Constraints liberate


Bit slow to share my news on this one, but I ran a workshop on writing with constraints as part of the Guildford Literary Festival this summer. All of the 20 tickets for the event sold, which was very pleasing.

It was wonderful to see a room full of writers beavering away with their pens and notebooks, and to hear them sharing their words and thoughts. And their feedback was just lovely:

– Neil Baker is inspiring!
– Wonderful, inspiring facilitator. Would be interested in more workshops please.
– Just to thank Neil for making it so much fun and making us all feel so relaxed and comfortable.
– It was excellent. Well conceived, researched and delivered.
– Very well organised, great value.
– It allowed me to get free from my fear of writing.
– Engaging presentation, well presented.
– The timed writing exercises were a really good way to impose frameworks but allow creativity.
– It would be helpful to have more similar workshops.
– I will now never say again I don’t have time to write – 6 minutes is all you need!
– Thank you for a very thought provoking workshop this morning. May submit myself to the discipline of haiku now
– Went to fab ‘constraints’ workshop run by Neil Baker. Awestruck by how much he crammed in & what emerged.
– Thank you to Neil Baker for a fantastic “Writing with constraints” workshop this morning


And here’s a tiny video clip of the writers in action.




This is Zoe Tynan Campbell, designer at Stumped Studio. I’m writing a piece of short fiction for Fiera magazine inspired by work she is showing at the London Design Festival.

Last week I popped round to her home/workshop to find out more about what she does, and why. It was also a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, as I used to live just round the corner from Zoe’s.


This cute little piece of wood is what Zoe calls a Hasbeen (Sorry about the awful photo. You really have to hold a Hasbeen in your hand to appreciate its loveliness). She gathers unwanted or discarded lumps of wood and uses her wonderful lathe and impressive range of chisels to reveal the beautiful Hasbeen inside each one.

I like the idea that within every chunk of dull, utilitarian office furniture or rejected off-cut there is a delightful, playful character waiting patiently for its – or his, or her – chance to come out and be enjoyed.

Hasbeens have no particular function or purpose. But they are comforting to hold, to look at or just to have around. And watching Zoe make one reminded me to search for the story that is always waiting below the surface.




Economist article: Hanli Prinsloo


My article for The Economist about ocean campaigner Hanli Prinsloo (above) has just been published. Here’s how it starts…

Hanli Prinsloo was jogging on a Cape Town beach when she found two girls kicking a dead dolphin that had washed ashore. It could have been a creature from a distant galaxy, for all they knew.

Ms Prinsloo, a competitive free-diver and ocean lover, told the girls how Dolphins are mammals that live in family groups. That the females—like the one they had just stopped kicking—suckle their offspring for even longer than humans.

“Now they were sitting down, wiping sand off the dolphin, and pledging to stay with ‘her’ until the body had been taken away,” says Ms Prinsloo. “It was an amazing transformation. Imagine what might happen if you could take those girls into the water and show them what’s down there?”

You can read the rest here

The Sevillanos in his yellow hat


I spend so much of my time writing. Yet I don’t think I have any photos of myself actually doing it. So the one above is rare indeed. I was on a writing retreat in Spain, in the hills above Aracena. I took this photo as I wanted to work out the self-timer on my new camera. My first effort failed, hence the photo of the empty chair below.



They make an interesting couple. I wonder what I was writing at the time. I looked very focused in that first photo. But perhaps I was just pretending. And look at the second one: an empty chair; an empty pair of shoes. They speak of absence.

The day before, in a cafe in Seville, I took the photo below. An old man dressed head to toe in white linen, wearing a bright yellow hat. He kept a pair of silver pince-nez in a silver box. He read the day’s newspaper intently.

I went to the same cafe the next morning, before meeting friends for lunch and taking a taxi into the hills. He was there again, in the same clothes, reading the newspaper.

I wonder now, was he reading the same newspaper as when I first saw him? It would make an interesting story. The man who reads the same piece of news, every morning of his life. Why would he do that?



