The Barber of Our Lady’s

I’m working on a collection of stories with the theme of ‘Living with Learning Difficulties’. It shows the viewpoints of the different members of one family. The latest story below shows an experience in school from the perspective of an outsider. To read the first story which gives us an insight into the world of Margie, the Mother in ‘All Day Breakfast’ click here

The Barber of Our Lady’s

At primary school, I was ready with words.  But I ended up writing and crying on the first day and I think that set the pattern for my life really. I drew out each letter of my name carefully, chewed on the pen, felt the uncomfortable plastic chair struggling even with my small frame.  But I was ahead of myself, and unfortunately ahead of the teacher, Mrs Hedgerow, who hated me for it.

‘What are you doing you stupid little girl?’ she ripped the page of carefully formed letters from my desk and watched me cry.

Of course I was the opposite of stupid, especially in that school. Someone on my table had even started eating the paper like a rabbit. I had picked up the pen and passed six months of her lesson plans.  School made me slow down.

Neil Thompson played tick with me on the first day he arrived. He turned up one day a couple of months into this madness, just out of the blue. Me, Neil and Jenny Roberts who had long golden hair and regularly wet herself, ran around the playground with a sense of freedom that later became unknown when the Rat Pack established themselves as the leaders of our school year.

Thomas O’Brien was the male lead and insisted on being called Uncle O’Brien by everyone, at the age of six.  He ran a kind of playground ‘Sopranos’.  Lisa Matthews, ran the WAGS section of this.

One day she made everyone sit down so she could cut their hair. I look back on that scene and see Lisa as the perfect camp commandant.  She even had the listless eyes.

Snip, snip, snip. The teacher noticed two haircuts later.  Jenny Roberts was the first victim. Yellow hair mixed with yellow wee.  I was victim number two. I had been a willing victim.

Dad was livid. Absolutely did his nut. Mum told me I didn’t have to do things to fit in. I felt like telling her that nothing would help me fit in. I didn’t want to fit in with these people, playground Sopranos and Sweeny Todds like Lisa Matthews.  Although I did really. The haircut was a moment of lonely madness.  I did something far worse than the haircut anyway. I cut off Neil, not his short locks of brown hair, but his friendship, constant smiles and podgy hand ticking at my school jumper.

He was good at tick but not at anything else. The teacher had trouble pinning him down, getting his hand to fit around the pen, make letters on the page.  A few weeks in and Neil was only coming to our school a couple of days a week, Our Lady of Martyrs, no one who came out of that school was a martyr believe me.  We asked Mrs Hedgerow, we all referred to her as hedgehog more as childish simplicity than precociousness, where he went on those other days.

‘Bunny-rabbit school.’ she said, lips closed around the words inviting no questions.

Everyone was jealous.  This made things worse for Neil.

He would be dropped off by taxi, walk up to the school entrance with a woman who was not his Mum, because she came at the end of the day, knock on it and be let in. He never came to morning playground. One day, the door opened before he could knock and a person came out. Rather than go in through the open door, he returned to the taxi and began the routine again. The woman would follow and say nothing.

We were the three misfits, except Jenny reshaped herself after the haircut.  Nobody minded the occasional slip of wee through the knickers. She became a twat when she realised that was the way into the Rat Pack, losing locks was not enough to sustain her new position. She soon found it in Neil.

‘It’s cool this.’  Jenny said about the new line tick game we had invented.
’It’s not cool at all. I’m really warm.’ Neil had answered smiling.

Jenny laughed. ‘Haha he’s a mong.’

‘He must be a mong.’ That was the word on the playground. No one really understood it apart from that it was bad. Jenny was proud that she had brought this in. Lisa Matthews let her play with the Rat Pack. We were overheard.

‘Who taught you that word?’ Mrs Hedgehog asked, glasses on the end of her nose.

‘My Dad,’ she answered with unsure pride.  A letter went home.

Neil loved art.  I say art but we were all finger-painting nightmares. He used to draw attention to himself by refusing to wear the shirt to protect his clothing – the feeling of the fabric against his skin caused him distress. His parents agreed with his school that he can wear a loose-fitting apron instead.

‘Mrs Mong,’ Lisa Matthews called him.  Everyone laughed.  She said it just to us so that the teachers didn’t hear. I was one of the ‘us’ by that stage.

Even for those two days a week in Our Lady of Nutters, his life must have been hell. Neil tried to smile at everyone again even when the word didn’t leave.

‘Eee stay away from that big, fat mong.’

Uncle O’Brien pushed him away from the games. Neil looked at me hopefully, touched my arm in a tick. I looked away from him.

‘Are you with that mong?’ Lisa Matthews persisted.

‘No.’ I couldn’t look at Neil. I was allowed to join the game.

We were like cats on that tarmac playground, fought over territory and never helped each other out; line tick, running across the white lines while the boys kicked footballs past us and at us.

Neil’s Mum came to the school.

‘Georgina is your friend isn’t she?’ she said pointing at me. I wanted to be. But I wasn’t. Neil shook his head from side to side. His Mum wasn’t looking.

At dinner times Neil went back to the classroom and sat with the teacher. We sat in the canteen with lumpy mash and sad sausages, cakes that looked like they’d been around for too long, icing tainted with boredom, cherries that were glazed over instead of glazed, fudge cake that was fudged when being delivered and was always squashed against the plate, ice cream that drooped in bowls. I didn’t know what mong meant but it was bad. Neil’s smile faded.

Dinner time bullying was dished out for most people anyway.

‘Want a sweet?’

‘Suck your feet.’
‘What’s a mong?’ I got there before the letter. Mum had a pinny on which was layered with drawings of cakes and loaves of bread. She never cooked those things in her life.  The deep fat fryer with its globs of white-yellow fat, the freezer with its ready food and the microwave were her main weapons.

‘Don’t use that word.’ She looked at me for a moment. ‘Who’s taught you that?’

‘Lisa Matthews was saying it in the playground.’ I lied. I couldn’t say it was Jenny.  I invited Jenny around for tea instead of Neil. I wanted to be just like all the other kids, a cruel bastard.

‘Oh the barber of Our Lady’s learning new words now is she?’ Mum never liked Lisa Matthews.

‘Can I have a friend around for tea?’

Mum smiled, thinking I meant Neil.  She must have thought that I was turning over a new leaf.

When I was younger I just thought things had to be. I didn’t know about choice. I didn’t know that I could be friends with Neil anyway if I wanted to be.  Jenny enjoyed tea at mine but Mum would’ve had Jamie Oliver in tears.  We had hot dogs from the tin warmed in the pan and chips cooked in a deep, fat fryer.  There was no mention of salad.  If it couldn’t be frozen, deep-fat fried or microwaved it could feck off basically.  But I loved that style of tea. My lunchbox which was only ever healthy, fruit and sandwiches.  The only benefit was that years later when I laughed I had no fillings and all my own teeth.

Neil was beaten up in a park when he was fifteen. I imagined him smiling at the wrong people and the next thing finding himself on the ground in a ball taking punches. His face was in the Liverpool Echo, black and blue and unsmiling.  What they didn’t mention was what happened next.  His Mum met mine in ASDA buying Alphabites for deep-fat frying.  We got the story from her. Neil had walked, crawled or whatever he must have done to the local youth club that he had started going to. It was in a rough area; it had bouncers that gobbed at the pavement and glared at newcomers. They liked Neil because he was so straight-forward. They found him funny. When they saw him arrive that night battered with blood streaming from his mouth where a smile usually formed, they went vigilante. Neil told them what had happened as they called an ambulance then a group of them tore down to the park and found the first gang they encountered and proceeded to break their faces, kick at their bodies.  I prayed, which I never do now but I did for this, that they’d got the right people.

Our punishment in Our Lady’s all those years before was that we all had to go to church and repent for using the awful word. We all had to go to church with school anyway so they made that up for a start.  No one really minded so it didn’t feel like a punishment. Even Lisa Matthews loved her Communion dress so she wanted to practice for the ‘ceremony’.  A letter went home still. The school secretary typing out that word that ostracized Neil and copying it out again and again for the parents to say in their heads or out loud at home, cutting into their lives for a brief moment.

