Coffee Shop Writers


A popular magazine for writers has a regular feature on the personal work spaces of published authors. Each month, subscribers are treated to photographs from a variety of writerly locations which range from kitchen tables to suspiciously tidy desks in contemporary fitted studies; from cleaned up attics to outdoor-office-cum-log cabin constructions— formerly known as Big Sheds. Some authors also confirm a fondness for writing in coffee shops.

Though a writer should always carry a notebook and be ready to jot down those tiny details of human behaviour, foibles that bring characters to life,  I never find coffee shops conducive to concentration.  I’m also afraid that if I linger too long, I’ll be hogging table space and denying the proprietor income. And if I stare at customers, jotting down mannerisms and conversations, I’ll be invading privacy too. (Or maybe I am more interested in a decaff latte and a toasted tea cake).

A friend of mine was once sitting in a posh Yorkshire tea room frequented by an illustrious Yorkshire born writer; indeed the celebrity himself was seated at the next table that day, sipping from a china cup and scribbling into a notebook.  Now, my friend has enviable, classic pre-Raphaelite looks: a lion’s mane of red curly hair, peachy complexion, blue eyes, freckles. Classic beauty. She told me she began to feel uncomfortable when she realised the writer was glancing up from his notes, observing her, then returning to his jottings. I pointed out that had he been Dante Gabriel Rossetti and this the 19th century, the artist would probably have asked if she would model for one of his paintings. But my friend said she was not flattered, simply unnerved by the attention.

A few months ago, I was in an unremarkable ‘chain’ coffee shop on a busy midweek morning. Babies were wailing, toddlers were tearing around leaving trails of crumbled flapjack, and several frustrated customers, balancing trays and shopping bags, were searching in vain for vacant seats. Seated at the table to my right and opposite was a man writing directly onto a laptop. Every couple of minutes he stopped, gawped at me then continued to type. Since I am no pre-Raphaelite beauty I began to wonder what he found so interesting. Did I have latte-foam dangling from my nostrils—or something more suspect—or crumbs on my lips; had I dribbled down my jumper? Whatever the answer, I drank up in haste and headed for the exit. If only I’d had a notebook, I thought, I could have returned the stare and made copious notes on the man himself.

Perhaps somewhere in a fashionable bohemian café, maybe in Bloomsbury or that capital of literary festivals Hay-on Wye, there are crowds of authors gathered around tables, glugging cappuccinos and observing each other, before typing frantically onto laptops.

Writers watching writers.

Meanwhile, I am sticking to my study in a spare bedroom, a cluttered desk and an overworked Nespresso machine.

And eavesdropping, of course,  on the bus.

Vive L’Amateur

For years I’ve attended the productions of a nearby amateur dramatics society, initially in support of my friend, Carol, a teacher and natural comedy actress. I’ve laughed and cried at a range of plays from farces to tragedy and ambitious attempts at classic theatre: everything from the writing of Ray Cooney, Ben Travers, Alan Ayckbourne and Oscar Wilde to J.B. Priestley, Chekov and most recently, Arthur Miller. It’s always a joy.
The TV Brian Rix farces of my childhood introduced me to the pleasures of theatre, albeit only from the sitting room. The appearance and disappearance of a variety of scatty characters through a multitude of bedroom doors, however unlikely, proved wonderful escapism, matched only by the Saturday children’s matinee at the local cinema.
While we’re very lucky to have great professional productions and theatres to choose from across the country, there remains something eternally special about amateur dramatics. Firstly, the development of individual actors, as they take on increasingly challenging roles; secondly, the dedication of a whole team of people who, not only work in other professions, often full time, but give hours to multitasking: producing, directing, building scenery, wielding paint brushes, gathering props, sewing costumes, prompting; everything from selling tickets and serving tea to acting. They are commitment and enthusiasm personified.
All of which reminds me that about ten years ago, after watching my said friend one night, I sat down and wrote a five act spoof play for her eyes only. On a whim. As a joke. It was intended as an affectionate parody of an old-style farce, zany stereotypes and all. Yesterday, I began to wonder what I had done with it so set about searching only to find it buried in my computer, bizarrely saved in a file within a file.
It’s a story of two middle-aged female friends, one widowed, one divorced, who decide to try speed dating and end up mistakenly inviting three disparate male characters to dinner on the same night. It has the required opening and shutting of doors, the clichéd drawing room scenery equipped with French windows through which we can see a garden (and in this case, a pertinent-to-plot ladder attached to a punk window cleaner), a bumbling maid in attendance; it’s an unlikely, daft story. I thought I should have deleted it by now, released a little more memory, after all it will never grace the boards anywhere or anytime soon. Nor should it, since the writing needed much improvement. But I find I can’t. It reminds me that I wrote twenty three thousand words in a very short space of time, and that it was that surge of enthusiasm, that whim, which steered me back into writing, after many years of insisting I just didn’t have the time.
Enthusiasm and commitment are everything. Early writing efforts, even those buried in an amateur’s computer, could prove the catalyst to enormous future satisfaction and improvement, whatever the genre… even a never-to-be-performed play.
Thanks, Carol and company, for the inspiration.