Running pictures

Training for a marathon, I run 20 miles every Saturday. To distract myself from the pain – and sometimes the boredom – I externalise, focusing not on myself but on the world around me. To help with this, I take photos with my iPhone. The harder the run becomes, the more photos I take.





Talent + effort = success

LOOBW lower res cover 
What kind of effort does it take to get a first collection of stories published? There’s no one better to ask right now than Dan Powell.

I’ve been a fan of Dan’s writing for a long time and he’s done me the honour of beta reading some of my stories. So I was delighted when he was shortlisted for the 2013 Scott Prize and even more happy when the good people of Salt decided to publish his debut collection – Looking Out Of Broken Windows – which you can buy now.

But before you dash off to order Dan’s book, scroll down and learn a bit about the secrets of his success. I wanted to hear about the nuts and bolts of his writing world – the tricks and tools. So I threw him some questions.

Spoiler alert: success like Dan’s involves a lot of hard work and dedication. But I guess that’s no surprise.

1/ Dan, I’m obsessed with writing routines. Have you got one? What would you like to change about it?

My writing routine has to fit around my part time teaching work and the full time care of my three children, the youngest of whom is only three years old. On days when they are all in school or nursery and I don’t have to teach, I am at my desk as soon as I get back from the school run and I stay there until lunch, breaking only for coffee. This is when I’m at my freshest, so I tend to focus on my work in progress. After lunch, I work through until 3pm when the school run starts again. This slot is usually reserved for editing and the like. In the evenings of those days I blog and read through the day’s work.

If I’m called into work writing time is lost so I claw back as much as I can from the evenings and try to grab a few hours at weekends. My wife and extended family often support me by taking the kids off my hands for a few hours.

As sunrise is getting earlier now, I’m planning to try and get into the routine of rising early to write for an hour or two before the kids get up. I’m not a naturally early riser but as the final deadline for my Creative Writing MA looms, I know I will need to get some extra time from somewhere to whip the novel into shape. Here’s hoping I can haul myself out of bed.

What would I change? Like all writers, I’d like more time to write.

The Dan himself
The Dan himself

2/ I love data. I track my daily words in an Excel spreadsheet. How do you keep on top of your writing productivity?

I write pretty much all my drafts in Scrivener these days and it has a handy target and progress tab that allows me to set a word limit for a piece, which I can then use to set a daily target by inputting a deadline for myself. I find that the deadline is more important to me than a specified word count. I usually set up a project so that the deadline requires me to write about 500 words a day. I usually write more than the limit but 500 words or thereabouts feels like enough of a chunk for me to feel pleased if I complete it. For my novel I kept a journal in Day One (the mobile app) and I jotted my daily word count in that along with my thoughts on the day’s writing. A spreadsheet would have been more useful for tracking trends.

Bluebird. Aaaah
Bluebird. Aaaah

3/ Pen, pencil, yellow paper, 3×5 cards, laptop? What are your writing weapons of choice? How do you decide what to you use when?

My MacBook and the Scrivener app is my main writing tool these days. My iPad has been essential since I bought one back in 2012. It isn’t always practical to lug the laptop about so I make sure I have reading material and a section of whatever I am working on sitting in the Cloud so I can work on the go. I am often hanging about waiting for kids to come out of school clubs or have a lunchtime to myself when working so having something with me to work on is essential. Like many who use Scrivener, I can’t wait for the iPad version with Cloud syncing to finally see release.

I have loads of notebooks. My diary has a week to a page with a facing notebook page and that goes with me everywhere. It has deadlines and notes on whatever I am working on. It is also my main place for jotting down ideas when they come. I have a notebook in the glove compartment of my car, one in the pocket of my raincoat, one on my bedside. That way I never am never to far from a pen and paper.

I also have a typewriter in my study. That gets a run whenever I have the time and a project that I want to write more slowly. It’s a 1950s Bluebird and I picked up on eBay for a fiver. It needed a little TLC but it types perfectly now. I love the sound of it and the way it slows down the process. You have to think harder when working on the typewriter. I also have a portable Corona Zephyr that I can take on the move, if I feel like living the hipster cliché. It’s much lighter than the Bluebird and has a funky, Seventies design feel to it. I have written first drafts of the last few short stories on these.