Screaming without Noise

Introducing Lydia…

This is a behind the scenes story about Lydia, one of my tropical fish in ‘The Dictionary of Departures’.  This will start to give you a taster of who she is before you meet her.  Writing mini stories revealing life snippets is an exercise I’ve been playing about with to get to know my characters. If you’re a writer, does this process work for you?

Like the main character Gina, you probably won’t like her, until you see where she is coming from and also where she has been.

Here is one example of what led Lydia to become who she is…

Screaming without Noise – a back story for Lydia 

I heard the screaming outside from the bathroom. It was really clear as the window was open. A sound that cracked the air, not human. I fell down the stairs, a pain on my side that I wouldn’t feel until much later. I opened the door and his body was swinging from side to side, blood on the pavement, some splashed on the wall of the house, on the car. Jimmy’s strong shoulders hunched over, set wide. The tips of his teeth showed, but the rest sunk into white fur.  The white fur was still moving, in and out, trying to get enough air in to survive this. He was screaming without noise now, all the fear in his eyes instead pleading for help, seeing me and seeing some hope. But then they flashed past too fast, when his body was thrown from side to side again.

I grabbed the nearest thing I could and threw it at Jimmy. He just looked at the splattered Yellow Pages, all broken pages on the floor next to him. A second later they were dotted with blood.

‘Please, please, let him go.’ I could still see something like life in the white ball despite the lines of blood from the neck down to the legs, pouring faster. It didn’t look real – like Halloween blood or raspberry sauce.  Maybe this wasn’t real. I would wake up.  The eyes were closing now, falling silent.

And then he dropped Oscar at my feet and sat back on his hind legs, waiting for a treat. I clenched my fists up, watched Jimmy’s stupid, slobbering face as he licked the blood off his lips. It looked like he was smiling.

He lost interest and stood panting and smiling as I tried to lift Oscar, wanted to bring him in and clean him up, but the broken bits of him were leaking out everywhere. His eyes were closed and everything about him stopped, his body warm but he was gone.  It felt like the street was just the three of us. When people hear trouble around here they stay inside. Mum came out then.  I could tell she felt bad as she thought it was just kids arguing again, me shouting at them to break it up. She got angry at me for doing that but I could never just leave a fight.

Then a whistle from the field and Jimmy was gone. I knew that whistle. Jay brings Jimmy out as part of our gang and lets him hang his thick jaws around the swing poles. ‘training him up’ He lifts him up, makes him lock those lips and teeth over the poles and then leaves him dangling. The grunting and the growling and his look of pain gets hard to listen to and then finally Jay lets him down.

Mum disappeared and then came back and picked Oscar up in our checked tea towels and moved back in without looking at me.  I sat down on the step.  She came back out for a second and I took the bucket of water and rough brush.

‘Those horrible bastards…’ she was muttering to herself but she looked at me.  We wouldn’t talk about it yet but we both knew who it was. A brick through the window, a firework through your door for calling the police at least. So we didn’t call them.

I put the bucket down and traced the marks on the ground with my finger. I noticed the claws then. There were three of them spread out at different scratches, clutching across the pavement.  I put my face on the concrete slabs between the claws and scratched along until it felt like my skin was being pulled off and I imagined the claws sticking into my forehead, my cheeks, my chin. I wanted to feel it, a panic so big that I would scratch my nails deep into the ground trying to get away from it, a fear so massive that it would take little parts of me with it.

All around the annoying sounds of kids playing together, shouting in the distance continued and when I entered the house, the shouty sounds were replaced by the noise of ground being shovelled to make a hole in the little bit of earth we had in the back garden.  It was so gentle.  Mum lifted Oscar in the box with the blood in just as gentle a way, like the cardboard was made of the same easy break material as the ornaments Nanna left us, one with her in it, like a pile of black dust. I opened it once and felt this once, warm woman, dry on my fingers. By accident I breathed some in and felt it choke down my throat. For days I thought I was walking around with Nanna’s arm regrown from the black dust in my stomach, but the pokey outerdness was probably just my worries.

Death smelt like metal and mud today. Oscar hanging in the jaws, limp, like a toy. The image stayed in my head like the start of a DVD when you don’t press play and the intro just keeps rolling and rolling.

After we’d buried Oscar I went upstairs.

I looked out the window and could see the round buildings trying to pinch the clouds right out in town.  Jay was on the field, waiting. There was a screaming in my head in the quiet bedroom, building up louder. I knew and he knew what was coming, except he didn’t this time. I was going to recreate enough fear so that he would need to grip the ground until parts of him fell off.

Me head’s chocker

Good writing has a place. And by that I mean a town, city or region. I used to make the mistake of being too vague.  So I decided to set my novel in Liverpool, because I know it and also because it is such a great setting for a story.

What I didn’t know is just how Liverpool to make it and by that I mean slang, idiosyncratic terms, dialect and dialogue.

Would I alienate people from outside the city by calling things ‘boss’ or ‘sound’, saying that someone had ‘lost their bottle’, using the bizarre phrase ‘alarse’, calling every kind of alcohol ‘ale’ and adding, ‘lad, la, kidda’, and ‘is right’ and the occasional ‘proper’ and ‘pure’ before words to make a point about just how boss something was? It was proving to be a tricky mix. So what to do abar (about) it?

In my novel – The Dictionary of Departures , Gina is a scouser and I’ve been working phrases and words familiar to the city into the story, but in a way that doesn’t exclude readers from other places.

I found some useful tips on the Daily Writing Tips website that suggested writers ‘should pay attention to phrases and idioms that pertain to a character’s geographic location…’ It reported that this won’t slow the reader down, distract or confuse them.

I wanted to use one of their phrase examples “she’s dumber than a bucket of hair, bless her heart,” but that places someone in the American South. My offering could be– ‘she’s proper dozy her la’?

I looked to three other writers for help.

God, them fishfingers are gorgeous

I’ve just finished All She Wants, the debut novel by Jonathan Harvey. This does use phrases and words particular to Liverpool with occasional explanations. The main character Jody explains ‘trainees are trainers’ but ‘arlarse’ is left alone.  This book takes a lot of its humour from the very scouse way the characters talk but often this is in such a way that any reader can detract their meaning. When Jodie first works on an advert one of her phrases in fact haunts her for a while – God, them fishfingers are gorgeous. The main point is that the reader always gets it.

Not very casual West Country

In The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling a lot of debate has centred on her harrowing and dark departure from Harry Potter but I started to study the dialogue. One of the characters Krystal Weedon is characterised by her language and so are her family. The setting is the fictional West Country village of Pagford but it has clear West Country accents. Rowling has been criticised in The Guardian for creating underclass characters all using a kind of generalised, Dickensian lower-order-speak e.g. “I takes Robbie to the nurs’ry”; “Tha’s norra fuckin’ crime”; “No, shurrup, righ’?”.

Rowling reportedly drew on her own mildly unhappy West Country childhood, in a village outside Bristol and then later outside Chepstow.  It was a great book in my opinion but I did get the point about the Dickensian dialogue.

Irishy stuff

Marion Keyes said in her newsletter that the late Maeve Binchy gave her the confidence to ‘write with an Irish accent’. She said: ‘I personally owe her a debt of gratitude because when I started writing, I was appalled to discover that I was writing in an Irish accent – I thought nobody other than a few Irish people would be interested in reading my Irishy stuff. Then I remembered Maeve – she wrote in an Irish accent and most of her books were set in Ireland and it hadn’t done her any harm – she was beloved worldwide. So she gave me the confidence to ‘write in my own voice’.”

One thing is in common for all of the above – they all write where they know or have known. That is already what I am doing. But how to make this authentic…?

So Me head’s chocker and you can help 

What scouse words and sayings would you want to see in a book set in Liverpool? And how would you spell them? Tweet @ClareDoran or email with any ideas!

Bagsy all the best ones for my book.

This has nothing to do with the above article but I found this overheard in Liverpool phrase quite funny and I’m going to have to use it somewhere, perhaps if I become a scapegoat for bad scouse sayings in my novel: 

‘They can fuck right off. I’m no one’s escaped goat.’


