My very first trip abroad was to the United Arab Emirates, back when the glitziness of modern Dubai was barely a twinkle in someone’s eye. I was a solo traveller and everything about my journey was new and exciting.
Fast forward several years. Travel had to be planned with military precision, necessary to ensure the safety and comfort of two children plus myself and spouse. Other people needed things and I provided them, whether an acceptable snack or a favourite toy. My needs sat at the bottom of the list.
As the kids grew, I took them further afield; America, Morocco, Mexico, Australia. There were places I wanted to see, and people tend to disapprove of leaving your kids home alone. So I brought them along, visited zoos and aquaria and water parks, and compromised on the cultural bit I enjoyed because kids get bored. Bored kids are a particular nightmare abroad, cooped up in a single hotel room.
Going solo seemed an impossible dream in a future too far away. But the future has a habit of appearing suddenly, here in the present.
My recent trip to the US was my first solo longhaul journey in a long time. Despite the irksome immigration formalities I wrote about here, I was excited to go. When you become a mother, you lose yourself as an individual. All is submerged in the identity of family.
No matter how you fight against it, the world sees you as mother first and last. Western society is hardly child-friendly, and you are responsible for making sure that nobody suffers just because you have offspring.
Can’t you stop that baby crying?
Please control your child, his running around like that is annoying me.
You shouldn’t feed them that.
Video games all the time, no good for developing brains. What’s wrong with books?
In my day…
I did my time, got the T shirt, and now I can sympathise while parents struggle to deal with children who are just being children. Yes, babies cry on take-off. They aren’t able to knock back a couple drinks or a Xanax to take the edge off like you did. Yes, the parent would stop them if they could. I won’t add to the disapproving glances that only multiply the stress of family travel.
Managing your children plus the expectations of everyone around you is exhausting. But staying home for eighteen years was not an option. As a bonus, my (grown) children are well travelled and able to cope with the inevitable hiccups of delays and missed connections. They are equipped for their own adventures.
All by myself
Now I can wander round shops if I want, read a whole novel, go to the restroom alone. At my destination, I can stay up and write during a jetlagged night, visit museums and gardens and art galleries. I can take off on a whim in an Uber without deferring to the majority vote. I never have to visit another water park.
It’s a process, seeing my freedom to decide as pleasing myself rather than being selfish. But it was so liberating that I’m already planning my next solo trip.
There is much joy in visiting Roman ruins with someone who really wants to see them; me, myself and I.
I’m travelling to the US, for the first time in over a decade. And travelling there alone, for the first time in much longer. The America we see now from news and tweets is a confusing and worrying place. While I know rationally that things will be fine, that the friends and family I will see are good people, that most people are good people, I cannot help but feel a prickle of anxiety. I also know that bad things happen even when you follow the rules.
Enhanced security at airports is annoying but routine now. We know the drill; liquids, laptop, shoes, belts. Everything is organised and moves efficiently. It’s hard to remember when it was any different.
I travelled back from the US with my family a few months after the 9/11 attacks. Security was a ramped up, disorganised mess of extra screening for suitcases and lines that were hours long. We arrived in good time but still had to be pulled from the line because our flight to London was about to close. Two hours standing with increasingly fractious young children, and increasingly anxious passengers all around. Uncertainty hung thick in the air like smoke. Fear settled in the pit of my stomach and took root there. But we got home safe.
The next year, we took a short internal flight from San Diego to LA, for a connecting flight. The timing was tight. My husband, travelling on an Irish passport, was singled out for a random check. The first time, it was a surprise. I went through security with my children without a hitch.
He was asked to step to the side, remove his belt and shoes, go through the scanner again. He was frisked. His carry-on was searched thoroughly. When I lingered I was told brusquely to get on the plane, ma’am. Time was ticking away, the little plane was waiting. I got on and held my children close. I assured them that Daddy would be right there, and the plane would wait for him, and it would be fine. My voice shook and I smiled a lie to soothe my anxious daughter. I willed them to release him and I didn’t know if they would, or what I would do if they closed the doors.
For the first time, I was afraid.
He made it with minutes to spare. We were both shaken, but we got used to it when it happened again, and again. Repetition does that. The thing we fear loses its sting with repeated exposure, until it’s mere annoyance and then finally, we become indifferent.
This time, security checks go smoothly. I empty the water bottle in my carry-on. I have my ESTA. I expect biometrics and customs forms. I have my destination address memorised. I exhale and try not to sweat despite the heat and the fact it’s three a.m. London time and I’ve been awake twenty hours straight and I’m a bit low on blood sugar and I have done nothing wrong.