Once I have a first draft, I record myself reading it using Garageband. I do this firstly to hear the story as I edit. You hear every mistake when you play the recording back. I record each section of a story separately so that, once I have each section in Garageband, the viewer shows each section visually. This is a quick and clear way to see the structure of the story, which sections take up most space, which are dominating the story, and which might need extending. Sometimes I use the floor to do this. I type up the story onto the MacBook then print it and lay the whole thing out on the floor to see the overall shape.

Did you think a Zephyr was a car?!?


4/ You are going on a two-week holiday with the family. The suitcase is stuffed to bursting. What one essential bit of writing kit do you sneak in when nobody is looking?

That would have to be the MacBook. Everything I need is on the hard drive of my silver machine. I would be lost without it. For this reason I back up obsessively both on the cloud and off.

5/ You meet a hopelessly blocked writer who can’t think of anything to write about and is desperate to kick start her creativity. You give her one tool and one piece of advice about how to use it. Explain your choices.

Since having the kids I have never had writers block. I simply don’t have the time to be blocked. I either write in the few hours before the kids get home/wake up or I get nothing done. So to answer you question, I’d loan your hypothetical writer my very real and time-consuming children. I guarantee, after a week, she’d be cramming as much writing as possible into every precious minute she has to herself.

6/ Step into my time machine and journey back to your childhood. There is one writing-related tool you want to own again. What is it and why do you want it so badly?

I kept a notebook in my teens full of pages of bad poetry and bits of short fiction. I regret ever chucking them out. I am sure the stuff in there was execrable but it would be great to have them to look back on and laugh at. I now keep all my notebooks and drafts just in case I ever need them.

7/ Get back into the time machine, Dan, because now we’re going to the future – 2024, to be precise. The writing tool you’ve been dreaming of for years has just come onto the market. What is it and how will it help you?

I used the Hemingway app the other day to edit a short story. You basically paste your story into the editor and it tells you how to improve the piece using Hemingway’s prose and rules for writing as the software’s guide. It was a surprisingly fun way of working and I think my story has ended up much improved. Taking this idea to an extreme, I would love to see this app taken to its logical conclusion: a virtual Hemingway (or any other great author) who works through your prose with you on a one to one tutorial style basis. The chance to talk stories with a virtual Raymond Carver or Anton Chekhov and get input on a work in progress would be ace.


Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of his blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To enter the draw just leave a comment here on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014 – or you can Like the Looking Out of Broken Windows Facebook page for a chance to win. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw which will take place on April 6th.

Scrivener contents of LOoBW
Scrivener in action. Click if you need to see it bigger



Hearse rake the coals of my heart

The 26 Words exhibition – “exploring the DNA of language” – opened in London last week. Among the works on display was the piece that I made with Mark Noad, inspired by the death of my mum earlier in the year.

Here’s the project in a nutshell: Take 26 pairs of writers and artists – one for each letter of the alphabet – and challenge them to make something inspired by a random word that starts with that letter. My letter was H and my word was Hearse.

I was a bit nervous about going along to see my finished piece on the opening night. I mingled busily, grazed on wine and crisps, took my time looking at other people’s work, and put off the moment when I’d have to go over and actually look at mine.

But it went very well. Someone whose views I value a lot said it was “brilliantly clever and profoundly moving”. A few other people said they were touched by it. And a very nice man called Jerome liked it so much that he got his wallet out and bought it, there and then.

The show – with fantastic work from 26 other writers – is at the Free Word Centre in London until January and then goes on tour. But in the meantime, here’s my bit. It’s called “Hearse rake the coals of my heart”…

The piece we made

And if you can’t read the words…

Hearse rake the coals of my heart

More wanted
Never agreed
Everything regretted
Nothing said beautifully
Lived inconsequentially
Failed completely.
Remember this need.
You cry: please…

Please cry
You need this
Remember, love
Listen completely.
Failed inconsequentially
Lived beautifully
Said nothing regretted
Everything agreed
Never wanted more.