This short story was highly commended by the Writers’ Forum in November 2012 and recently made the Longlist for the Fish Short Memoir Prize 2013. Although I entered it into a memoir competition, this is fact mixed with fiction as the competition states:

A memoir gives licence – to interpret, to create, to fabricate, to make sense of a life, or part of that life.

A revised version will also form Chapter H of my novel, ‘The Dictionary of Departures’.


Hug1  v (hugged, hugging) 1. to hold or embrace tightly in one’s arms 2. to move parallel and in close proximity to. >>huggable adj.

Hug2 n a tight clasp or embrace.

Hug3 an ornament that looks like a piece of shit >>shit-hug

Hug4  the type that kills, a love you to death. >>death-hug

Hug1 and Hug2 (official definitions from The Penguin English Dictionary)

Hug3 and Hug4 (additions from Gina Ellis)

I didn’t get the bus the night it happened. Dad drove. There was no rain, no melodramatic weather. It was just cold.

We were in the hospital earlier that week when I said, ‘That ornament looks like a piece of shit.’

Mum laughed but it hurt her. I could tell.  We were starting to get each other’s humour, but it was already too late. The ornament, a get-well gift from a friend, sat on the hospital bedside table, a brown goblin-type-thing that someone had stuck the word ‘hug’ under and framed in a small cardboard gift box. As though you could stick hug on anything to hand and sell it.  A shit-hug. That ward would have provided other marketing inspirations that day of dried-up vomit on the sheets of the next bed, blood-phlegm in a paper bucket opposite us or malignant tumours hidden in the bodies of the patients.

The smokers-with-the-drips came back into the ward, slippered feet lugging their failing bodies and trailing medical equipment feeding their last days. They brought the smoke from outside the hospital back in with them.  I could almost taste it, feel those last desperate ‘fuck it’ drags on my tongue. All the women-smokers mainly looked the same to me; thin, fat, whatever, but they were all raspy and craggy in some form.  But I remember one with shoulder length; fudge coloured hair in a hospital bed-head style. I can’t remember her name though. She’s certainly dead now. None expected to live. Surrounded by the dying and I was still being class-conscious.

The nurses walked the ward, ‘angels’ with stern faces. They brought the tea-time trolleys behind the smokers. We slipped in and out all the time, us relatives of the dying. The nurses rattled the plates and one brought over a mass of Spaghetti Bolognese that looked and smelt as though it had suffered during the cooking. She put it onto the tray that stretched across the bed in front of where Mum lay and cleared away a dirty cup. Another nurse moved to the side of one of the end beds and pulled the blinds closed. The view of the city of Liverpool, that glimpse of Paddy’s wigwam, closed into white blinds. This daily routine was like a version of the game show Bullseye, when they reel the main prize out to the losers and then take it away again. Patients, there’s a life out there you could have had, watch it leave.

‘Ye alright Marie.’ The smokers said as they moved back to their beds. Mum just nodded. I don’t know if she was jealous they could still walk.  Her legs were the size of balloons.  So was her stomach.

‘You look pregnant.’

Why did I say that? She just smiled and said. ‘I wish I was.’

Sometime I can’t even think about it.

I was in hospital ten years before what happened to Mum. I must have about seven, and I should have learned something from what she said and did, always comforting and reassuring me.  Mum had nursed me through a two-week hospital stay, a stint in a wheelchair and a long course of antibiotics that turned my teeth yellow like the smokers. When it was her turn in a hospital bed I made accidental insults like the shit-hug comment or over-polite conversation.

‘You got your place in the hospice then?’

‘Yes. I’ve got a place in the hospice.’


Dad observed every traffic light rule, every roundabout pause, although the roads were quiet.  We pulled into the car park and Dad parked between the lines.  I ran ahead, across the car park. Everything except me went into slow motion. The wind was cold and whipped against my cheek but there was fire beneath my feet.  I heard a couple more cars parking up and somebody shouted me. ‘Gina.’ I didn’t stop.

I don’t know what I expected. But it wasn’t what I saw.  Mum drowning.  Her eyes were closed and she was struggling to breathe.  Her head moving from side to side as she lay in the bed.  Her eyes were closed.

Nobody knew what to do.  Dad came in behind me. I remember him standing there in his Liverpool shirt as I turned around. You’ll never walk alone.  He certainly didn’t in the years that followed with his new wife Janet as they hiked the hills, watched views of towns and cities, gazed out of hotel windows. And nobody shut the blinds.

‘She insisted I went,’ he says, ‘I should have spent all day and night with her.  But she insisted I went.’ It was the match. Mum had told him to go, said we all needed a break and to come back the next morning. But at that moment when more people came into the room, we all felt that we shouldn’t have left.  Mum’s best friend Anna Harrison came and moved me forward with a gentle nudge, towards the bed. In the blank-wash of faces behind I saw Dad start to take steps forward too, letting me lead. Anna and her husband Tim stepped back.  The room smelt of the lilies crawling out over the vase on the table.

I remembered being told that the last thing that goes is the hearing.

That night with Mum seemed like a series of badly edited film scenes. One minute some of us were the hospice.  Then without warning, we all appeared a pub car park watching a limousine pull up.

It hadn’t been able to fit into the hospice parking area.  A few people were leaving the pub, eyes drinking us in with drunken confusion. A girl in a miniskirt fell on the pavement. A pink thong. Taxis hailed.  Smells of beer and burgers, grilled gammon, chunky chips, cheap two-for-one meals blasted out hours earlier and still lingering.

Charlie and Frankie got out of the limousine, picked up from a neighbour’s with young, confused faces.  Aunty Lesley and Uncle Malcolm always travelled in one for their scaffolding company’s annual charity dinner.

Charlie and Frankie in pyjamas and coats. Uncle Malcolm dressed in a full dinner suit. Aunty Lesley in a glittering dress with matching bag, and a fur coat over her arm.

‘Why did you make me go to that dinner you shit? We should have been there!’

That fur coat. She’d had it for years. When I was a child I thought she had slaughtered a hundred and one Dalmatians for it. She never reassured me, in fact the opposite.

‘Where did you get that?’ I would ask.

‘There was a litter of puppies no one wanted.’ She would reply. There was a cruel bastard quality to her and there still is. I was so good when she babysat us.

We sat in the children’s play area for a bit.  The three monkeys of grief together. Charlie with her hands over her eyes crying; Frankie with his hands over his mouth in-between being sick and me, might as well have had my hands over my ears, not hearing anything properly and understanding little.  I remember sweets being offered around, chewy fruit bursts that seemed too cheery in our mouths.

Frankie has never been interested in food anyway. He prefers structured activities to eating. When he was little he created concentration camp for worms and ants in the garden. He tried to make them concentrate and work together to find a way out, not yet realising that he had got the notion of those camps wrong.  Frankie is concentrating himself now, within four walls.  He has grown into a scruffy, duffel coat-wearing, shaggy-haired and pale socialist, constantly fighting causes. Dad said he was just going where the fights were. But even Frankie doesn’t know why he left Comet with a plasma TV during the riots last summer.

These days Charlie is unshakeable.  She’s built a lot better than me, mentally and physically.  Her brown hair with copper streaks is shaped well around her pale face, splashes of freckles soften her. After university she came back here like a homing pigeon that felt obliged to an owner who had looked after it. But I never really looked after Charlie, even after Mum. None of us could. I don’t know why she came back. She’ll fly off again soon when her job in retail management gets boring and she remembers that she’s a tortured artist. She’s not scared to ask when she wants something.

It was Charlie who asked if they could go in and see Mum.

The priest who turned up asked if mum was a pensioner. Aunty Lesley hit him with her jewel bag. A piece of glitter went in his eye and the nurses had to come over and help him. And all the time there was a dead body in the bed surrounded by people dressed for a dinner party, some kids in pyjamas accidentally posing like monkeys and a priest everyone wanted to kill. At least she’d gone before all that arguing kicked off.   I thought about what to do next, who to tell about what had happened, what I had done.  Others had been there, but it was only me who was close enough to know.

There was no Facebook back then and I’d like to think that I wouldn’t leave a status. But who knows? I could have joined the countless ‘There’s a star in heaven shining for new angels’  ‘RIPs to Mums and Dads, Nans and Grandads’. Bereavement shout-outs.

