Tag Archives: writing process

Reflections on Writing “The Story of Henry the Third…etc”

critical reviewHaving received some very lovely feedback from friends for my second short story, I thought that, once again, I would share some of my thoughts and observations on the writing process I undertook. If you have not read “The Story of Henry the Third and the Midwinter Miracle in Manchester”  then click the link or scroll down to the previous post to read it first and avoid any spoilers.

When I decided to write a Christmas story, I knew that I wanted to include some of the traditional seasonal themes such as kindness, charity, the importance of family and love, renewed hope and a touch of magic. How to do this in an original and engaging way was more of a challenge…

The Inspiration

This was the easy bit. The setting was very much inspired by my own recent experience, working in the centre of Manchester again after 13 years in various out of town campuses. I was shocked to realise that there are still so many homeless people on the streets because my infrequent trips into town, during the period I worked elsewhere, were to the main shopping areas or busy bars, restaurants and theatres etc and not through the side streets and back alleys that I had used regularly as a daily commuter. As the weather became colder at the back end of November and early December, I pondered every morning on how the huddled bodies I saw in doorways coped in such cold conditions and who they were; what was their own story and history? I wanted to prompt the reader to think a little more about the human being behind the Big Issue.

The Characters

Debbie’s lifestyle, curiosity about people and her empathy are mine, so she was very easy to write. I hasten to add that my own family circumstances are quite different  (my Mum is alive and well thank you very much and I am a mother myself) but she basically speaks with my voice. In fact I’m wondering now if I should have written her in the first person…hmmm – that’s a future consideration.

I always imagined Henry the Third as looking and behaving like Eddie the whiskery Jack Russell in Frasier. eddieI wanted him to be friendly but not overly excitable, small so that he could be carried, loyal, protective and intelligent. Although he is of course crucial to the plot, he has no self awareness and is simply doing what dogs do, so there was no need to give him much depth of character. I’m still rather fond of him though.

 

Pam the dog lady was a little trickier to create. I wanted a homeless woman rather than a man, as I thought it would be easier to believe that Debbie would converse with a mysterious woman than a strange man. The resemblance to her Mum was included to make her even more approachable and attractive. Her letter at the end was deliberately written in a style to show that despite her lifestyle, she was intelligent, articulate and kind.

The peripheral male characters, Dad, Mark and Jon are, I admit, sparsely drawn but hopefully realistic enough to serve their purpose of moving the story along and/or the exposition of relevant past events.

The Plot

In my early musings about the plot I contemplated making Pam the long lost mother, returned to help the daughter she had abandoned.  But this seemed too bleak and emotionally complicated – forgiveness and redemption would be more difficult to dispense for someone who left  a young family, to live on the streets.  I also considered turning her into the mother’s ghost, but it would not have made sense to have had three life-saving events as both Dad and Mark would have recognised their wife/mother at the time of their own salvation.  This was also why Pam herself did not openly act as Guardian Angel and why I employed a succession of dogs to help save the Moffats. It seemed more believable that they would not have made a big deal of it at the time if individually they had thought that a dog had somehow stopped helped them.   And I liked the sound of “Henry the Third” as a name!

I hesitated for a long time as to whether to include Debbie’s childlessness in the story at all, but I wanted something else to make the dog lady mysterious and magical and to add a final little twist to the tail. It seemed like a good way to round off the story; Pam dies, somehow knowing that Henry the Third saved not only Debbie but her longed for  unborn child. It is almost like her parting Christmas gift.

I thoroughly enjoyed engineering this story and have been delighted with the emotional impact it has had on some of my readers. It’s the greatest compliment I could wish for. Not entirely sure what I’m going to write next but will endeavour to entertain you again.

Happy New Year!

P.S. If you are feeling generous or inspired then I recommend you make a donation to either of these two UK homeless charities.

http://www.crisis.org.uk/pages/support-us.html

or

http://england.shelter.org.uk/

 

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Party Animal: Reflections (or post mortem?)

Having finally posted my first short story last week I  thought I might offer up my a few thoughts and observations about the actual process of writing it. If you haven’t read “Party Animal” yet,  scroll down to the previous post and do so first to avoid spoilers!

  1. Writing fiction is much harder than writing memoirs and general brain dumps … Coming up with an idea and a narrative arc with a beginning, middle and end is tough. I know that the plot of “Party Animal” was not particularly original but I wanted the experience of writing a short story and was inspired by all of the unavoidable  pre-Halloween hype. Hopefully the variation on an old plot was told well enough to be worth reading still.
  2. He said, she said… I struggled with the dialogue. My hubby thought that it was quite good and “naturalistic” but it didn’t feel that way writing it. For a start I had to remind myself of the basic grammatical rules for writing speech and more than once had to grab the nearest novel to see how it was done. I suspect that dialogue is one of those writing muscles that I need to exercise and that the reason I found it so hard is because it doesn’t generally come up much in the writing I do for my day job. Reports, presentations, instructions and business comms messages have to be factual, objective and unambiguous so I’m  bit rusty on the whole written conversation thing  :-/
  3. Exposition and loose ends… Another thing that I wrestled with was how much I should spoon-feed the reader and how much I ought to leave them to ponder. Being an anally retentive sort of person I have a pet hate for loose threads and (continuing the metaphor if I may) I tied myself in knots several times trying to ensure that I didn’t leave the reader saying “hang on a minute, you mentioned this earlier and now there’s no explanation”. For example, I felt that I had to conclude the problem of  the lost report at the beginning which sets the scene for her bad day, and to mention what happens to her clothing during the metamorphosis etc.  Tiny and seemingly irrelevant details but these are the sort of things that wind me up whether I’m reading, or watching a film…anyone else really bugged by the lack of explanation as to how the hell James Bond survived being shot and then falling a hundred feet off a bridge in “Skyfall”???  I can still spot a half dozen little things in “Party Animal” that I failed to explain properly. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I should trust the reader to plug the gaps. I’d be interested to know what you think – is it just my obsessive compulsive tidiness or do loose ends bug you too? Which of mine did you spot?
  4. It all takes much longer than I thought… My story was only around 2500 words long but it took me an age and I missed my target publication date by 4 days.  I had wanted to post it just before Halloween but working full time and trying to write in between maintaining a family life and managing domestic admin in the evenings and at weekends is not easy. Excuses, excuses. Next time I will set myself a more realistic deadline.

Having said all of that, it was still fun to write and a great learning experience. If I can come up with any more ideas for a good yarn I will definitely have another go. In the interim I have a backlog of other stuff to write about first and lots of research to do so I’d better get a wriggle on.