Writing in a Bubble

How soap operas are devised, written and constructed intrigues me. The days have long gone since innovative young writer Tony Warren created his first Coronation Street script, bringing to television a fresh, gritty slice of working class life in the North of England. It was a twice weekly drama, part of the growing sixties genre: ‘kitchen sink’.

It’s well known that the term ‘soap opera’ came from America, where television melodramas, sponsored by detergent companies, promoted soap sales in frequent commercial breaks. Eventually Coronation Street joined the ranks of the many ‘soap’ series that followed in Britain, programmes which sacrificed quality for quantity, in which melodrama prevailed, plot lines became contrived and sometimes unbelievable, and characters often two dimensional, existing in bubbles of failed relationships and even mass murder. These days to keep up with demands for five weekly episodes, soaps are devised by writing teams.

Still, there is something about a soap which defies intellectual snootiness. Years ago a colleague explained to me why she watched ‘Crossroads’ defying the groans and eye rolling from her family. ‘For just half an hour each evening I sit down to watch a programme which demands nothing from me. No one is allowed to interrupt.’ While soaps provide escapism they can certainly become addictive and seep into our popular culture: questions are asked on quiz shows, comedians perfect impressions of the most well-known characters and writers try to effect social relevance by reflecting contemporary issues in their plots.  There have even been questions asked in parliament, a character’s cause championed, albeit tongue in cheek.

So I return to my favourite soap, Coronation Street, the longest running. Occasionally we still enjoy a flicker of the humour that made it unique and, from time to time, brilliant. While I’m irritated when a plotline seems less than credible, or a character behaves ‘out of character’, at other times there are nuggets of dialogue and action which are of ‘masterclass’ standard for students of writing for television. Script writers who have contributed to the programme’s success include the celebrated Lucy Gannon and Sally Wainwright while among the list of feted actors we find Sarah Lancashire, Fiona Griffiths, Katherine Kelly and Joanne Froggatt. Others, such as comedian Peter Kaye and Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen, have been keen to join the cast, if only for a single episode. It’s as if an appearance on ‘The Street’ has become a national rite of passage for the already famous.

A character who never fails to entertain me is the generic window cleaner, played most recently by Joe Duttine as Tim and before that by Craig Gazey as Graeme. The latter seemed to jump straight out of the pages of Samuel Becket with his own brand of existentialist angst. It’s the classic Shakespearean ‘fool’, the omniscient commentator whose universal wisdom and satire addresses the audience as much as it does the players in the scene; subtle moments, rare in soaps and sadly too infrequent even in ‘Corrie’ itself.