I would have posted something like that (but not that night). What I wouldn’t have done was update everyone on the whole process. One girl, Debbie Matthews, took Facebook through her Granddad’s first night in hospital (she checked in at the Royal on every visit). The finale was the uploading of a photo album featuring all the flowers at the grave. Shout-out for my popular dead Granddad.

I did call Jennifer.  When you’ve lived through so much with an old friend, you think they should also be there for all your deaths in some way.

She text me a few hours later.

me and me mum have been so upset for you.

She never thought about her choice of words. But I was wrong to expect her to.  Of course other people still had Mums.

Before all this, I did what I did.

Afterwards I went straight outside and found it was still Saturday night. No one came after me. It was freezing. There were people sitting on a bench, one of those for people who have paid to be remembered. The light from the children’s room reflected off the plating. Matthew Hunter reduced to a gold brass plate on a hospice courtyard bench since 1997.  I’ve been back and sat on the bench since.

Two men and a woman stood by that bench. The woman looked exactly the same as one of the hospital smokers. Her face was worn down, with a mouth sunken back and pocket holes for eyes. She spoke like she was only allowed a limited number of words a day, wheezy, cracked and harsh tones that seemed forced out.  It was like being back on the ward. I had to wonder if they produced these women like Stepford Wives for council estates.

The craggy woman was in my face.

‘Here love, have a drop of whiskey,’ she said then turned to the first man. ‘She’s still shaking. Give her your coat.’ I stood for a moment shivering.

‘She’s blue. Give her your coat too Kelvin. I said now!’ she said to the second man.

‘Here love have mine, I’ve got a cardie underneath.’ When we’d finished It felt like one of those attempts to get on a Ryanair flight when your baggage is too heavy.

I woke up the next day back at home with them all on the floor by my bed.  There must have been some people who left that hospice, tainted by grief but also freezing and furious at giving their coat to me. Even back at home I could smell lilies as though the stems had crept in through my nostrils in the night and were growing from my stomach, each breath from me a victory for them.  The smell of death on a Sunday morning. My hospice hangover.

I’d never taken on the word death before. I was seventeen years old. Great aunties and uncles who died were hard to feel anything about as a child. Once upon a time death had nothing to do with me and then it was personified, became a person I knew, and then became people I knew.

I don’t even know what the word ‘Mum’ means anymore. I’ve lived a third of my life without it, feeling like a fraud if I say it. I can’t have that word. It isn’t mine.

Anna Harrison’s gentle nudge. That was when I moved forward to Mum and did what I did. I hugged her.  Told her nice things, that I’d want to hear if I was scared and dying and nobody could do anything about it.  I told her she could go.

It could have been the words but it was like the hug I gave made her colder, stopped her breath, made her leave. I felt the last ten seconds of life in that hug, stilled her weak but thrashing movements. The scent of bed baths and final cleansings mixed with the lilies in my lungs. Then those last few breaths, against my face.   When she finally stopped, I moved with her, placing her head back onto the pillows that had held her up for the eight days of her hospice stay. My arms fell to their sides.  A one-way hug.  I took everything.  A death-hug.

I stepped back onto the shit-hug which had survived the journey from hospital to hospice and it shattered across the carpet next to Mum’s rosary beads.

Ten years later the heaviness, that ball and chain from my throat to the stomach which started with the hug was still with me.  It went up and down like a see-saw in my stomach.

I watched someone die from cancer sitting in a pub on Coronation Street once like it was nothing.  In reality it takes time to heave out the last signs of life, a gurgling from the lungs building into a sound like a soul being ripped from a body, which can be helped with a hug, a Love you to death.

Which pitch?

Next week (Wednesday 24/10/12) I will be pitching my novel to a publisher in my MA Writing class.  I have two options so far and both are subject to changes. Let me know what works best and what questions you have from either as a reader. What would you download on a kindle or buy after reading on the back of a book? Or if it’s neither – what am I missing? I’m also trying to work out which working title I prefer:  The Dictionary of Departures or The Distorted Dictionary.

If you can’t post on wordpress I’m on Twitter @ClareDoran Thanks 🙂

Option One

The Distorted Dictionary 

One girl. Two boys. One dictionary.

When Gina Ellis gets out of an emotionally abusive relationship, she tries to understand how she got there in the first place, taking us through her experiences and penning new dictionary definitions under ordinary words to make sense of her life.

Heartbreaking scenes of her Mum’s death redefine the meaning of a ‘hug, ’ her sex life is bracketed under ‘fridge’ and ‘peace’ is disturbed by both the biting fish in her stomach caused by grief  and the tropical kind; the Liverpool girls with their big hair, colourful make-up and expertly chosen clothes that she longs to be like.  Gina thinks she is a goldfish, plain and worthless, until she is abducted and must fight for her life.

Option Two 

The Distorted Dictionary 

One girl. Two boys. One dictionary. Twenty-six re-definitions  Lots of fish. A fight for survival.

When Gina Ellis gets out of an emotionally abusive relationship, she tries to understand how she got there in the first place, taking us through her experiences and penning new dictionary definitions under ordinary words to make sense of her life.

From heartbreaking scenes of her Mum’s death which redefines the meaning of a ‘hug’, to the repercussions on her family where the word ‘censor’ takes on many forms, Gina needs to find a sense of peace.

But she must also get over the fish which in their new definition are the nibbly, biting ones in her stomach caused by her grief but also the tropical versions; the Liverpool girls with their big hair, colourful make-up and expertly chosen clothes that she longs to be like. You see in her head Gina is a goldfish, plain and worthless, and until she gets over that then her real love interest, long-term friend but elusive Anthony, will remain out of reach.

Unfortunately her old life with ex-Daniel is a redefinition she is yet to get away from, and just as the fish start to settle she is abducted and must fight for her life.

The Distorted Dictionary:Prologue

The city was melting. The view from the window was a series of distorted flashes, buildings flew past. The occasional people were just thick and thin dark shapes showed up by street lights or set against the warm rays of homes, or pubs. It was a wet, cold night. The rain kicked at the pavements and drove people towards the lights. Even if I kicked at the door, somehow unravelled myself from the tight bands and managed to get it open, I’d die on the road.

Tying my hands was only so that I wouldn’t open the door if we had to stop at the lights, he’d said, not that we stopped at many.  It was getting darker outside and the windows of the Audi were tinted so no one would have looked in and seen my awkward pose inside.  He’d put the seatbelt around me gently, moved past my bruising arm from where he’d grabbed me at the front door.  My mouth still ached and the pain spread across my cheeks and peaked at my jaw. I was past terror; my body and mind had started to shut down, block out, tune out, even my stomach had stopped its continual internal jittering.

The reason for my rush from car to front door at night had actually happened; someone had emerged from the ready-in-waiting Crime Watch scene hedge. The hand over my mouth, the gasp for breath, the dragging across the driveway, my heels scratching against the paving leaving marks, the plaster running down my throat from the hand on my face, until we were back in my own car.

The gag had been pulled off once we had gathered enough speed. He’d pulled it away from my mouth somewhere near Liverpool John Lennon Airport. We were heading along the river, following it, watching it dip in the distance between waters. The black waters that were waiting to take me down, waves like watery hands that would soon pour into my throat and replace the charred dryness.

The key was never to let people get away if you could.  That’s what he kept saying. He’d said it at the funeral in a drunken blurry conversation. But he’d said it again now. I had tried to get away too often.  But not today.

The car made a low droning sound. The engine was like a bee bursting through a room trying to escape or an agitated wasp ready to sting.

At the next set of lights, he issued a low warning to me. If I move he will crash the car into the nearest wall. He doesn’t care what happens to him.  I will never make it out if I try anything.  We headed on. My head banged against the window as the car took a sudden lurch, the cold pain a reminder that I was still here; I was not dissolving.

The sky dipped to the side, folds of colour with prominent pink as the car swerved and we headed over grass towards the waterfront. The smell of petrol dotted across the car left over from the revving before he shut all the windows, shut me in. My stomach heaved with it.  The tinge of apple from the plastic fruit bobbing under the mirror is against the clogging oil.  Both fight for space as I breathed in and out again in a choke of white chards.