And here’s the story of how I wrote it (you can read Mark’s side of things here):

My word, Hearse, was chosen for me on the day my Mum died. She had a massive brain haemorrhage at home and never woke up. I appreciated the irony of the coincidence, as my Mum would have done, and decided not to ask for a different word.

Initially I thought I could put my Mum out of my thoughts and write something hearse-related that had nothing to do with her. It didn’t seem fair to dump all my grief onto Mark, my collaborator. And my Mum’s death was the last thing I wanted to write about, or even think about.

So I began on safe ground, researching the etymology of my word. A hearse was originally a framework for candles that hung over a coffin. Its root is in the Old French herce – a long rake or harrow. That gave me a line, “Hearse, rake the coals of my heart”, which eventually became our title.

Next I discovered hearse-owner clubs, watched promotional videos for funeral industry trade shows, thought about roadside memorial shrines, marvelled at the literalness of the German word for hearse – Leichenwagen, corpse wagon.

Bewildered by the possibilities, and with a deadline looming, I decided to give myself a constraint. I would write a palindrome – a string of words that can be read backwards as well as forwards. This was tricky, but fun. I was pleased with the result.

But I decided it wasn’t good enough. It just didn’t say anything. And I had a nagging sense that I was avoiding what I really ought to be writing about. Then I noticed that the word I’d been trying to dodge – mum – was itself a palindrome. That seemed like a sign to carry on, and to dig deeper.

So I started again. I wrote mum in the middle of a big sheet of paper and built a new palindrome around it. I wanted that central word to be a turning point. Everything leading up to it would be in one voice, with one meaning; everything afterwards would mean something very different.

This was hard and painful. I wanted to write something that was about loss and regret and love and forgiveness. It would be inspired by my mum, but I wanted to leave room for other people to relate to it in their own way.

Before Mark and I agreed the final text, we both felt one last change was needed. The word at the centre of the piece, around which everything revolved, had to go. For me it was a painful cut, but also a release. What remains can stand on its own.

A sneaky shot of someone looking at Hearse…
Me with Jerome, who bought Hearse… (hence I’m smiling)

Plant life

My main contribution to the gardening at home is to cut the grass and dig holes where I’m told to. But I enjoyed the ceramic flowers I found on a summer visit to the Botanic Gardens in Ventor.

Frances Doherty‘s pieces were strange, unexpected and beautiful. I particularly liked the simple words that came with them. A glimpse of the story behind each work made for an engaging encounter.

“Scruffy” hydrangeas…

While cycling in Holland…

Scarlet poppies…

From another inspiring cycle with friends…

Frances wasn’t the only person planting pleasing words in the Ventnor garden. I think this is the best “sorry for the mess….” sign I’ve ever read.

How to find story ideas

Where do I get my short story ideas from? Mainly I just make them up. But once in a while I’ll find something like this, an item in my local newspaper.

What makes this the germ of a good story? For me, it’s not the fact that this arch criminal was trying to escape the police in a kayak, or that his desire to start a new life in France was so spontaneously random. No, it’s the fact that he was wearing a child’s life jacket.

The strange power of the pen

Every year, when I take a summer holiday, the first items to go into my suitcase are always the same. I pack my notebook, a spare notebook, my pens, spare ink, a few pencils – my writing tools and accoutrements.

And that’s where they stay – in the suitcase.

I always think that when I’m away from the daily routine, when I have spare time in abundance, I’ll get lots of writing done.

Actually, I don’t get lots of writing done. I don’t get any done.

But that wasn’t quite true this summer. I did sit down for ten whole minutes in August to make a few notes about a woman called Dora.

Dora owned the house we were renting on the island of Brac, Croatia. She came by one day to drop off some clean sheets and we got chatting.

She told me how she’d bought the place as a ruin ten years ago. Originally it was a mill. Her husband renovated it as a hobby. His day job is teaching maths.