Writing Groups: A Cautionary Tale

Every writer needs constructive criticism if they are to improve and hone skills. A successful published writer has an agent and editor to advise on plot effectiveness, to suggest cuts and modifications to their work, while the rest of us rely on like-minded writing enthusiasts and teachers we find on creative writing courses, in local groups, evening classes or on-line forums.
Until eighteen months ago I belonged to a very happy, helpful established group. There were rarely more than twelve people at fortnightly meetings which were a creative experience, informal, supportive, entertaining and held in a pub. (Bonus). The membership comprised writers of different genres: novels, short stories, poetry and the occasional script; interests and personalities were diverse and there was a wide age-range. Everyone contributed oral feedback with respect and honesty and, we believed, without need for a formal set of rules. Until, that is, a long-standing member labelled a new member’s poem offensive, and a heated argument followed.
A writing group must create a confidential environment where a member can feel it’s safe to share their work and even to fail. Unfortunately the established member, keen to promote and explain his own point of view, went on to post further criticism of essay proportion … online. If the comments had been shared with only the members who had attended that particular meeting, there might have been some chance of reconciliation. The problem was, after all, a personality clash. But the group e mail list included at least a further forty-five addresses, mostly of writers who had at one time been group members but who hadn’t attended meetings for months, and in some cases years. They received the post too… a damning criticism of someone named but whom they had never even met. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the poet felt betrayed and left, while subsequent attempts to apply a formal ‘critiquing’ policy to the proceedings met with resistance from the e mail poster, who never accepted a line had been crossed. It was the beginning of the end. When the popular group founder left for reasons unconnected, membership dwindled and the group disbanded.
Readers have differing tastes. We can’t always appreciate the same subject matter, authors or genres, and while constructive criticism may provide useful suggestions on style, characterisation, plot, syntax, etc. it should never include personal condemnation of the author. Though students of writing, as with any subject, have to learn to accept negative comments and to use them as a springboard, feedback should be built on positives and follow a pattern of ‘the good, the bad and final target for improvement’, or as I have heard it called: the shit sandwich— not the most gastronomically pleasing metaphor but one which offers a blueprint for successful constructive criticism.
Writing groups are vital. Luckily I’ve found a new excellent example. It’s great to meet like-minded people and to find encouragement and inspiration as well as establish new friends, (though I still miss the ‘cosiness’ and friendships of the old crowd). Before you join a group though, it may be a good idea to check out the policy on the giving and receiving of feedback before you read aloud your work and ‘bare your soul’.
Happy Writing.

Class of 2016

A few years ago in a writing seminar, we were discussing memories and the cultural influences on our early lives. I said I remembered several suicides in my neighbourhood when I was a child, mostly committed by men, all involving gas ovens and maybe gambling debt— though no one then mentioned the possibility of lingering post-war PTSD. These tragedies haunted me for a while. I can’t think suicides were more frequent than in other villages or northern communities, or even more numerous than today.  Maybe I listened in to too much adult conversation than was healthy, or perhaps middle-class children were sheltered from such uncomfortable topics. Either way I cringed when a clearly shocked tutor asked, ‘Where on earth were you brought up?’

This came to mind while listening to keynote speaker, writer Kit de Waal, at a recent Creative Writing conference in Manchester. Kit bemoaned that 45% of a London-centric publishing world hailed from privileged backgrounds, as opposed to 14% of the nation as a whole. As a child of mixed heritage she grew up in a working-class district of Birmingham, left school at fifteen and worked in a variety of jobs, including dealing with the problems experienced by ‘looked after’ children and their foster parents. When she graduated from university at the age of fifty-six, her writing drew on a wealth of life experiences.

Discussion followed on the definition of working-class.  Demographics have shifted since the two Ronnies and John Cleese sketch: the ‘I look down on him, he looks up to me,’ cloth cap versus bowler scenario. (It’s noticeable that our shallow celebrity culture embraces a cross-section of society and everyone now feels entitled to their ‘five minutes of fame’. In a reality jungle show we’re just as likely to find a Lord of the Realm as an ex-footballer from a back street.)