The skyline ahead seemed to be waving in big folds of dark hills, up and down, with lights and cranes and ships. The other side was always waiting to be built.

He drove until we almost hit the bollard, the big chunks of iron that start on the pavement after the grass. There was a careful pull between them, a practised manoeuvre, an awareness that this particular bollard was wider and caved in on one side, allowing a car to just get in.

He’d been here before.  Saliva clogged in my mouth and mixed with the blood from where I bit my tongue when the hand gripped over me.  He’d been here before. Perhaps he walked up and down the pavement, under the twinkling lights of the street lamp, felt the hard ground against his pacing, his planning, watched the clouds jump and stretch themselves across the sky like they are now.

A photo fell from the visor and fluttered down by my feet. I can make out the Eiffel Tower in the background and my own smiling face as one half. But that picture was a lie in so many ways.  I’d taken mine out of the frame and tore it up into little pieces only yesterday, when I still had choices.

The car shuddered to a stop. He turned the lights off.  It was just us and the river with life behind us and beyond it.

Someone on the other side of the river, in my position, would have the right view.  They would have the two Cathedrals, the RadioCityTower, and the new buildings that had sprung up and rooted around Liverpool One like shards of glass heading for the heavens, all poking up from the blackness and setting against the pink sky like familiar friends.

But all I wanted was my Mum.  It was always the same, like my mind could never get used to the fact that this was impossible.

Yet this thought started a fight in me, bringing the terror again, but with it some power to fight, to try.

A reflex, a weak one from my tired throat brought out the pointless words.

‘Help me.’

But it was a start. It had unsettled him and moments later I had a plan.

All Day Breakfast

He would never leave. She would never leave.

They were like the lingering smell of the fried food she made in the kitchen, and all that accompanied it.  The eggs, bacon, bread, the incongruous mix of air freshener and the barely concealed cigarette smoke.

The fresh air tries to make an entrance through the back door, held open by the chair for the one who never sits.  But it fails to make an impact.  Flies from the rosebush outside get in through the slits in the rusty barred window. Tommy hammered in the bars years ago after Neil had climbed out as a child, falling onto the concrete slabs below and smashing in his teeth.

She stands, holds the cigarette out, looks out of the back door at the neat garden, bides her time.

‘Mum, can I have a bacon butty please?’

She throws the cigarette out of the door at these words after one final drag into sunken lips. She has thrown it carefully so that it hits the drain, easier to unblock it later then. She is Margie, not Mum, but it doesn’t help to tell some people.

‘I’ll make you a full English,’ she calls back. Best to get him filled up now so that she can relax again.  He enters the kitchen and brings with him that slightly unwashed smell, like when a child has played out all afternoon and then whipped a bit of water over their face when told to wash.

‘Did you wash your hands?’

‘Yes, soap and water.’ He holds them out.

‘You bloody liar.’ She points to the door. Clomp, clomp up the stairs, pause and then clomp, clomp back down.  She waits.

The map of the world on the wall of the kitchen mocks her as she checks for the packet of cigarettes in her pocket.  They are hidden. There are enough left. She looks at this map often. Sometimes she traces the pattern of America with her soapy fingers. Imagining.  Some parts of the southern states smile at her.  Tommy used to say, ‘I’ll take you here, I’ll take you there, I’ll take you anywhere.’  That was before Neil.  The only place she ended up going was a semi-detached house in the not-as-posh as it sounds ‘Huyton-with-Roby’.  Actually just Roby nowadays, even the council got bored of the hyphens on signs and tripping off high-climbing tongues.

‘It’s a smashing area love – everyone will be really jealous that we’re moving there,’ he had said. A socialist and a social climber was Tommy.  In the end she didn’t really know if anyone was jealous or not. She hardly saw them. Transport links were rubbish; she didn’t drive. Tommy worked long hours or fought the local council on ‘issues’ and then there was Neil.

Instead the washing machine was her swishing clothed sea with waves made out of trousers and t-shirts bashing at the sides. The oven was her red sunset. The tiles lining the walls and beneath her feet took on a shell-like, pebbly quality, like walking on a shore.  That was all she had. It was enough to make you laugh, or cry. She didn’t do much of either any more.

The dishes in the sink are still soaking in warm suds from Tommy’s breakfast. Her husband always needed a good feed before he went off to fight his latest cause. And what else to fight when you march with arthritic limbs then a pension cut? He’s been around the block as many times as she had. Why did he never see that things didn’t change, help didn’t come?

She starts the preparations again, peeling the bacon from the packet, stretching it across the pan, cracking eggs and lining up toast ready for its turn. Neil’s back now and stands in the arched doorway, holds another toy he is too big for, waits to be told he can enter.

‘Sit down. It’ll be ready in a minute.’  He sits. She turns back to the cooker and flips the bacon over. It is burnt on one side but he would never notice or know how to complain.  She glances at the table. He has tried to set it again. The knife and fork look like they’ve fallen out; spread at opposite sides of the placemat, on the sides they’re not meant to be on.  Her quick hands put the knife and fork on the right sides before turning back to the cooker.  Neil’s eyes flick up at hers and then down again bashfully.  They are the colour of the olives that remain unopened in the cupboard.  They stay in the jar next to the collection of spices, scary in their variance and smells, bought by her daughter Jayne and never used.  Trying to put some spice into her life it seemed. All she needed was the salt and pepper, safe, reliable and in their supermarket packets.

The table he sits at is wooden and plain with one chair. There is one coaster and one placemat available only. Beyond it a tumble of fruit and veg she hasn’t put away yet.  She has never made this a setting for guests but he will not be deterred.

The egg is a sun on his plate waiting to be dipped into with a white wobbly saucer as protection and sausages lined up in overly-oiled speckled brown coats. It is a good breakfast. She does it well, knows this.  But everything had lost its flavour a long time ago.

Even that buttery smell that rides down the throat was too familiar; it caught at her lungs now, threatened a choking.  In her mind the bacon has rolled up on the plate like a clenched fist. She could have worked in a café, wanted to once.

She could have been a lot of things. Working in a biscuit factory was a good little job, she liked it mind with all the women, hens together on a battery line chattering away.  That had ended.

To put the accompanying cup of tea down, she has to move Neil’s forms for college.

‘Are they my college forms Mum?’ He chatters, excited as though he’s never been before.   He has recognised the logo of the college. He passes it to get in to his lessons; sometimes things like this stick.  That’s why it has always been so hard to explain. People used to be crueller.

‘But what’s wrong with him?’ A parent at school, years ago.  What could she say?  I’d like to strangle you until you’re as starved of oxygen as he was at birth. That’s what she wanted to say in her angriest moments. But she never did.

So she has filled these form in again. Another year and the same thing. It’ll never make any difference the way it should, but the education Neil Redward needs is of a different kind. Nowadays the specially enlisted tutors who know about these kinds of problems explain this to her. She knows. She has known it for almost forty years since that first day they brought Neil home from the hospital and something wasn’t right.

Neil finally sets down his toy, his transformer soldier figure with all its complicated bits.  Contraptions like this never existed when he was the right age to play with them.

‘Thanks Mum,’ he inhales the food greedily.  There is a speed to his eating that resonates with her. She picks up a piece of bacon left bubbling in the pan, wraps it in a piece of stray bread and swallows in short, sharp bites. He eats quickly because there is always something else to do.

Today it is the toy which waits with little patience. She eats quickly because she no longer likes food. It’s not what the kitchen is for.  He does laps of the plate with a small piece of toast, fingernails bitten down to the skin.

This is her territory; she can decide who comes in with the swish of a mop, an offer to take dirty clothes and finish with clean fresh-smelling ones back up in folded piles. It was in the ‘I’ll make the cup of tea’, ‘I’ll fetch you that drink’ or ‘of course I’ll put that toast on for you’.  Keeping one room under control was manageable.            She was always armed, with a pinny, a mop, a rolling pin, hidden vices in drawers that the others didn’t need to know about.

This was something she worked out a long time ago.  Neil got in every room, whether it was soiled clothes stuffed down the sides of radiators, stale food. Half her own bedroom was Tommy’s.  There was only the kitchen.

