Donna Bottomley is a psychotherapist and writer, based in Wales (ah, Wales! Will I ever see you again?). As part of her psychotherapy practice, Donna runs an online Expressive Writing group, which sounds just perfect. Expressive writing can be effective in reducing anxiety, apprehension, worry and insomnia.
Donna’s book, released in May, has the intriguing title Do I Need to See a Therapist? In these pandemical (yes, I just invented that word) times, I know most of us have been touched in one way or another by worry, sadness, uncertainty and doubt.
Add feelings of fear and isolation, and it’s no wonder we think about seeking help. Read on for Donna’s comments on why she wrote this book, plus a free excerpt.
I can *almost* guarantee (*because nothing is certain, right?) that you’ll find this chapter very helpful.
Welcome to last Word of the Week, Donna!
I’m so pleased to speak with you. Can you tell us about your book?
DONNA: The idea for this book was to pass on my insights from being a therapist and to also mention a particularly helpful technique for managing emotions that has been a game-changer in my practice over the past year.
Making connections and discoveries is what inspires me. I LOVE research and am on a constant quest to understand what makes us feel and behave as we do. Therapy as a field is increasingly looking beyond merely talking about thoughts and instead bringing more of our physical bodily sensations and events happening beneath the ‘hood’ of the brain into therapy. This includes our sensory worlds. These are an important part of our feeling states.
I recharge using the sensory stimulation of listening to music whilst moving; preferably in my car but walking in nature can have a similar effect. I also love the physical act of handwriting and use expressive writing both for myself and in my therapy practice.
Oh and I also have a habit of getting lost for hours playing around on Canva!
DO I NEED TO SEE A THERAPIST?
Free Book Extract: Chapter 5
Will Talking about My Feelings Make Them Worse?
And if So, What Can I Do to Make It Easier?
I often hear new clients say that they are worried they will feel worse if they talk about their feelings. This belief that emotions are made worse by talking about them keeps people silent. When we are silent, we cannot process our experiences. If we do not process our felt experiences, then we cannot truly learn enough about our own emotions in order to manage them. You wouldn’t manage a sports team by having no idea of the individual skills and abilities in your players. You’d have no control over how a game would play out if this was the case, and it would feel unpredictable and uncertain. It’s the same with our emotions. By suppressing them and pushing them away, we never get to learn enough about our own processes in order to manage them better. Because we don’t know enough about them, we find them unpredictable and we feel out of control if they become triggered. We don’t want to lose control, so we push them away. This avoidance keeps us fearing them, and the cycle continues.
As humans we have a natural ability to be able to suppress, repress or express. Sometimes we knowingly suppress, sometimes we unknowingly repress. An example of repression is not knowing that something has bothered you until you later talk about it and feel upset, perhaps saying something like ‘I had no idea that bothered me so much’. This is normal, but do we balance out our natural tendencies to suppress, with setting aside time to process? In day-to-day life I don’t believe we do, because we desperately do not want to get upset. But this emotional suppression has a cost. It can make us feel even less in control of our emotions, and it also has an impact on our physical health.
A study by Gross and Levenson, published in 1997 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, found that when participants were asked to suppress either a positive (amusement) or negative (sadness) emotion, the act of suppressing the emotion produced increased activation in the ‘sympathetic nervous system’ (SNS). The SNS is the part of our nervous system that sets off the ‘fight or flight’ response and gets us ready for action. Along with the release of stress hormones, it increases our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing in order to tackle the task at hand. If this type of activity is prolonged it takes us into a state of chronic stress. So if we suppress either positive or negative emotions this has an effect on our body similar to that that occurs when we are dealing with something stressful.
Somehow, we have been given the message that it’s wrong, weak or crazy to notice and express our sensations and our feeling-states. But the research is clear that suppression as a strategy for managing our emotional health is not helpful. Peter Levine, in his book In an Unspoken Voice, discusses a study in which emotional suppression was correlated with higher rates of heart disease in men. James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth’s research into expressive writing and emotional disclosure found a link between poor immune system functioning and emotional suppression (Pennebaker & Smyth, 2019). All of this tells us that if we stop trying to avoid our feelings, we might feel better. But how do we actually do this?