A recent BBC survey listed seven present day class categories from ‘Elite’ to ‘Precarious Proletariat’ with ‘Established Middle Class’,  ‘Technical’, ‘New Affluent’, ‘Traditional Working Class’ and ‘Emergent Service Workers’  in between. * The old class stereotypes are irrelevant and as Kit emphasised, if writers decide to trespass into subjects and characters outside their experience they must carry out detailed research. But the tide may be turning for working-class writers. Mainstream publishers are watching northern independent presses carefully for emerging new talent like Lancashire writer Andrew Hurley, author of the 2016 Costa award winning literary novel, ‘The Loney’. Andrew originally published without a London agent through the northern ‘indie’, Tartarus Press.

Whatever ‘class’ we define ourselves as, no one can deny a sizeable section of society living in poverty across the country; that the gap has widened between rich and poor; that an underclass exists which feels unrepresented and disaffected. What is important is that contemporary writing harnesses the voices that might otherwise remain unheard.

*(Great Britain Class survey. BBC Lab UK Universities, Savage et al. Feb 2013)


PS I wrote this blog piece before the US vote for Donald Trump. I hope the next four years will galvanise writers from every genre and from all cultures and class. Good fiction holds a mirror to the iniquities of the real world.


Psychology of Pseudonyms

And another thing about names:


Earlier this year I was browsing an art gallery sale and was drawn to an unusual limited edition print which appeared to have jumped straight from the pages of a children’s picture book—a magical pastel coloured landscape with a cottage, forest, and in the foreground, a small wizard complete with pointy hat. The assistant explained that the artist’s name was the pseudonym of a famous contemporary painter who was experimenting with a new style and wanted sales to reflect artistic merit rather than established fame. With cynical hat on and not a pointy, it occurred to me what a clever sales ploy, either on the part of the gallery or the artist or both. A customer could be forgiven for thinking the picture a good investment: the painter’s identity was sure to be revealed eventually and the print’s value increased. I didn’t buy it.

Like the artist a successful author’s name creates a brand. A reader knows what to expect from a Dan Brown or an EL James, in the same way the consumer knows what to expect from Marks and Spencer knickers or a Mr Kipling cake—though this analogy casts no aspersions on the quality of the writing, the underwear or the cake.

Authors can feel protected by anonymity. After years of J.K. Rowling being synonymous with Harry Potter, she employed the pseudonym Robert Galbraith for her acclaimed novel ‘Casual Vacancy’ and said she found the experience liberating. Alison Kennedy now thinks she was hiding behind her initials when she chose to publish as AL Kennedy. In the nineteenth century, the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Anne and Emily, adopted the male-sounding names Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell, believing their work would be taken more seriously if publishers thought they were men. Contemporary author of ‘Chocolat’, Joanne Harris, is equally at home writing both magic realism and psychological thriller under one name: her own. Her fans trust her novels will be great reads whatever the genre.

Some names match the author’s writing—rather like dog owners resembling their pooches. Michael Crichton, for example, sounds hard-edged, while Philip Roth’s surname is as snappy as the voice of his native New Jersey. Penelope Lively suggests a sense of engagement and an entertaining read; she doesn’t disappoint. Some uncommon names are memorable in their own right, like Attica Locke, Sebastian Faulks and Louis de Bernières, while Virginia Woolf sounds haunting, as if— ironically for a writer who eventually took her own life— her surname ends with a howl.

I have several friends whose names are an author’s dream. As for me I have just written a women’s magazine story and since this is a new venture I am wondering whether to adopt a pseudonym. Studying my family tree I’ve discovered a great aunt whose name definitely has a romantic, wistful quality, though I am sure Great Aunt wouldn’t have agreed a hundred years ago, as she clattered about a cotton mill in her clogs.