‘When does Tommy get back from work?’ he asks, with his mouth full.

‘Your father will be back at three o’clock.’

How did Tommy escape being labelled with the correct parental term and she had not? It was Mum and Tommy, one a functional address and one a person.

There is a big white framed clock ticking to the left of the cooker clearly states one. Neil stares at it for several minutes. She looks away and starts sorting the dishes. The still wet ones are helped to dry off with a soft table cloth patterned with roses which she spins in her hands.

‘How many hours is that away?’

‘Two,’ she long ago gave up explaining time. Family with the right distance, friends trying to be helpful, special tutors who get paid to try, they all still do it, but that was up to them.   Two hours until the not so great escape from the smell of breakfasts cooked out of time and everything else.

He leaves the kitchen.  The air of tension caught up in her starts to unwind as she rinses the greased pan, sets the table right again, puts everything back in the places her eyes and mind know.  The television hits the quiet calm with a loud appearance.

‘Lower that down!’ she commands from the sink.

There is an obvious stumble in the silence which follows. She waits as the volume comes back on and then increases first before being directed the right way.

She didn’t really need, or want the TV any more.  Just a few books, the radio, the cigarettes hidden in the broken drawer under a checked tea towel and martini bottle stashed at the back.

The books were mainly charity shop horror classics, the type that had pictures on the front of men and women with the devil in their eyes. These books didn’t pretend to be anything.  They held twisted, angry demons.  Between them, breaking up the nightmarish covers, were ‘romantic classics’ bought by her grown up children, mainly Jayne.

‘Did you enjoy that one Mam?’ She would ask.

‘Oh yes it was a lovely read.’

Thank God she never read them either and couldn’t ask about the plot or purpose behind the couples kissing on horseback or in boats, lives as thin as the books. Real people led fatter lives, with more meat on them, dripping like the fat off bacon. No, she couldn’t be doing with love stories.

She thinks about upstairs. His bed would still be wet from the night before. She curses herself for leaving it so long again.  Years of it behind and ahead of her, this thought stops her.  Instead she carefully reaches into the broken drawer and then sloshes some of the martini into a glass.  None of the other rooms are safe.

The dining table was a place outside of the kitchen, in the living room, where she had to pretend that this was normal, this family extended, in time not people. This group of three, who in ordinary terms would not still be together in one home. It should be that Neil drops in, drives from his own place, and brings his own family. Thoughts of what should have been upset her. The glass loses all evidence of alcohol as she washes it.

She looks at Neil as he comes in hunting for biscuits in the cupboard and tries to see what others did.  Most people saw a man, a grown one, with dark hair speckled with grey and curled slightly; friendly, approachable, ambiguously capable.

‘Mum, where are the biscuits?’

‘The breakfast not enough for you?’  But she pulls open the cupboard under the stairs and takes out the ‘secret’ tin anyway.

‘Cool Mum, excellent, thanks!’ He stuffs a chocolate bourbon in his mouth and zooms off with the toy which has now become a flying device. She nibbles absently on a pink and yellow biscuit. Having Neil around should keep her young, fresh.  But she was worn, old, like a hoover that needed replacing. He looked at her and saw someone to come to for food, cleaning, help, a life source for the rest of his.

The doorbell rang. A young man with an earnest face, in jeans and a smart checked shirt wearing a fleece jacket that made his face waxy with sweat, stands with a clipboard talking about a charity.

‘You look hot,’ she nods at the drips on his forehead, thinks that he might want a drink. This could be a chance for some adult conversation.

‘You’re not too bad yourself,’ he answered with a light smile on his lips. She could feel her creased face redden.

‘Not interested sorry.’ And then she shut the door. What a fool. Why did words have to change their meaning?

The mirror on the wall challenged her.  You’re not too bad yourself

She was.

You’re a bubble Grandmother. The mirror said. Smoothing down the bubble perm haircut that she swore she’d never have, the reflection pointed out the lines on her face as her increasingly impatient hands ran over them. Stepping back she saw  a thinning body that was once fashionably rounded, lines on her face and hands that led nowhere, eyes that would once have looked at all this and cared.  She feels like another cigarette, if there is time.

Tommy returns shortly after. She hears the front door opening and the excited callings of Neil.  The air freshener hits the kitchen, drops of guilty appley fumes. At last she can have her few hours out.  Escapism rather than escape is almost upon her.  He enters the kitchen just as she is putting on her coat which she hangs on the back of the door.  He darts around her as swiftly as his sinking bones will let him,  starts telling her about his morning ‘meeting’ and his latest ‘battle’ with the council. She thinks about telling of her battle with the bottle of bleach after Neil had missed the toilet again.  Instead she says a variation of what she always says.

‘You’re exhausting yourself.’

‘Someone has to fight them.’

‘Oh I know that.’ Her voice sounds curt.  But it is impossible to stop.

‘Why do you need to go out again?’ Tommy asks.

‘No potatoes.’ She is undeterred. The bag is safely hidden in the bottom cupboard.

‘The kids are only calling for a bit. They’ll probably have some eggs and bacon as usual.’ He slowly shrugs off a boot.

‘Do you want to come with me.’ A statement not a question.

‘No love, I’m really tired,’ he pats her shoulder gently.

They play this game almost daily. It is the routine. And besides he is as lost as her but does it in other places. At first with his daily work on buildings, wiring and rewiring, and now retirement hours that need filling, the social club with the other angry men and protest marches, in the past for cuts in services, and in the present pension slices, as though their old age was a standard of living to aspire to.

‘Would you like a lift? She shrugs this off and talks about fresh air. Luckily outside is crisp and dry.  He ignores the open back door and the freshly tended garden with the wooden seating. Plus the bus is always on time and is one of the ‘comfy’ types.  It rattles around like a yellow carriage for pensioners and other unfortunates. Sitting on it is like being in a wall to wall horror mirror at a fair, filled with thin lips and wrinkled faces, that damp coat smell.

Tommy is no better. His grey hairs, thin but still covering most of his head are facing her now as he bends over to undo his shoes. Each movement is an awkward, arthritic moment.

‘Are you ok?’ She half-heartedly offers to help as usual.  He waves her off with the usual proud, barely concealed annoyance.  She leaves.

The bus stops right outside the house. She always thinks of going further, but HuytonVillage was where the bus would stop. Anything else requires planning.  Besides this was a circular bus with circular hopes. The journey is quicker than she would like and the destination is as she expects.

There is a little circle of bargain bucket shops and other harassed stay at home mums. But they are all younger than her and their children would not always be stay at home.  She wants to shout at them, pull holes in their stupid idiotic complaints.

‘I turned around and said to him you’re the baby’s Dad and your little slut of a new girlfriend shouldn’t come first.’ One girl is pushing a pram tainted with young sweat and cheap perfume that settles across the air alongside her threats.

‘You’re right love. You’re worth a million of her; you and the baby.’ The other one shuffles in her own baby weight and tight jeans, chomping on a sausage roll.

Sometimes she wants to pull holes in them, tear at their hair, their jeans, dresses, tracksuits, faces of mocked misery and pretend pick pocketed souls.  These girls who think they’re fighting for something were nothing, not even hard done to, stuffing their face with pasties. They were nothing more than sausage roll suffragettes. Instead she picks up a few things, household bits, washing up liquid on a two for one offer, some more Martini at the bottom of her heavy cotton shopping bag and cigarettes in her pocket, but not potatoes.

It was time to be getting home. The kids would be ‘dropping in’ for a couple of hours. No longer kids like the one she still had at home, but they resorted back to some role-playing out of habit. Can you make us one of your lovely breakfasts Mam. Yes, yes and she would hurry them out.

And surely as the bus pulls into its makeshift stop, there are the cars, the emblems of the extra ‘support’ in the house.   The busy road breathes petrol fuels into her face. Huyton-with-Roby joined other places like the hyphens in its title. Nearly everyone there is on the way to somewhere else.