She’d lived in this village – Bol – all her life. Her husband came from Murvica, a hamlet along the coast that only recently became accessible by road.

I decided to ask Dora about something that had been puzzling me.

The five-minute walk from our holiday house to the sea goes past a derelict modernist hotel. It looked to me like a prime piece of property, ideal for investment. (And Bol is a classy beach town that’s had plenty of money spent on it since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.)

How had the hotel got into such a mess, and why had nobody fixed it up?

Dora’s English faltered at this point.

The problem had something to do with a dispute between the Catholic Church and the state, she explained in a vague way.

One of them owned the land – I couldn’t quite understand which – and the other was blocking its redevelopment.

“Before they were ok, now they are like this,” she said, punching one fist with the other.

I asked why, but she changed the subject.

I had the feeling that our conversation about pool maintenance and how many towels I might need had strayed into territory she found uncomfortable. It’s easy to forget; 20 years ago the people hereabouts were shooting their neighbours.

It interests me that I scribbled down some notes about our chat. I’d say that I pressed Dora to talk about something she was reluctant to discuss because I’m naturally curious. (Although my wife says I’m just nosey)

But I wonder, was I subconsciously driven by all those unfilled notebook pages? Even when the pen stays in the suitcase, does it still exert a strange power?

Not the best place in town

Even worse inside

How I became a highly successful novelist

Yesterday, I discovered that I am a highly successful novelist. It was quite a surprise. I’ve not managed to write a novel, never mind publish one.

But I have started two – maybe more, my hard drive is so cluttered. With the first, I got to about 27,000 words before I stopped. The second is about 60,000 words. I stopped that one too.

Until the day before yesterday, that made me sound like a failed novelist. Even a gutless one. I hadn’t just not made it, I’d given up. Twice.

But that’s not the case.

The aim with the first book was to write every day for three weeks – a continuous narrative, with the words accruing day by day. Job done.

For the second book, I wanted to reach 60,000 words. Again, job done.

I set my novel-writing goals and I achieved them. Hence I am a successful novelist.

The day before yesterday, when I was a failed novelist, I used to look back on my failures and wonder what went wrong. How could I avoid failure next time?

I’d need a rigid writing routine. I’d need a clear, detailed plot outline. I’d need to know what sort of WRITER I wanted to be. And I’d need time. Lots and lots of extra time.

Now that I’ve realised I’m a successful novelist, my thinking has changed.

I’m looking back on my two triumphs. Thinking about what worked, what success has taught me.

I know I can write a lot of words. That’s good. I can write every day, regardless of how busy I am with other stuff. When I’ve got no idea what happens next, I can make things up.

I’ve learnt that I’m flexible about process. I can write at home, on the train; out shopping, out running; on my own, with friends.

I can use Word. Pages. Scrivener. Ommwriter. I can use my laptop or a typewriter. I can use pens or pencils. Expensive notebooks, cheap notebooks. Scraps of paper. Sticky notes. Glue. String.

The main thing I’ve learned is this: I like doing it.

I like doing it so much that even if a pernicious virus deleted every draft as soon as I typed The End, I’d still keep doing it.

Now it’s true that I might have written an enormous amount of dross. But I think the same could apply to a lot of other novelists, many of those whose “success” is measured by more traditional yardsticks – such as sales, fame, critical acclaim.

What I do know is that whenever I’ve been writing my novels, I’ve had fun. Well, it wasn’t always fun. But it was satisfying. Hugely.

So I’m a success. Is that a reasonable conclusion, or an absurd act of self-delusion? Or both? And does the answer matter? I don’t think so.

The joys of making yourself look stupid

Trying to do anything creative or different is a risky business. You might end up looking stupid. Your efforts might fail in a way that makes you unhappy. Try it at work and you could lose your job.

In the balance of putting yourself on the line versus playing safe, the scales are tipped heavily towards safe. That’s because the opposite of safe is vulnerable, and most people don’t like to feel vulnerable.