Celebrating the Short Story

Last weekend I attended the Northern Short Story Festival at the Carriageworks in Leeds. It was a great celebration of a much underrated literary form.
At a ‘Question and Answer’ press panel session, three independent publishers explained what they looked for in a short story collection and what kinds of themes and styles they welcomed in submissions. While one focused on fantasy and science fiction, a second warned that his company publishes only about six writers out of a thousand. Although we constantly hear the form is making a comeback— it suits the commuter, the smart phone and kindle—in reality, mainstream publishers continue to show little or no interest in short fiction, unless of course, a collection is by an already well know author. Thank Goodness, then, for the courageous ‘Indies’.
In the United States it’s a different literary landscape with ‘The New Yorker’ magazine leading the way in showcasing the best short fiction. It was a similar situation here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with Charles Dickens publishing serialised stories and Conan Doyle enticing a pre-television, pre-computer population with stories published in The Strand magazine. The modern short story, however, is very different from its Victorian predecessor. If there’s a twist it’s not usually in the last line. The story should leave the reader wondering, thinking and should resonate beyond the time it takes to read.
A couple of years ago a good friend of mine won a literary agent’s prize for her short story collection submitted for MA. The agent agreed to meet her at his London office then apologised: despite her excellent writing, he said, he wouldn’t be able to sell her collection to a publisher, adding, ‘But do you have a novel?’
Short stories and novels differ in many ways, length being the most obvious yet perhaps the least significant. The two forms don’t compete. They have equal merits but are just different. The short story is less about plot and events and more about themes and ideas. It should demand effort on the part of the reader, a cerebral response in an age of quick-fix culture. This, the third indie publisher said, was perhaps why it was less popular. A creative writing tutor described the short story as being like a stick of seaside rock. You see the colour on the outside but you have to break it open to read the letters on the inside, to find where it’s coming from. In this respect, short fiction has more in common with poetry than the novel. It’s a sad thought that maybe it’s the writers of short literary fiction who represent its primary readership.
Though three chapters of a novel gained me acceptance on an MA in a creative writing course, I realised that studying the short story would allow me to experiment. The great thing as a reader is that you can return to a collection time and time again and in each story find something new: an idea, a gut wrenching phrase or description or a clue to solving an open ending. Each story is a slice of life, a nugget of experience. Which is why I was horrified on joining my local library: When I asked if the short stories were displayed separately or organised in alphabetical order alongside the novels, the librarian replied, ‘Oh if you want large print or quick “easy reads” they’re on a table by the door.’
They say the shortest short story ever written is the following, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway— though this is not proven. Perhaps it’s the first example of what we now call ‘Flash Fiction’: like all good short stories, so much is said in so few words:
‘For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.’