She stands at the side of the road and waits. One day the courage to move the toe over the edge, lose her footing, fall out into the road and hope for the best, might arrive.  Except it wouldn’t. Because if she did this, who would look after him? Who would really look after him? Tommy would not manage on his own. Would any of the sheltered accommodations look after him in the way she could? A shudder ran down her spine at the stories she’s heard about them. When he wanted something, if he wanted food, would they make him wait, torment him? At school he’d come home one day with a broken finger, bent back by a bully, another time a violent chill after being thrown in a cold bath of water on a trip away.  No, she would have to stay.

She crosses the road. With a deep breath she enters her own house.  A chubby bald baby holds a fat finger out to Tommy who takes it and sings. It was like looking at a family photo.

Jayne is hovering too close to the kitchen door. She is amazed at her own hidden anger at her daughter’s hand moving towards the handle, her voice offering to make tea. The cool tiles, the comforting cooker, the appliances that rhythmically kept in time with her, serve to alleviate this rage but they cannot work for too long. She is never scared of what she could do in the kitchen, as long as she is left alone. They need to get back into the living room and she tells them this, waves Jane’s hand away, in a laugh and joke routine.  They play along.

She cooks and serves, ignoring protests to sit down, instead taking up small portions back where she feels safe. They laugh and joke with Neil as she sits, waiting for them to leave, a vacant smile that goes unnoticed. In the kitchen, hidden with the cleaning products under the sink, unlit cigarettes and an empty glass waiting to be filled.

Write up your life?

‘So am I in it?’


The response you will get at least once when you tell someone that you’re writing a novel. And most of the time they’re not really joking. In truth the answer should be, no – but a small fraction of your personality might be mixed in with twenty other people’s character traits, or maybe half a sentence that you said once or a slither of a Facebook status. I’m currently trawling Facebook for inspiration and it really is quite brilliant what people say. It reminds me of another comment people make, ‘you should write about my life, honestly you couldn’t write it.’ Well no I couldn’t and I wouldn’t want to. But I can rearrange it and steal some parts from you.


That’s what writing from personal experience is; it’s mixing it up, spicing it up, and developing events, people and places into something new. Because life really isn’t that exciting. Unless it is and you’re writing a memoir.


But what happens when authors are writing something really disturbing that goes beyond the boundaries of what society considers normal? Even I do the ‘is this your life in some way’ when reading a book. I think to myself – but how did the writer knowthat and know it so well? Yet then I remember that writing fiction is an extension of real life but not always the author’s life.


And writers read, often a ridiculous amount, they also watch, listen and learn from everything, so in the end the extensions come out of everywhere. A story could therefore be from the memory of a book read once, mixed with a character they know or combinations of people they know and how they would act in that situation, with snippets of a film or news item once watched and snatches of conversation from an unrelated resource. The final result through all this would not necessarily be something the author had experienced themselves although it might contain the emotions they have felt from other events.


Of course there are elements of death in my work and a lot of social work issues. I have experienced both and it’s a shame not to use it. I felt a bit bad about this when writing a particularly harrowing death scene but then this coincided with a time when Jimmy McGovern came to visit our MA Writing group (by the way please watch The Accused currently on the BBC – a great example of how good he is). He was talking about writing from experience and mentioned alongside retelling how his Father died said he remembered thinking, ‘This is awful…I’ll use this.’ He wasn’t making light of it but like all writers, he was making something of it.


So how much of an author’s life goes into their work?




Some famous examples are actually quote surprising. The Dementors of Harry Potter, which feed on positive emotions, were inspired by J. K. Rowling’s bout with severe depression before her success. She described the feeling as an “absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad.” So this became an element of her work.


Rowling said her Mother’s death also heavily affected her writing and that she introduced much more detail about Harry’s loss in the first book, because she knew about how it felt.

On a lighter side, JK Rowling based the character of Gilderoy Lockhart on someone she knew but stated that he would be unlikely to recognise himself.




Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi must have been inspired by the thirteen months he spent in India visiting temples and zoos and the two years he spent reading religious texts and castaway stories as the protagonist explores issues of spirituality. But his inspiration for the book actually came from reading a book review of Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar’s 1981 novella Max and the Cats, about a Jewish-German refugee who crossed the Atlantic Ocean while sharing his boat with a jaguar. This almost didn’t end well for Martel as Scliar was annoyed that he hadn’t been consulted about the idea and was considering whether to take any action. They spoke and the issue was resolved. A dedication to Scliar “for the spark of life” appears in the author’s note of Life of Pi.




JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You came about after she heard a radio story about a young rugby player who had been left quadriplegic and persuaded his parents to take him to Dignitas. Moyes was shocked by the story and it wouldn’t leave her mind, so she decided to write her own version.




Referring to another favourite of mine The Raw Shark Texts, is in the last section a literary retelling of the film Jaws, and must have been inspired in some part by Steven Hall watching this film. Casablanca is also referred to in the book with the line ‘Here’s lookin’ at you kid’ ending the novel and giving the reader a hint that Eric is alive and in a conceptual universe.


Or are we just terrible people?


The late Nina Bawden’s classic children’s novel Carrie’s War drew from her own evacuation during the second world war. But Bawden was a bit more harsh in her idea of how writers use life. In writing both for adults and children, she liked “making use of all my life, all memory, wasting nothing”; her books, if read in sequence, were a “coded autobiography”. She concluded in her opinion that:

“All writers are liars. They twist events to suit themselves. They make use of their own tragedies to make a better story … They are terrible people.”

Terrible people, liars or simply sharers of experiences? I prefer this idea:

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of. ” Joss Whedon

But maybe all writers should carry warnings (robbed from a retweet by writer Nicola Copeland @NCopes87):

Taking the Time to Unpack

Something I always struggle with in my writing is the show versus tell debate. A fellow writer, Sarah Tarbit (check out her blog ) posted some advice from Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club) as a possible solution.  

He starts with a simple declaration:
In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

He was definitely right about the first part. But there was a possibility he could be about the second, so I decided to try it.  

Following Palahniuk’s rules in my writing would mean cutting out all thought verbs: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realises, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

This went on to include love and hate, is and has. I couldn’t think of many words I would have left for my characters to play with unless they moved through a sea of constant description invoking the five senses on a continual basis.  But would that be a bad thing?

Instead of the character wondering something for example, I would have to unpack into description, gestures and actions, presenting the right details to the reader using specific sensory detail.  

However, I quickly realised that gestures and actions could replace thought verbs and leave more room for sensory verbs like felt, heard, saw, looked, touched, smelled, etc. And it did still read well, in fact it read better.

There were other obvious benefits to this, including increasing my novel word count. Look at how Palahniuk turns one sentence into several.

Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her ass. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

So, although the idea terrified me, at first it was working. I could feel myself writing differently and in fact certain scenes were coming to life. But then I got stuck again. I was trying to do too much unpacking.  And I was doing this in first person which I started to think made a real difference.

I did my usual research with the question ‘what do other writers do?’

I’m reading The Slap at the moment so I turned to that first, which is in third person perspective. Tsiolkas seems to mix it up so that devices such as photos (particularly for Connie where I’m up to currently) take over the thought verbs with description. He also makes the characters bounce off each other and uses their dialogue both for and against them. For example the swearing and violence of Harry’s language tells us a lot about him.  In fact when we first meet him, it is the descriptions of his surroundings, the food he smells, his arrogant and self-satisfied actions, and not thoughts that set the scene.  (Note: for characterisation techniques, read this book – Tsiolkas is a master at creating multiple characters from different backgrounds, ages, sexes and lives).

But was this just applicable for the style of narration where we aren’t speaking directly as the character and could therefore afford some distance? I opened a random page of  JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You  (which by the way is fantastic and will be featuring in a future blog piece ‘under the covers of ‘chick-lit’) and noticed a bit more packing was going on: I wished, I was so lost in my thoughts, I realised – but they were interspersed between action, dialogue and description and not as common as I thought they would be in first person.

From this I saw that a little bit of packing usually needs to take place between the unpacking for this to work in any perspective. It also became apparent that unpacking takes time; it can’t be rushed and therefore it makes you pay attention to every word that you write. 

Francine Prose, the little bible on my desk that is Reading like a Writer provided some further insight.  She offers a passage from Alice Munro where the thought verb ‘noticed’ is used twice and also quite a bit of telling goes on.  