I remember coming across the trade off when I studied interpersonal psychology at Birkbeck years ago. We looked at the odd ways people behave when they try to talk to each other. All those strategies aimed at saving face, not giving away too much, keeping your exit routes open.

I watched a great TED talk earlier in the week called The Power of Vulnerability. Brene Brown explains why we try to avoid vulnerability and how – just maybe – the secret of happiness is to accept it. Or even to embrace it.

I used to feel vulnerable a lot. Sometimes I still do. Quite often, actually, now I think about it. But it doesn’t bother me so much. I go looking for opportunities to make myself vulnerable. I read stories to people in the street, I prance about on stage, I try to write words that move people.

I’m not sure when this change occurred or why. But I’m glad it did.

I think if you want to make a connection with people, you have to take the risk that it might all go horribly wrong – or maybe just a little bit wrong.

You can play safe and put nothing at stake. You’ll limit your losses. But then you’ll limit your rewards, too.

Building bridges

With the sudden death of my Mum last week, I nearly cancelled the event I’d planned for World Book Night on Tuesday. I wasn’t sure I was in the right frame of mind to host a short story slam or to perform my “on-the-spot writing” shtick. But I’m glad I went ahead with it.

For one, I know my Mum would have wanted me to carry on as planned. She’d have hated her passing to have inconvenienced anyone. And I didn’t want to let the organisers down; something Mum – and Dad – instilled in me when I was growing up.

So off I went to Guildford library. First, I helped to introduce a group of “rising star” writers to an audience of 130 eager readers. Later in the evening, I was interviewed by the local radio station and I hosted the story slam – both were great fun. But it was how I spent the time in between that I want to blog about.

I’d been asked to repeat the challenge I took on last summer, when I was resident in a Whitstable bookshop, writing stories for whoever came in that day – and doing it fast enough so that I could perform a quick reading of the story and give it to the customer to take away.

I wandered around the library, notebook in hand, approaching people at random and saying, “I’m a writer, would you please inspire me?”

The first person I met was Noreen. The easiest way you can inspire me, I said, is to tell me your favourite word. She didn’t even have to think about it: “sleep”, she said. Why? She has a young son and is studying in her “spare” time to get the qualifications she needs to change her career. Why does she want to change her career? Because it will help her find meaning in her life, she said.

That begged a question I felt I had to ask: do you feel your life lacks meaning at the moment? She reflected on this for a while. Then she smiled and said no, it doesn’t. Her child gives it meaning. But she wanted more, perhaps some meaning she’d made herself. Hence she was studying.

I thanked her, found a quiet corner, and started scribbling. Here is Noreen, with the words she inspired:

Thanks, Noreen
It wasn’t enough, but she knew it wouldn’t be. Each evening at 7.30 she put him to bed. And then she started her search. Beneath the cushions, behind the sofa, buried in the laundry pile: where was it, that person she used to be?

Next I went and sat with a man called David. I started to explain why I wanted to talk to him, but he interrupted and went off on a beautiful riff of his own. First, he told me why his nose was bloodied: he’d come straight from the youth club where, chasing some of the kids around, he’d tripped over a plastic box and landed on his face. With that explanation out of the way, he told me about his interest in depression, the consequences of a Baptist upbringing, his role in the introduction of factory fishing to British waters, and the risks of offending family members when writing memoir (he’s working on one, sometimes using an alter-ego he calls Doug).

He was sitting with his wife, Stevie, who finished off a few of his sentences and corrected any  errors of fact or exaggeration. He called himself Dave, she preferred David. They reminded me of my Mum and Dad.

As with Noreen, I thanked David, found a quiet corner, and tried to write a few words inspired by what he had shared with me. Here he is, with his words:

Thanks, David
Sometimes I call myself Doug, just to get away, just to step back from the edge. See this Abyss? It’s always there, it’s in my juices. I fear I will fall into it. But I’ve seen so much and I’ve done so much and I’ve so much left to do. So much to say. One day, I’ll just be Dave.