Rationally, I know everything is fine. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m suspect, not really welcome anymore.
Hey, we’re off to the pub. Coming? Sure. Why not.
Football scores. Office politics. The girl in the corner wearing blue.
Nothing to say. Sips a beer. No response to desperate glances.
Must be getting home or there’ll be hell to pay, right? Right.
He is at work. Friday comes.
TGIF, am I right? Right.
She’s got my weekend booked up, shopping and a BBQ, groan. You? Nothing much.
Three beers and Netflix. Pizza delivery. Quiet bed.
He is at work. Monday comes.
So busy this weekend, didn’t have a minute to myself. How about you? Oh, you know. Quiet.
You’re lucky, time to yourself. Yes. Lucky me.
Friday can’t come quick enough, am I right? Right.
He is quiet. No trouble. No drama.
No sun. Engulfed by eternal cloud, muffled, numb.
Rain drips icy fingers down his neck, freezing his bones.
Invisible, lost, a lone wolf.
Teeth ripping at his own heart.
A final scream, choked. Unheard.
None to sing his elegy.
Characters have a life of their own — or they should. Most writers know the feeling of writing something that seemed to come from the mouth of their creation, bypassing the writer’s mind entirely. Or breathlessly chasing words and images that play like a film going at double speed, hoping that fingers can keep up.
You could call it flow. You could call it the Muse. You could call it a lucky break.
Reading this piece from Louise Foerster reminded me of a time when my characters deserted me.
My protagonist and antagonist were about to face off for the last time, but I didn’t know where and how. Protagonist didn’t want to do it, so naturally he was no help. “It’s not fair,” Protag grumbled. “Didn’t I beat this guy already? Wasn’t that enough?”
The novel ground to a halt. In line with my less is more approach to worldbuilding, I don’t complete huge lists of traits for my characters. Much more important than their childhood pet or favourite colour, their personalities and choices are my focus. No short cuts there.
I was stuck.
Interview with the Bad Guy
Protag sulked. Antagonist stared out of the window, eyes fixed on a future only he could see. I decided to take a risk.
“Um, Antagonist? How are you going to win this once and for all? Why will you win?”
He turned his gaze towards me. “I am better and I am right.”
He explained himself fully and precisely, without emotion because that’s his character. It was the infamous villain’s monologue of so many movies and comic books, but before the battleground had even been decided.
I let him speak. I took notes (longhand works better for this kind of exercise.) About three-quarters of the way down the page, the solution came to me. I had to hustle him out of the room and get writing.
“I have more to say, if you would permit — ”
“Thanks so much for your time, but I have an appointment with my laptop. See you soon.”
He sounded disappointed. Not many people listened to him like that; they were all afraid of him. He couldn’t scare me and I’d heard enough.
Let the character speak
When you get stuck, interview a character. Interview the bad guy, the bad guy’s chief henchman, the protag’s best friend, the bartender who serves him whisky when things go wrong. Secondary characters often give a new perspective on the character that rounds him out. Of course, primary and secondary roles are all relative to where you’re standing, as the hero in your own tale.
Sometimes problem solving needs a different approach. The answer is within you. This isaway to coax it out of hiding.
There are secrets at the heart of every story; there is something that must be uncovered or discovered, both by the reader and by the characters. Hannah Kent
I’m back on the beach again, metaphorically rather than literally. Beaches and the sea feature prominently in my writing, and I didn’t even know.
It all started with a chance remark from a writer friend. She read a short story of mine and commented, “Be careful what you wish for seems to be a theme in your stories.”
“Huh,” I replied.
That got me thinking. I’ve contributed two stories to anthologies based on a deal with the devil, another about a wish come horribly true, and just completed a ghost story with an implied wish embedded in the protagonist’s motivation.
Then in my IRL poetry group, another poet asked if I deliberately included the sea in my poems, because beaches often came up in them.
“Huh,” I replied again.
Beaches inspired my prize winning storyAll the sands that touch the sea. Beaches and the sea inspired poems like All love in a day and blog posts like Forever summer and Flying free and many more. I realised that the ocean figured in about a third of my works that year.
Hiding in plain sight are ideas or beliefs that underpin some if not all of my work. The question is, what does the sea or beaches mean to me? And how can I use it to my advantage?
Theme in writing
The theme of a story is what the author is trying to convey — in other words, the central idea of the story. Short stories often have just one theme, whereas novels usually have multiple themes. The theme of a story is woven all the way through the story, and the characters’ actions, interactions, and motivations all reflect the story’s theme. Cliff’s notes
In well written stories, theme gives a satisfying sense of ‘I know what that was all about’ in terms of universal ideas like love conquers all or family comes first. Theme is separate to plot or what happens and where. Love can conquer all in any number of different settings.