Prose states that she uses this Munro piece to deliberately contradict ‘a form of bad advice often given young writers – namely that the job of the author is to show, not tell.’

What I gained from Prose was the fact that although ‘is’ and ‘has’ can be used a lot, thought verbs don’t have to prominent when a writer is telling e.g. ‘she had worked as an editor…she was also a poet.’ These things tell us quick facts about the character without venturing too much into how they think and feel about it.
Unpacking the Wheelie Bin

I decided to unpack a scene from my window.  This whole unpacking theme does fit into the fact that we have recently moved house. There is actually an unpacked box under my writing desk but I’m not taking that as a metaphor.  And what you are about to read did happen, but the police came while I was still typing so it all ended well apart from the wheelie bin died and is still a melted mess on the field, sorry to ruin the ending but I don’t have time to write it.

Instead of the ‘packed’ : I could tell that he loved fire or just he loved fire, I did this instead:

The flames licked at the tall boy’s face. A slow smile spread across it and his eyes lit up for more reasons than the fire dancing in it.  He threw scraps of furniture on the fire that burnt in seconds, to satisfy a quick rage.  He was standing so close that the tracksuit, loose against his body, closed against his skin as though shrinking away from the heat.

And in first person from the perspective of one of the police:

Packed: I wished that the kids would stop doing this. I realised that the younger community officer cycling up on his bike felt the same. But I knew it would happen again of course.  I noticed how they all ran off in a streamed line, like ants who knew where the holes to their underground homes were.  The smell of the fire was strong. 

Unpacked: I watched the kids run off like little tracksuited black ants pouring back into hedges and holes leading to the usual tracks they were used to escaping through.  But there were plenty more wheelie bins, bits of furniture outside gates of alleyways, long summer days nights to fill with parents who encouraged ‘playing out’ and an empty field wide with weeds and tall grass ready to burn. The smell of fire filling nosy residents’ noses until they spluttered out the taste of the smoke and dialed 999 again and again. 
‘I’m fucking fed up of the kids around here.’  The community officer pulled up on his bike, eyes still on the wheelie bin.  It didn’t matter. The kids would do it again. 

Now all I have to do is properly practise unpacking and then unpack my novel which is at 67,000 words so far…I might unpack the box under my desk first. 

So it goes…

my first blog post.
Kurt Vonnegut, author of Mother Night, one of my listed influences later in this blog post, used the phrase ‘So it goes’ 106 times in another of his novels, Slaughterhouse-Five.  But don’t worry, I’m not about to do this.  However, I did think it was a good idea to start a writing blog looking at some of the writers who influence me.
As this blog develops I’ll be exploring what I read and write with the main aim of getting over my fear of other people reading my work. And also to improve, learn, develop and be able to think of myself as a writer.
I suppose the phrase and Vonnegut’s use of it; life, death, dying and mortality, providing comic relief, moving on and both accepting and dismissing everything, is perhaps what I’m trying to do with my writing.  
There probably won’t be many opportunities to read my fiction on here. That’s not just because I’m not brave enough. Copyright rules seem to suggest in most cases that publishers and agents don’t accept work that has appeared on blogs or websites as it’s seen as previously published.  This is the same for many competitions.  So it goes as a better idea to go with things that come into my head, views on writing, books I’m reading, techniques, views from my window, World War Two (I’ve got to stop following tweets from 1940 – it’s scaring the life out of me as if I don’t know the ending), etc.
So it goes that this is my attempt at gaining some writing confidence.  And I’m not hiding behind Kurt Vonnegut here. It just makes sense for what I want to say.  I think it’s important to take the best influences from great writers and use it to improve.
I revise and edit work consistently. It’s never good enough.  I know that writing is rewriting but sometimes I don’t think I know where to stop. But I won’t be rewriting my blog posts. This will be words on the page as they are, a practice run in believing in my own words more.  
And what better time to start than now? After all in some other words of Kurt Vonnegut, ‘when you’re dead, you’re dead.’
So it goes that I want to talk about my top ten writing influences. I have to add that I complied this list last year and all that has changed is I would put the fantastic Kate Long alongside Marion Keyes.  Kate’s work is an example of amazing character technique and voice.  I’ve reviewed her latest book on Amazon and would recommend her to all writers and readers.

I’ve also recently discovered Deborah Morgan and Sharon Owens, and with each new brilliant writing find like these; I’m inspired to continue trying.
So it goes that I hope writing a blog gets easier and that one day I make it into someone’s top ten.
Booked-up – my top ten influences
I chose this list at random from a number of titles I’d scribbled across a notebook. Breakdowns, mental illness, grief, family issues, alternative realities, Nazis, blasphemy, and some dark chick lit, hmmm…
1.  My Oedipus Complex – Frank O’Connor. A brilliant short story that captures a child’s voice blended subtly with an adult perspective and although it has a good viewpoint from families in war – the issues of these family relationships are quite timeless.  It’s also very funny:
2. The Raw Shark Texts – debut novel by Steven Hall, – literally (or literary) Jaws but with words, and a great idea of an alternative reality. At the same time it is a very sad story when you step back and see what it’s really about. Can you surround yourself with words as a form of protection in life (not just from sharks)?
3. The Life of Pi – Yann Martel – I’d love to have thought of this! A hyena, a monkey, a whingeing zebra and a tiger called Richard or…choose which version you believe when you hear it again within the same novel.
4. Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut – perhaps the best and most honest foreword to a novel. It really raised the question ‘what would you do?’ when caught in certain periods of history. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera. “We all need someone to look at us.”  He divided people into four types based on this: those who need a public of unknown eyes, those who need familiar eyes, those who want to be in the eyes of the person they love, and the dreamers who live to be seen by an imagined being.  A friend and I (reading this at 18) decided we were the last type but couldn’t find many people who also chose this option (it makes more sense if you read the full explanation in the novel).  Apart from that I think the book annoyed me overall.
6.  God is Dead – Ron Currie. This raises questions through nightmarish satire (I seem to like this theme). What would we do if it was confirmed that there was no God or that a God no longer existed? The world doesn’t end but after the expected chaos people begin worshipping their children (think financial advice from a child leading to investment in hungry hippos), and in what seems to be an obsession of mine in fiction, animals have a central role, see the chapter: “Interview with the Last Remaining Member of the Feral Dog Pack Which Fed on God’s Corpse.”
7. The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger – ‘Catholics are always trying to find out if you’re a Catholic’- true in a way if you’ve had a strict Catholic upbringing – maybe because the rituals are so strange even from modern Catholic schools and have a lasting effect (I don’t mean this in a dark way at all).  It can feel like emerging from a cult and outsiders might say ‘what do you mean you were made to go to mass every week until you were 16?’ and we had a mass for everything in school too and most of us could probably recite mass or at least sing a few hymns all the way through. I also like the idea that Jesus picked the Disciples at random so it wasn’t really his fault how they turned out (I laughed out loud on a plane to that bit). And of course the baseball mitt which I think reveals the whole reason behind the main character’s behaviour.
8. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath –  I found the fig tree analogy brilliant in describing how it feels wanting to do too much in life and therefore missing out on being good at anything through indecisiveness.  I always think when I read this: ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ but then bring it down further to not even being at ‘jack’ level through being so unfocused.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.  ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7
9. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey. I’ve never seen the film, but apparently it is very different? Horrors for the past treatment of mental illness and lobotomy aside, and all the characters may be flawed but you still don’t want the ending to happen the way it does.
10. Marion Keyes – should never be underestimated as people so often try to do with ‘chick-lit’.  She’s truly brilliant and her work is both funny and moving, light and dark. Rachel’s Holiday (drug addiction), This Charming Man (violence towards women). Best described from her website: “The books deal variously with modern ailments, including addiction, depression, domestic violence, the glass ceiling and serious illness, but always written with compassion, humour and hope.”
I also have it on good authority from my Aunty that she is a nice person – apparently they held up a book signing queue in Adelaide, Australia discussing Dublin bus routes. This was probably not Marion’s fault, having emigrated to Australia over 30 years ago, my Aunty will even discuss the 75 to St Patrick’s Cathedral with anyone who’ll listen.