Tag Archives: Red Cat Girl’s Gone

Can I waste your time?

I wouldn’t like to be a celebrity, but there are times when it would be useful to have a name like JK Rowling or Stephen King. Why? Because it’s one thing to do research for a story when you’re a household name: it’s quite another when you’re a new author.

“Hello. I’m Mary Higgins Clark. Could you spare me a couple of hours to explain how your village set up its wind farm, please? … Yes, I’d love to spend a whole day with you if you’re sure you have the time.”

This sounds far better than: “Hello. I’m an unknown writer. Can you waste your time by telling me about your wind farm for my story, please? There’s nothing in it for you, and my book will probably never be published. …What? You’re too busy?”

Obviously, I’d never say that. I’ve usually found people to be very generous with their time – particularly the lovely French mayor who explained her wind farm project to me for my ‘Red Cat Girl’s Gone’ novel. She took me to admire her turbines. And I didn’t even have to pretend I was JK Rowling.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Internet is a wonderful tool for research. But nothing beats talking to an expert. It’s the difference between having a guided tour of a chateau and wandering around the building on your own.

When I was writing commissioned feature articles, research was no problem. I could give people publicity in exchange for their time – and I was proud to represent a magazine with a good reputation.

For fiction research it’s different. The key is to convince yourself that your cause is important; that you are justified in requesting an interview. People like to talk about their activities. I love listening to people who have a passion for their subject – no matter what it is. And if the person I target for an interview doesn’t want to talk to me, I tell myself that it probably wouldn’t have been a worthwhile interview.

The way I do research depends on the story I want to write. When I already have a story to tell and I just need to research for context, it can be a burden. I find out enough to ensure that my story is realistic, and then check the detailed facts after the first draft.

Sometimes the research matter is integral to the story. Ideas rise out of the research notes. This is exciting. In my short story ‘Ami, entends-tu?’ I wanted to write something historical about a particular region of France. This was the spur to discovering the wartime Resistance activities in the area – something I’d never otherwise have learned about.

Often the story changes completely and you don’t exploit your hours of research. For a recent writers’ exercise we had to write about a tea caddy. I knew nothing about tea, so I spent some absorbing hours learning about Chinese provinces. It was fascinating. But when I sat down to type the story, I ended up writing about a man who is so attached to the sea that he can only travel in his imagination. I trust that my research will be useful at some point – even if it is only to order Tie Guan Yin in a salon de thé.

Some writing guides tell you to write about what you know. But if you restrict yourself to your own knowledge, you deprive yourself of one of the most fulfilling aspects of writing.

Go on: find the people who are willing to help you, even if you’re not JK Rowling. Get on the phone. Enjoy!

What’s in a Name?

Names are elemental for British (and French) men. They get to keep their surnames all their lives – and then they pass them on to their children. But us women traditionally slough our surnames like worn skins. What a waste! Unless we marry when we’re 99 years old (in which case there may be a few wrinkles), our surnames are still fresh, elastic and full of promise.

So I was delighted when I checked out my genealogy and discovered that my wily women ancestors have overcome this unfair custom. They pass on their first names. There are Harriets hanging from every branch of my family tree.

GrandmaChickOften the name is handed down discreetly, hidden between a first name and the temporary surname. The stern lady in the photo is my great-great grandmother, Susan Harriet. She didn’t mess about with disguises: she boldly gave her daughter the name Harriet in first position.

There’s no doubt a question of fashion in the selection of names. Harriet isn’t the most innovative name. By slipping a Harriet into the invisible middle name position, my generation can give our children a modern first name – thereby avoiding school playground teasing – and still anchor them to their roots.

I wonder how this link to our female ancestors affects the way we grow up. Imagine you have just discovered you were named after the austere lady in the photograph. Did your parents name you after her because they thought you’d resemble her? Or because they wanted you to be like her? Was there something special in her character or life story? And why were you, rather than your siblings, given her name?