I found both Noreen and David later in the evening, read them the words they’d inspired and gave them my pencil version, written on the back of a card like this:

I don’t make any claims about the quality of the words I wrote in such haste; perhaps the value is in the process. I felt I made a connection with both David and Noreen, and that please me. Always when writing, I’m trying to make a connection that moves the reader. But it’s easy to forget that good “writing” moves the writer, too – and that the word “writing” applies to the process as much as the end result. It’s a verb as much as a noun. A more specific word than connection would be bridge: the traffic can flow in both directions.

Life and its strange ironies

I was reading an interview with the author Terry Pratchett over lunch. Towards the end, he started talking about death – an event much on his mind, as he has early Alzheimer’s. “It’s not morbid to talk about death,” he says. “Most people don’t worry about death, they worry about a bad death.”

My Mum felt the same way, I think. She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma last year. Her attitude to it was wonderfully stoical. The chemotherapy will either cure me or it won’t, she said. I don’t think she was putting on a brave face for my benefit. She trusted her doctors to do their best; she’d have the treatment and see what happened.

Mum beat her cancer, and was given the all-clear in January. She was busy regaining her fitness and making plans about what to do next. And then last Monday night she suffered a massive brain haemorrhage. On Wednesday afternoon she died.

From the moment a blood vessel deep in her brain burst, she never regained consciousness. But I’m glad that I had the chance to sit at her bedside and chat away telling stories with my Dad, brother and sister, as though Mum were wide awake, on the mend and waiting for her turn to pick up the story – or, more likely, to tell us we’d all got it arse about face before starting again with her own version.

Mum loved to tell a good story, and would have appreciated the narrative value of the many strange coincidences – or cruel ironies – that surrounded the nature and timing of her passing. And believe me, there were many of them. But as I’m sure she’d have pointed out, that is the way of the world. And whether she heard my words or not, I’m glad I had the chance to thank her for bringing me into it.

Mum and Dad in the stable he built. When she asked my why I was taking a photo of them both looking so scruffy, I told her I wanted to capture their natural habitat

Bath time train story

I guess you might call this a ‘found story’.

I overheard a girl on the train, talking on the phone to a friend.

I wrote down what she said…

“So we spent five hours talking about our relationship and I told him we were splitting up. He phoned me later and he’s in the bath, with his clothes on, crying. He says he’s taken loads of sleeping pills, but they’re herbal ones and they’ve given him diarrhoea. I mean, who wears their clothes in the bath?”

I think she maybe lacks empathy.

The story behind my Limehouse story

Now that my Limehouse story has been published (read it here), I thought I’d set out some thoughts about where the idea came from and how it developed.

I’ve already blogged about this project and my first visit to the area, when I took lots of photos and made pages of notes. The mile of the London Marathon route that I’d been commissioned to write about had so much potential. The challenge wasn’t to come up with an idea, but to find some sense in all the rambling thoughts it provoked.

Dickens was an obvious early starting point. My mile has a pub where, as a child, he was made to dance on the tables for money – a pub that features in at least one of his novels. But I wanted to dig deeper.

What about the wharves? Narrow Road is lined with them. These are the small docks, slipways and storehouses from which some of first – voluntary – passengers set sail to Australia.

One of them, Dunbar Wharf, was once the headquarters of the world’s largest private shipping fleet. I read about its founder, Duncan Dunbar, the seventh son of a Scottish tenant farmer, who moved to London and made his fortune in wine and spirits. And I read about his son, also Duncan, who built the shipping business.

He named his largest ship the Duncan Dunbar, whether in honour of himself or his father nobody knew. I learned that it ran aground three years after his death off the coast of Brazil. Its captain landed his passengers on a sandspit and rowed 120 miles in an open boat to get help (everyone was rescued 10 days later). Another story told of a ship that caught fire off Australia – the last anyone saw of its captain was when, to rescue her from the flames, he threw his wife overboard.

I read the younger Duncan’s will to see what story ideas it might suggest, but felt my attention drawn back to the streets of Limehouse.