In Support of Creativity

There is little doubt that the present government’s ever changing school curriculum is increasing pressure on young children. Attainment ‘goal posts’ are constantly shifting and expectations adjusted: what was last year’s requirement for a six year old becomes this year’s target for a child of five. And so it cascades through the year groups, hammering home the lie to children and teachers alike: You’re not good enough.
The 1944 Education Act required schools to educate in accordance with ‘Age, ability and aptitude.’ Now it seems the ‘age factor’ is not fixed. I have yet to meet a six year old inspired by a ‘subordinate or connective conjunction,’ or a ten year old thrilled to discover ‘a modal verb’ and the difference between ‘active and passive voices’. Yes, these are the latest age-related requirements in English. While I am all in favour of teaching grammar and the patterns of spelling, surely this has to be at an appropriate level?
So why is this important to a blog about writing? Because I believe we are killing creativity. A close friend, a Key Stage One teacher, tells me she is concerned she has not found time to teach art for weeks. I share her concerns. As a nation we are allowing ‘hot housing’ and narrow value judgements to squeeze out the arts. Like most former teachers I could, and maybe should, write a book about children whose talents and strengths were unlocked through a wide and balanced curriculum. Take Stephen. From an army family Stephen had attended so many schools that by the age of ten he found breaking into social groups difficult. Eventually through drama he discovered a talent for acting, comedy and improvisation, became a popular child and transformed into a high achiever, particularly in English.
Likewise, Peter showed early talent for painting watercolours but, from a financially poor home, his future looked less assured than that of his more affluent peers. I was in awe of his talent and often told him so. By chance I met him recently for the first time since he left our school at the age of seven. Now in his forties he told me, ‘I know you’re going to ask if I’m still painting. I’m not. But you’ll be pleased to know I did put my creative skills to good use.’ Peter is a successful business man with a salmon fishery in Canada and an extensive property portfolio in England.
A parent tells me she now opens her child’s school report with trepidation since all she learns about her August born son–and he’s therefore the youngest in the class— is that his abilities in basic skills are below national standards. (As an August born myself I am not sure I would have been achieving today’s national standards at six.)
In creative writing children are taught that adjectives and adverbs will gain them more points and higher grades in SATs. (Adult writers learn to spare adjectives and ditch adverbs.) The most creative pieces of writing my classes achieved followed visits to castles, observations of butterflies emerging from chrysalises, trips to the seaside and listening to quality children’s fiction. It was a thrill to see wide eyes and open mouths as successive classes soaked up Ted Hughes’s ‘Iron Man’ which never failed to fire imaginations and inspire wonderful writing.
Writers need to be readers. Stories and poetry help children absorb patterns of speech and written language, extending and enriching vocabulary from an early age. But, forced to spend more time teaching to tests, teachers are finding less and less time to read to their classes.
One of the joys of teaching is that wherever you go you’re recognised by a past pupil. Last week it was Bill, my waiter in a City restaurant. Confident, courteous, lovely Bill whose SATs results at six judged him ‘below the national average.’ Like many students Bill is working as a waiter while he awaits the results of his Honours degree.
Yes. I could write a book about young, underachieving boys who blossom into fine talented young men— if they’re given encouragement and a chance to develop at their own rate. In the meantime I’ll cock a snoop at Education Secretaries and shout from the rooftops, ‘Go for it Stephen and Peter and Bill. I never doubted you.’
PS No marks for highlighting the subordinate conjunctions.

The Name Game

Yesterday, still slightly fuggy from a long-haul flight, I was ambling towards the hairdresser’s in search of a post-holiday hair-do miracle, when I came across a noisy crocodile of young schoolchildren in high-vis tabards attempting to cross the adjacent high street. I have plenty of memories of this particular exercise. Finding a gap in the traffic a courageous teacher has to leap into the middle of the road, spread her arms and scream, ‘CROSS.’ If she’s lucky she’ll have commandeered a few parental helpers. Volunteers are particularly needed to bring up the rear where there will always be a straggler with no sense of urgency, gazing into shop windows, picking his nose or practising karate on his shadow. On this occasion the volunteer was a middle-aged woman with a kindly appearance who, taking the hand of the small boy on the end of the line, shouted, ‘Come on; hurry up, Memphis.’

Given that we are used to celebs calling their children everything from Trixie-Belle, Apples and Pears to Brooklyn, Romeo, Paris and LA, I don’t know why I was so tickled— maybe it was our location in a former Yorkshire mill town complete with chimneys and cobbles that made the name seem so incongruous. But as soon as the children were out of earshot I fell into a fit of giggling, then caught my jacket sleeve on the handrail outside the hairdresser’s and was catapulted to the bottom of a flight of steps. You are entitled to say, ‘Serves her right.’ But it did bring me to my senses and to thinking about names in general.

At the first seminar on a creative writing course we were asked to introduce ourselves and explain the story behind our names. I inwardly rolled my eyes. Does anyone like their own name? Names can be aging, so last century, dull, and in any case they’re always somebody else’s choice. Mine was my older brother’s suggestion. He was six when I was born and in love with a classmate called Linda. Not a good enough reason in my book. Where were the Roxannes and Scarletts? Nowadays who knows any Lindas the right side of fifty? Nevertheless our tutor’s point was that there is always a story in a name. ‘Remember they are important in creating your characters,’ she said.