It’s interesting to imagine how you’d react to your legacy. Would you take more interest in your family history – or would you feel oppressed, abbreviate your name and rebel against your predecessor?

This is beginning to sound like a writing exercise. Well, why not? We’re here to play, after all. Create a story character who discovers she’s the lucky – or not so lucky – bearer of a family first name. Tell me how she feels about her heritage. You can click on ‘Leave a Reply’ to share your words with us.

Names are important. My protagonists’ names always have a meaning. This tells us something about them, even if it’s subconscious. In my novel ‘Red Cat Girl Gone’ (yes, this title has beaten all previous records and lasted a whole week) my 17-year-old protagonist is desperate to escape her childhood home. She feels constricted in her river valley village. Her name is Heather, which evokes heaths, moorland and open spaces for me. Then there’s Martin, the village simpleton, who follows his geese around the countryside all day. His name comes from the legend of St.Martin of Tours (fascinating: you should read it). And Odis – well, you’ll have to wait until the story is published to understand the significance of his name.

The christening of my minor characters is less laborious. I’m a big fan of the telephone directory. In France, where families are still strongly linked to their birthplaces, the surnames are often typical of an area. I search for surnames that have different rhythms, a different number of syllables, and that begin with a different letter. There’s nothing worse than mixing up characters because their names are too similar. It’s a bit like Western films: the men all look the same to me in their cowboy hats and sandy shades of brown clothes – but that’s probably just me! I’ll be sorry when my directory no longer arrives in my letterbox with its promise of random, realistic surnames.

How do you play with names in your own work? If you’ve been handed down a family first name, what effect has it had on you? There’s lots of room in the comments box when you click on ‘Leave a Reply’.


Opening the playground gate

Hello! I’m Harriet, I’m English and I’m a writer. I’ve been living in France for 20 years, during which I’ve written 3 novels and lots of non-fiction features. My partner is French and we have two teenage daughters.

I’ve called this blog my playground because it’s where I’d like to play with words and ideas. These are the ‘What-if‘s and ‘Why don’t‘s that get scribbled onto post-its (and promptly forgotten about). Sometimes the ideas are inspired from reading a book. Other times a walk in the countryside can give rise to an idea. And often ideas spark from discussions. There always seem to be more ideas than there is time to turn them into words. And from words into stories – well, there’s even less time for that.

On the subject of turning words into stories, my novels would like to introduce themselves here.

I won’t spend too much time on my initial novel. Let’s just call it Novel Zero and pretend it doesn’t exist. (I hope I’m not inflicting any psychological damage on it by keeping it on a floppy disk. After all, I did learn loads from writing it. Perhaps one day it will rise from the bottom drawer and, Cinderella-style, find a Prince Charming. It will definitely have to dress up before it leaves the house, though).

My first novel, ‘Tree Magic’ was a runner-up in a first novel competition and has been accepted for publication. Trees are awesome! We should talk about them more. ‘Tree Magic’ is a magic realism story and features 13-year-old Rainbow. She discovers she has a magic gift for communicating with trees, which causes her all sorts of problems. Rainbow has a creative, hippie mother and a scientific stepfather. They’re both too busy making music or arguing to spend time with her – until she causes a fatal accident. That’s when she has to decide what to do about her gift.

I’ve just finished the nth draft of my second novel and will soon begin the agent / publisher search. Its working title is ‘Red Lies, White Lies’ – at least, that’s this week’s title. It’s a mystery novel for adults and teenagers and is set in a French village. Here’s a short blurb:

The disappearance of a child and the attempted murder of a young man in a French village bring heartache and headaches for Englishwoman Dot Chasseux and her teenage daughter Erica.

OK, the novels have had their say. Now back to the playground.

What better playground than a tree?

What better playground than a tree?

Writing is a lonely business. A playground seems to me to be a good place to make friends and have some fun. If you’d like to play too, then come along and join me.