Next I researched Alderman Henry Potter, a mayor of Stepney, who gave his name to Potters Dwellings, an alms building on Limehouse Causeway.

I discovered that he once made an incredibly tedious, and obsequious, address to members of the royal family, which I read to no benefit. Then I became intrigued by the fact that Potters Dwelling had been renamed Saunders Close.

I learned that a Mr Saunders was the caretaker of the building during the second world war. It was renamed after him in honour of the valiant – but frustratingly unspecified – deeds he performed during the Blitz. I found someone who, before the war, attended the school next door, and remembered the building under its old name. She knew Mr Saunders had done something incredible, but didn’t know what.

Finally I read about the Chinese community that used to live here, how they made it London’s original Chinatown, before just about everyone moved to Soho. Many of them worked the early steam-liners that docked in London. It was only when these young hands arrived that they found their passage was one-way – they had no means of returning home and were destitute, unless they could find work on another ship. The idea of writing about one of them appealed.

I looked into this further. I read about Fu Man Chu and the Yellow Peril, Jack London’s journeys into “The Abyss”. I discovered that the Chinese community that took root on my mile were mainly from Canton and Southern China. Their compatriots from Shanghai lived about a mile to the northeast, around Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street.

I remembered that about a year ago I wrote a story based in Southern China for the children of my local primary school, one that took inspiration from ancient folk tales that mixed human and animal characters  I started to wonder what might happen if I transported some of those characters to Victorian Limehouse – how would their hopes and fears manifest themselves in the London of 1892?

Along the way, I found myself reading the transcripts of trials held around that time at the Old Bailey, London’s main criminal court. They captured a form of justice that was brief and brutal. The idea of characters bearing testament appealed. A line kept running through my head: “I am Sheep, some say I steal”. It became the first line of my story.

The last step, I teamed up with my illustrator, Nick Parker. The need to brief Nick made me think more deeply about what my story was about, and what mood I was after. His response to early drafts, and his initial drawings, made me revise the piece endlessly – until the final deadline arrived, when I put down my pen, crossed my fingers and handed everything over to my editor, Rishi Dastidar. And there my story ends, or begins.

Monkey! One of Nick’s brilliant illustrations

A bit of competition success

One of my writing aims for this year is to enter more competitions. I’m off to a good start, placing second in a flash fiction challenge run by the Nottingham Festival of Words.

I don’t normally enter comps. There’s such a long gap between sending off a story and hearing the result; I’m too impatient. But my artist friend Elaine tipped me off to this one, so I thought I’d give it a go.

The brief was simple: tell a story in fifty words or less. I decided to polish up one of the stories that I wrote last summer, when I was hanging out in a Whitstable bookshop, writing flash fictions inspired by customers. (And thanks to the great people of ReAuthoring for that opportunity)

The story, originally called Anticipation, was inspired by a lovely lady called Anne. Somewhere beneath the piles of paper cluttering my desk, I’ve got her email address. I hope I can find it, so that I can thank her again.

Here’s the finished version of the story, with its new name:

Another door opens
I told my husband that anticipation was everything. There is not enough suspense, I said. He thought for a year and said this: I will leave you for another woman, but I won’t tell you when – would that do? You are a year too late, I said, shutting the door.

I’m going to be repeating my “writing on the spot” experiment again in April, as part of an event celebrating World Book Night. But more about that later.

Here’s Anne again

Here’s the first draft, written in the bookshop

Sit down and have a listen


Whatever happened to shameless self-publicity? I can’t believe I’ve forgotten to post a link to this.

At the back end of last year the Fates smiled kindly on me. A strange string of coincides occurred. The result: the brilliant Vince Franklin, an actor to whom I could utter the cringey words “I love your work” and really mean it, recorded a version of my short story, Docile Creatures.

Click below, and you can have a listen.

(You know, writing this now I’m amazed all over again that someone who straddled the Holy Trinity of modern British TV comedy – i.e. The Office, The Thick of It, and 2012 – did a reading for me. Thanks again, Vince)