The weather forecast is talking about the warmest Easter on record, the news is full of people sunning themselves on British beaches, and the smell of charred meat hangs in the air as barbecues are dusted off and lit for the first time in months. And me? I’m playing Christmas jingles and thinking about tinsel, icy pavements and turkey leftovers. Yes, I’m writing a seasonal story.
The time-lag involved in publishing means that a story with a seasonal flavour has to be submitted six months before. My story has a May deadline, hence my writing about Christmas whilst nibbling on an Easter egg.
The story is for a collection of Christmas stories featuring fictional detectives, and I’m writing a story featuring my PI sleuth, Eden Grey. The story must be set at Christmas and have a Christmas theme. For a long time I simply dragged my mind back to Christmas and compiled a list of things that are typically Christmassy: office parties, buying presents, houses smothered with lights, food, drink, family. Eventually I came up with a theme I could work into a detective story, and that allowed Eden to do all the things she’s good at: surveillance, breaking and entering, and getting into a fight.
Once I’d got the plot, I needed to feel more Christmassy, in the hopes that those sensations would translate onto the page. Here’s how I did it:
1. Playing Christmas music
The neighbours thought I was bonkers, but playing Christmas tunes helped me to think about Christmas and to remember how that time of year feels. Sound, like smell, is wired into memory. Certain songs evoke specific places, people, and events. Even decades later, a certain song will remind me of a school trip to Norway. Writing to a background of ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ helped me get into the Christmassy swing.
2. Remembrance of Christmas past
Confession time. I don’t like Christmas much. For me it means other people’s stress, overspending, overeating and general tetchiness. Call me Scrooge if you like, but my Christmas is quiet and simple, and that’s how I like it. The good thing about Christmas for storytellers is it’s usually a time of great tension, and as we all know, stories are powered by tension. At Christmas, everyone is expected to have a wonderful time. If you’re ill, lonely or generally fed-up, that feeling of alienation from everyone else intensifies.
3. What’s the weather like?
Although we often think of a white Christmas, it rarely happens in the UK. Christmas is usually dank, misty, dark and rainy. It’s difficult to remember exactly what the weather is like in certain seasons, so I turned to my journal to remember. Notes about gardening in the rain, slipping on frosty pavements, or unexpected warmth reminded me that winter isn’t cold and rainy every single day. These details gave my prose authenticity.
4. Eat, drink, and be Christmassy
Mince pies have long ago disappeared from the supermarket shelves, but there are Brussels sprouts, turkey, and fruit cake. Plus hot chocolate, hot toddies, and Baileys. Certain seasons have distinctive tastes particular to them, and by experiencing that taste I evoked the season associated with it. While everyone else was sipping Pimms and eating barbecue chicken, I was drinking hot chocolate and eating pigs in blankets.
Writing a seasonal story means being out of synch with everyone else. You have to create a bubble in which it's Christmas, and block out everything Easter around you. The benefit of writing this way is that when winter rolls around, and everyone huddles inside counting down the days to summer, I’m already there, writing six months in the future, glorying in the long June days and toasting myself in the sun.
My short story ‘Cat Chat’ is published today in the People’s Friend magazine, and in this post I’m going to write about where the idea for the story came from, and how I adapted and shaped my initial thought into the finished piece. Like many writers, I’m quite shameless about pinching stories from my family and friends. Often someone will tell me something and I’ll mentally file it away thinking, ‘I can do something with that.’ The ‘thing’ they’ve said might be a phrase or a comment, or it might be an anecdote. I never use other people’s stories in the same format they told them to me: I strip down the idea to find the bit that captured my imagination, then I play with it until I get a story, so the final story bears no resemblance to the original. This is how I did it with ‘Cat Chat’.
My family is one of pet-talkers: people who act as ventriloquist for the dog or cat. Maybe you’re one yourself, or maybe you’ve come across people like that, people who put on a special voice for the dog and conduct a conversation with it, seemingly oblivious to the fact they’re talking to themselves. Maybe you think it’s cute; maybe you think they’re bonkers. Anyway, in my house we talk for the cat. If you’re not sure what people actually say when they talk for the cat, here’s a typical exchange between me and my cat, Harriet:
Me: Look at that cute dog on the telly.
Harriet: I don’t approve of dogs. They’re not as good as cats.
Me: It’s a clever doggy, doing tricks.
Harriet: See what I mean? You’d never find a cat doing that. Imagine working for a living! Cats are far too clever.
When I met my husband, and he first heard me talking for my cats, he thought I was bonkers. Fast forward a couple of months and not only was he also talking for the cats, he’d adopted his own special voice for doing so. We were talking about his first reaction to hearing me talking for the cats when I realised there was a story in it.
Firstly, I needed a conflict. As it was a story about talking for a cat, there had to be a talker and someone who found it weird. And because I love writing stories for the People’s Friend that involve a grandmother and granddaughter, I went for those characters and had the grandmother as the cat-talker and the granddaughter worried about it. Now for the inciting incident, the thing that kicks off the story. As the granddaughter has known about the cat-talking all her life, why does she suddenly find it weird? Answer: she’s a teenager who’s just got a boyfriend and is worried what he’ll think about it and is scared he’ll dump her. To up the stakes and to add a touch of humour, I made the grandmother very gentle and the cat a bit of a thug:
“How’s my best boy then?” asked Nanna, bending to stroke Bandit.
“Alright, old girl. Where’s me grub?” said Bandit, in a low, gravelly voice and distinct East End gangsterish accent.
“You hungry, my poppet?”
“Starvin’! Me stomach finks me froat’s bin slit,” said Bandit.
The girl is determined that her boyfriend won’t ever meet Nanna, and Nanna is equally determined to meet the new boyfriend to give him the once-over and make sure he’s good enough. So there was the set-up. All of them nice characters but with genuine conflict arising from their personalities. Next I had to increase the conflict.
I like to vary the sources of conflict within stories, so if the inciting action comes from outside the main character (from another character or from a situation), the next conflict comes from within the character herself. In this case, I made her feel terrible guilt at wanting to keep Nanna and the boyfriend apart. She loves her Nanna, yet is embarrassed by her, and feels terrible about it. I twisted the knife a little to increase the conflict and (hopefully) get the reader to ask ‘How is this ever going to be resolved?’ by adding a scene where the girl tries to talk to her mother about her concerns:
That evening, in the car, I said, tentatively, “Mum, do you think it’s odd how Nanna talks for the cat?”
“She’s always done it.”
“I know, but is it weird, do you think?”
“Her mum, my grandma, was just the same,” Mum said, indicating the turning into our road. “I asked her about it once and she said her grandmother was just the same.”
Great, so it’s hereditary.
Mum pulled up outside our house and tugged on the handbrake. She glanced across at me. “Why? It doesn’t bother you, does it?”
“No, it’s just … I wondered what other people might think.” The blood flooded my cheeks as I said it.
“Stuff what other people think,” Mum said. “Come on! Homework, then dinner.”
Next I had to figure out how to resolve this. There are a few rules with story endings: they can’t come about by chance or fate, they must be the result of the character’s own actions, and they must be in character. I normally sketch out as many potential resolutions to the story as I can and then see which one is most natural but least likely to be spotted in advance by the reader. Keep them guessing to the end if possible! In this story I gave the grandmother a sore throat and the granddaughter speaks for the cat on her behalf, resolving both the original conflict (what will the boyfriend think about Nanna speaking for the cat?) and the emotional conflict (the guilt about feeling embarrassed).
If you’d like to read the whole story, it’s available now in the People’s Friend magazine dated 10th February, 2018.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.