THE ALTERNATIVE TO SUPPRESSION: PROCESSING EMOTIONS
This is the first step. It might sound obvious, but it is central to being able to gain mastery over what is happening for you. There is a part of the brain that is involved in ‘noticing’ and in becoming aware of what you experience. You can enhance it, and some scientists would say that you can increase the size of this area through long-term mindfulness practice.
The next thing I’m going to ask you to do is to set an intention to be curious about the sensations in your body that you notice. Maybe you are used to immediately doing something to distract yourself from the fluttery feeling of anxiety, or that quick whoosh of adrenalin. Whatever it is that you notice, how about seeing where the sensation goes if you let it be? Yes, you can distract yourself if you want to, but that isn’t your only option. Could you allow yourself to be like a scientist and be curious about what you notice? Could you try to embrace the uncertainty rather than push it away? The sensations in your body are not going to harm you. You do not need to fear them. If you let them be, they will come and they will go. Like waves on a beach.
When or if you feel angry or anxious, you might also notice lots of thoughts or maybe images flashing up, wanting attention. Your brain will be trying to figure out what’s going on and what to do. That’s OK. Notice what is happening in your body. You do not have to answer the thoughts right now, let them be there. They will come, and they will go.
Observe without judgement
Try it now. Check in with your body. What posture are you holding? What position is your spine in? Is it slumped, or twisting to the side? Imagine straightening it a little bit, and actually let your spine move to where it wants to. Then notice your stomach: are you holding it in? Let it go, let it flop out. Adjust yourself if you notice any twists or tenseness anywhere else. Notice with curiosity and without judgement.
Take a breath in and slowly breathe out, trying to make that out- breath last for a count of six. Do this again, then once more, and now take a big breath in and let it flop out like a big sigh.
Oh, thank you so much for that, Donna.
Great advice there. I’m sure we all appreciate this. Now for the entire book – here are the links!
Born in 1969, Phil was one of the last children born before man walked on the moon. Working at Australia’s National Dinosaur Museum since 2000 and as an educator at the Australian War Memorial since 2006, he has previously worked at Questacon Science centre and could be seen haunting the halls of London’s Natural History Museum and The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Here he even played famed palaeontologist O. C. Marsh during the Smithsonian’s centenary celebrations. When asked why the 19th century palaeontologist was speaking with an Australian accent, Phil blithely stated that everyone on the 19th century spoke with an Australian accent.
Published in newspapers and magazines across the globe, Phil is the paleo-author for the world’s longest running dinosaur magazine, The Prehistoric Times. He has also been a comic shop manager, a cinema projectionist, a theatre technician and gutted chickens for a deli. All of these influences seem to make an appearance in his writing, especially the chicken guts bit.
Congratulations on the publication of Golgotha.
What inspired you to write this story?
PHIL: Thanks, I’m so pleased how this story came out. I have worked for museums all over the world for the last three decades and was lucky enough to work as an educator at the Australian War Memorial for a decade. I was always looking for interesting stories to pass on to the AWM visitors. During my research I found several stories, and further research led me to even more oddities. Many of these I used in my tours, but some I filed away for later use.
The story of a crucified soldier was the first of these, but I do have a few more that will hopefully make an appearance with my international team of investigators in the near future.
Golgotha is set during the First World War.
Why are you interested in the war, over a hundred years later?
PHIL: OK, this may get deep. Working in places like the London Natural History Museum made me confront the lack of history I feel connected to. Not only am I am Australian – so part of one of the youngest nations on the planet – but I’m also from Canberra – arguably the world’s youngest city/capital. Certainly, our country is old, and the indigenous have some serious history, but in many ways, I feel that’s not my story to tell.
I collect stories, and many of these I find in strange locations, meaning they are often unreported. This has led me to creating a new history for Australia for a podcast I’m about to release … and it will all be bizarre Australian history that I’m certain many have never heard about, and all real. A samurai invasion of Australia decades before Cook arrived, the Fall of the Roman Empire leading to the Dutch landing in Western Australia … Napoleon sending an invasion fleet to Botany Bay … all true.
All of this has led me to understand – as many of us do – that our identity as Australians really did begin with Gallipoli. It’s when we first started to think of US and not THEM. The First World War is our American and French Revolution, our Civil War – it’s the conflict that forged us into the nation we know today, I mean, even the word ANZAC has become something for more than its original meaning, its something sacred.
