I’m off on holiday – what, I hear you cry, another one! And it’s not that I don’t trust you, but I’m wary of leaving my blog unguarded for just any passing scribbler to wander into and start posting. So good friend Maggie Cobbett has offered to keep an eye on the place and water the dogs and take the plants for a walk.Thanks Maggie – help yourself to anything in the fridge, but I’d avoid the cheese. It wasn’t that colour when we bought it!
In this guest blog she talks about the challenges of making the leap from short story writer to debut novelist and reveals how a rather bizarre teenage holiday in France provided her with loads of memorable, if slightly disturbing, material. Over to you, Maggie…
FROM A 100-METRE DASH TO A MARATHON
Running for the bus would probably prove to be my undoing nowadays, but the title of my guest post sums up for me the difference between writing short stories and the far greater commitment of completing my first novel.
If pushed, I can write a thousand word story, largely out of my head and with minimal research, in a single day – yet my novel Shadows of the Past has taken me twelve years on and off and averages out at about ten thousand words for each of those years. In theory, this makes it a blockbuster!
My homage to its forest setting may, I hope, make up in some small way for the trees sacrificed to provide the paper for my many drafts. Fearing that the whole thing might disappear into cyberspace overnight, I printed out each update before staggering into bed.
Writers must attempt to spin gold out of straw and there was plenty of that during my first visit to France. Vocabulary note: straw = paille in French.
At seventeen, I found myself in a so-called youth work camp alongside stock characters from film noir crossed with The Addams Family,some of whom deserved to end up in concrete boots at the bottom of the Seine.
A poor grasp of French meant failure to comprehend a lot of what was going on, but there was always a sense of ‘something nasty in the woodshed’. Why, for example, was everyone so wary of the volatile boss and his sinister friends and who had screwed a row of meat hooks into the curved ceiling of the girls’ dormitory?
The subterranean sleeping accommodation and unspeakable sanitary arrangements were accessed via a gloomy tunnel with straw on the ground.
I turned down invitations from young soldiers, most probably AWOL from their service militaire,to have sex debout sur la paille but, partly for self defence, did team up for the duration with a likely lad from the nearby village. It’s because of Jean-Claude, standing with me in the framed photograph on the cover, that Shadows of the Past didn’t end up as just a teenage memoir.
In between lengthy bouts of snogging, he confirmed that my misgivings about the whole set-up were justified. His parents shared that opinion and also tried to get across to me their sufferings during the German occupation a couple of decades previously.
Although our romance didn’t outlast that summer, it was to Jean-Claude I turned many years later when I decided to embark on the novel. Having lied in our teeth about how little each other had changed over the years, we set off to explore our old haunts.
All traces of the camp in the forest had disappeared and even the tunnel entrance was blocked up and covered in graffiti, but the village was still much the same and I spent a lot of time talking to the older people about their wartime experiences. I shall never forget one poor soul, her skin yellow and thin as parchment, rolling up a sleeve to show me her concentration camp number.
With most of the story already in my head by the time I returned home, it only needed a narrator’s journey of discovery in the 1980s to knit the whole thing together.
Why then did the whole process take me so long? To begin with, I dithered endlessly over where to plunge in. There was a danger of multiple viewpoints whizzing round like an amateur video of a family celebration. The fact that the novel was going to span three time periods might lead to as many confusing flashbacks as an episode of Dr Who.
Naming a large cast and keeping track of their relationship to each other is very different from writing about two or three people in a short story. Even with a time line and spreadsheet, one early draft had a boy marrying his grandmother and I was guilty of raising the dead on more than one occasion.
When stuck for a name, I turned to memories of teaching English abroad and trust that my mixing and matching will prevent any former pupils cast as villains – oh, the satisfaction! – from taking umbrage or legal action. I reluctantly had to scrap the surname I’d chosen for my sadistic German colonel when I discovered that it meant ‘beekeeper’ – not quite the image I had in mind, and one character vacillated between Odette and Odile like a prima ballerina in Swan Lake.
While editing late one night, I was baffled by the phrase ‘like a Lucian child’ and then again by mention of ‘early German lucies’, until my tired brain remembered changing a name from Victor to Luc and using Word’s ‘Find and Replace’ facility to go through the whole manuscript willy-nilly. Lesson learnt!
To add fine detail to many episodes I turned to Google and still dread to think what an outside observer would make of my search history, studded as it is with references to Nazis, Parisian brothels, black marketeering and other illicit activities.
What finally spurred me on to give Shadows Of The Past, still growing like Topsy, priority over other writing commitments, my work as a ‘village regular’ on TV soap Emmerdale,family life, two demanding ex-feral cats, an obsession with salsa dancing and the occasional need to sleep? It was the realisation on New Year’s Day 2015 that time wasn’t on my side, unless I intended to follow in Mary Wesley’s footsteps and wait until I was seventy before publishing my first novel. That was my cue to enlist the help of fellow members of Ripon and York writers’ groups as well as a retired naval commander, a stickler for grammar and punctuation, to go through the final version for me.
Formatting my Word document for publication in both electronic and print versions would, I admit, have been quite beyond me. It is to my journalist son Richard Cobbett that I am indebted for layout, cover design and just about everything else apart from writing the actual story. If I’d been his age, I might have gone down the traditional route of sending in a synopsis and three chapters to umpteen agents chosen from the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, waiting six months for a reply etc, but no. Enough time had gone by and I wanted to see my first novel ‘out there’ with my other books.
So, have greatly increased coffee (and chocolate biscuit) consumption, late nights/early mornings, raw eyes and the odd attack of heartburn been worth it?
Definitely!Shadows of the Past is selling steadily and has attracted some great reviews. My only dilemma now is what to concentrate on next.
Shadows Of The Past combines mystery, history and humour. Although centring on the disappearance of three English schoolgirls in the 1960s, the story has its roots in the German occupation of France two decades earlier.Check it out at http://amzn.to/1KF7xLG