My father, given the responsibility of registering me, was instructed to name me Linda Anne. When the registrar asked if that would be Linda with an i or a y Dad became flustered, eventually settling on i but forgetting the Anne completely. My brother’s own names were the dog’s decision. Our parents, unable to agree, wrote a selection of boys’ names on bits of paper which they carefully folded and placed in a hat. Before they could complete the intended draw, the dog had chewed all but two. Job done.

Charles Dickens has to be the best inventor of names in the literary world: Bob Cratchett, Mr Gradgrind, Uriah Heep, Mr Bumble: all perfectly fitted to their characters. Today a name needs to suit age, background, culture and maybe occupation but avoid stereotyping. So I shouldn’t have giggled. Our little straggler can yet become anyone he wants to be. Along with Tennessee, Dublin and Milano.

Names have always been dictated by fashion. My father was Albert, which I used to laugh at. Now the old names are returning and there’s been a recent glut of Doris, Elsie and Flo. I am grateful though, that with the trend to call children after conception locations, I’m not a likely candidate to be choosing a new born’s title anytime soon. Besides I have never, fortunately, indulged in a night of passion in either Scunthorpe or Grimsby.

Well not that I can remember anyway.

The Devil in the Detail

A couple of years ago I attended a university writing masterclass given by a successful northern playwright. As an audience of students and amateur writers she asked us to describe the scripts and stories we were working on. Half way through one man’s summary of his radio play she asked where his main character lived.

‘Sheffield,’ he said.

‘Yes but what’s his address?’ The writer looked puzzled and couldn’t answer. He’d never pin-pointed an actual address. He didn’t think he would need it.

The playwright went on to ask a series of questions about character details. What did they have for breakfast? Favourite TV programmes, food, colours, what time did they go to bed; did they snore? Not everyone knew their character’s trivia. They wouldn’t use this information so why note it?

As writers, whether writing script, novel or short stories, the playwright insisted we should know our protagonists inside out, their every detail. Even if we would not use specific information, the details would help us to create authentic people with real voices. We could then predict actions and reactions, exactly what the folk we’d concocted would say and do; ultimately we would add depth and avoid one dimensional characterisation.

Often we hear writers say that characters begin to act of their own volition and dictate plot. ‘Eventually Archie began to do just what he wanted; he ran away. I followed.’  It may sound disingenuous or at best artsy; after all the characters are usually entirely fictional. The writers have created them so how could they act independently? Maybe it’s a subconscious process. If characters are well drawn and the writer knows them inside out, they will surely seem to take the lead.

The playwright, then, suggested a story should always begin with a character profile, details recorded if only in a rough list;  better to have one before you start rather than rake through your writing later, trying to add consistent idiosyncrasies and mannerisms.

Some writers say they start without a plan at all and see where the writing takes them. And I suppose this is the point. There are no hard and fast rules. Or if there are they are meant to be broken. Some start with plot, some just start, and some, like the playwright, begin with character. I prefer the latter. I like people and I enjoy creating voices. (In any case whatever we write and however we plan or not plan, it seems to me that once we’ve finished and pressed the send button, we will always want to retrieve our writing and improve it.)

When I began ‘The Sun on Their Backs’ I didn’t have too detailed a plan. I’d  invested time in a lot of daydreaming and a few notes. I hadn’t yet listened to the experts, the novelists, academics and playwrights. But I did know where Pavel lived. I still pass his house occasionally. It’s a small red brick ex-colliery house in a certain location, with nobody I know living there. Of course it doesn’t have the personal touches Pavel made to it. And he’s not in the garden planting peonies, building a rabbit hutch, or busy polishing the brass letterbox. Except in my imagination.


The Sun on Their Backs is available on kindle from Amazon and