows in and perched on the edge of the seat. Opposite her was the high balcony. What kind of sermon would the prisoners have heard? Hell fire and damnation or redemption through salvation? Either way, the congregation in their tiny upright coffins had no choice but to listen. The layout reminded her a little amphitheatre. Was there about to be a real-life performance – she glanced up at the overhanging pulpit. Empty, the towering box seemed to loom over the pews, casting a long shadow. Had the prisoners quaked in their boots or dozed off in boredom?

She stood, swayed slightly, aware of a cooling brush of air against her face. Then a noise close by: a cough? A sneeze?

She turned, cocked her ear and focused on the sounds slipping by her. Shuffling, or scuffling shoes? The direction was clear: somebody was in the cubicle next to her, and probably seated as the crown of his or hers head wasn’t visible above the partition. The unnerving discovery meant her neighbour had been there since she’d arrived in the chapel – how else could a person be barricaded into a miniature cell when she blocked their exit? Holding her breath, she leaned toward the wooden partition. Should she say a little ‘hello’ or clear her throat?


How do I write? #amwriting

A common question writers debate amongst themselves is do you write linear or not. Is it better for a writer to start at the beginning and move through the story to the end, or go to the part of the book that appeals most and start from there?

Ebook coverNow, I would say I’m a linear writer. I have an outline, I know the roots of my story and the outcome at the end. It’s easy, just begin at chapter one and … Except, I don’t really know my characters. What if I can’t find their voices or one character refuses to settle down? I know, it’s crazy, but authors have these voices in our heads and they can be quite independent. For The Last Thing She Said, I had to evoke the life of three sisters, including twins, meaning three personalities – what a challenge after my last book where I primarily focused on one voice.

To overcome this possibility, I wrote a passage in each character’s voice from somewhere in the book, just to make sure I knew them and had their voices in my head. It snowballed, and I ended up writing each of their parts as separate narratives, then rearranged them according to the plot. It wasn’t quite what I had planned!

The other concern I had was in critical scenes where the plot evolves dramatically or changes direction. What if those just didn’t go as I planned? I abandoned chapter two and wrote something much further along in the story. This scene had to work or else that character would not live on the pages of my book. Again, I broke with the linear writing definition and jumped into the book three-quarters of the way in. Then I danced back to the middle and wrote another crucial scene, before finally settling back at the beginning. Then I jiggled everything around so the middle became the beginning and… okay, it’s not linear at all.

If asked again by a writers’ group – do I write linear style or not – frankly, I don’t know. It depends on the book, and the great thing about writing … no two books are the same. I’m writing my third at the moment, and that too is going its own particular way.

My desk is a little cluttered #amwriting

A cluttered desk – is it a sign of a disorganised mind or a busy one?

I’ve a jotter pad with things scribbled on it, which at the time of writing meant something, but a few days later has lost all hope of being something.

Stacked next to me are printouts of chapters with annotations; tiny writing scrawled in margins and highlighted passages I want to change.

A piece of paper with a family tree, important dates, the names of my characters!

Waiting for me to start work are two pairs of glasses – one for reading and one for when I use the computer. My eyesight is complicated and frustrating at times.

When I feel the urge, I write with a fountain pen and leave ink stains on my fingers like a badge of honour or tattoo. My handwriting is appalling, but sometimes the words flow quicker on paper and I’m forced to keep writing, rather than go back and make corrections.

Every morning, I switch on my laptop and wait for it to connect to the internet and monitor. Every morning Windows refuses to recognise my monitor and requires a manual kick up the bum to make it work. It takes ten minutes for the software to kickstart. Just long enough to make a cup of tea.

The most important tool is my keyboard – a split ergonomic one. My husband can’t cope with it. I love it, primarily because my little finger dislocates from time to time and the ergonomic design relieves the strain on my fingers. It seems perfectly natural to have my elbows sticking out, my wrists angled and my fingers splayed – I play the piano.

I learnt to touch type as a student using a mainframe dumb terminal and integrated keyboard – mechanical and noisy. Both the keyboard and software were unforgiving in their feedback, ‘speaking’ in the strident tone of a drill sergeant as if one was standing over my shoulder instead of a curt message on the green screen.

‘If you don’t get this right, I’ll send a thousand volts through your fingers’

‘You have eight fingers and two thumbs – use them!’

‘Are you wearing gloves today?’

I guess whoever wrote the typing course had a sense of humour. Years later, it is the one thing I learnt a university that I use every day of my life. Even when I studied to be a biologist, I was inadvertently preparing myself for a writer’s life.