Conversely, a story without a theme, even if well written with engaging characters, leaves the reader wondering ‘so what?’ And a story written to a specific theme can come over as preachy, especially when political or religious. The reader feels they’ve been beaten over the head with a blunt instrument.
Discovering your values
Most of us don’t examine our core beliefs on a regular basis, if ever. As writers hoping to illuminate the human condition through stories, it might be useful to our selves and to our readers to dig a little deeper into the beliefs that drive our behaviour. We might ask ourselves questions like
what makes me happy
is my life the result of luck or choice
what is the strongest emotion
is ‘blood thicker than water’
are people essentially good or essentially sinful
are rules made to be broken
Looking a little deeper at the answers will help you understand yourself and what guides your choices. And of course in fiction, you can use values to build a compelling character who behaves like a real person in the story. A list of useful questions to ask and a summary of values can be found here at mindtools.com.
Using theme to your advantage
Sometimes the theme is only seen when looking back at a work. During the first draft our job is to tell ourselves the story, as Terry Pratchett said. After a break, re-reading the story should reveal its point, if you didn’t write with one in mind. It might be something unexpected. Your job then is to strengthen the theme using subtle hints in characterisation and dialogue, so that the narrative hangs together. On the other hand, if theme is too obvious, it may need toning down so that it fades into the background.
If genre is an ocean and plot is the wind steering the boat of characters, they can change course by their actions. But the theme is like a deep ocean current that will bring them to a particular destination, even though they can’t see it.
There’s the sea again
Why does the sea reappear in my work? The beach is a boundary combining air, earth and water aspects of nature. It represents transformation, endings and beginnings, awe and fear at the power of the sea, creation/birth vs. destruction/death. For me it also represents time, childhood, escape. All this and more, before even considering the symbology of water itself.
I use my sea theme to help me with new works. A new story takes shape more easily once I have a setting. I might set the story on the beach or at sea; or use the idea of a liminal space to come up with a supernatural tale. I have woven memories into beach stories.
Whether it is romance, SFF, magic realism or anything else, be careful what you wish for is another goal to work towards. This is especially good for short stories or poems with a single theme. There are many different ways in which this might play out. Not all involve a deal with a devil, but that does make for a good tale.
I don’t want to keep writing the same story though. So periodically I have a look at my values again. They change in importance and evolve as my life does, and my art should reflect that. And that is one of my personal values.
If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living. Gail Sheehy
Look at your works, or better yet ask someone else to read them, and see if a recurring idea or value reveals itself. You may be surprised. Then have a go at a new piece, keeping your theme in mind.
One of the first things we need to know on starting a story is its setting. As well as establishing protagonist and stakes, the place where events happen must be known. A story without a clear setting floats around and is difficult to enter fully. If your reader scratches her head and asks herself “where are they again?” she steps outside the fictive dream. You’ve lost her.
The main elements of setting
Climate and geography
The amount of detail needed varies. A contemporary short story may establish setting with a few words, especially if it is familiar to the reader. A novel needs more, particularly for historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy (SFF). The reader needs more depth to ground themselves in a world distanced by time or imagination.
Setting can be a character in itself. Consider the bleak post-apocalyptic wasteland of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; Aliette de Bodard’s ancient, sinister Paris devastated by magic wars in The House of Shattered Wings; or the drowned Southern States of Sherri L Smith’s Orleans. In all these books place is not only evoked, it acts on the characters and forces them to make choices.
How much is too much?
SFF is my favourite genre to read and write. No doubt I will be accused of poor worldbuilding, but I fall into the camp of less is more. (Maybe it’s my poet’s ear, seeking economy of expression and spaces for interpretation.)
Talking to another writer recently, I was vocal in my dislike of huge prologues, maps on both endpapers, long lists of characters and noble houses and relationships…yawn. Just give me the story already.
She, however, loves all the details. And so do many other readers. They enjoy minute descriptions of magic systems, exactly imagined terrain, and a catalogue of interior furnishings.
Historical fiction relies on accurately depicting a lost time. Research is essential but on the page, in a long description of how a nineteenth century cotton mill works, it screams info dump.
Unless it’s relevant to the moment, leave it in backstory. Just as we don’t need to flesh out soldier number 6 who doesn’t speak, we don’t need to describe goblets and gizmos in detail. If setting is in the background, let’s leave it there. We can fill in using imagination, if we want.
Setting is important
but in the end only two things matter: what the characters are doing
and what happened next.
Minimalist or maximalist; which camp do you fall in?