Do you think that WWI still has lessons for us today?
PHIL: HELL yes. I believe statics show that, by population, no Allied nation lost more in the Great War than Australia. Similarly, no nation (that wasn’t physically part of the battle – like France) is still as affected by these losses as Australia.
Drive through many rural towns today in Australia and you’ll see a large monument in the town square noting their losses. The monument is often full of men with the same last name. Entire generations from these towns joined up and were often buried together in some field overseas.
These towns never truly recovered from their losses and rural Australia still feels underpopulated.
I feel this has all left something of an emotional national scar. One way we have been dealing with the great loss is the way we reverently look on those who served.
I feel what other nations can learn by this is perhaps the way we use the past, but we are not tied to it. Mateship is part of our national identity, but rather than let us restrict who we include into this circle, we try tp be inclusive.
I think our natural outlook towards others, which is usually friendly, is why Australians worldwide are beloved.
Very interesting reflections, thanks Phil.
Now a bit about you! If you were stuck on a desert island
– or maybe in lockdown LOL –
what five books would you want with you?
PHIL: Ouch … only five … actually, challenge accepted.
The Black Company by Glen Cook. I love this series and it’s been a massive influence on me. The way Cook uses a bare-bones way of writing his stories is something I really have taken form heart. Don’t waste your time getting your characters from A to B – just get them there and move on with your story. I also just love his characters and the entire story line … this leads me to
Old Tin Sorrows by Glen Cook. This book and this entire series is da’ bomb. It’s also part of the inspiration for my first novel, Brotherhood of the Dragon. The books are about a fantasy hard-boiled detective called Garrett. I recall reading ‘Old Tin Sorrows’ when it suddenly struck me that many of the plot points were from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In fact, the entire series is also heavily influenced by Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books, so I decided I wanted to join in the fun and also use these mechanics in Brotherhood.See if you can spot them? Golgotha also has similar influences – most notably the Third Man with Orson Welles.
Cetaganda/A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold Ok, I may be cheating here, but let me explain. The Vorkosigan saga is one of the greatest novel series ever put to paper (and not just Sci-fi, but all series). Each one takes on a different theme. Cetagandais pure political/detective thriller. There are plots within plots and action and intrigue and red herrings and Mile Vorkosigan mentally pulling it all apart and finding the truth. Great stuff. The next book though is a romance/political thriller with plots within plots and intrigue and red herrings and Miles fumbling his way to asking the lady he loves to marry him. It’s the funniest book I have ever read and pure genius. I’ll also cheat here and suggest you get the audiobooks. Both of these I listen to at least once a year.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis Possibly the most influential book on this list. Moneyball is about baseball statistics…and yet it’s so much more. The lesson it teaches is anything can be interesting if you find the right angle. Moneyball is about how to win when you’re losing, how to change tac when you realise you are going in the wrong direction, how to create something from nothing, how to make a weakness a strength and how to tell just a great freakin story. You can watch the movie – its great too – but honestly, read the book – especially if you are interested in facts more than fiction – you simply won’t regret it!
The Gilded Dinosaur by Mark JaffeThe history of palaeontology bookended by the greatest battle in science – the intellectual war between ED Cope and O C Marsh. Dinosaurs, palaeontology, cowboys, train robberies, explorers, nation building, the Smithsonian, political intrigue … and did I mention dinosaurs? What’s not to love?
You write across genres and have a wide range of amazing interests.
How do you juggle all of these with work and writing?
Do you have some time management or focus tips for us?
PHIL: Well, for one thing you will never suffer from writer’s block … you can always move onto another subject for a while and get refreshed/re-inspired.
That’s the cheat answer. To be helpful, I guess I would say work smart.
Research is fun but can create a serious freeze on your brain as you find yourself swamped by too much info. You will take notes – so many notes – well put them in Word! DO NOT USE A NOTEBOOK! Trust me, I’m a researcher and I love carrying around a notebook. The problem is, you end up with lots of notebooks – but do you ever look in them? And do you find what you’re looking for? So, work smart – put them in Word and then you can word search later for what you’re looking for.
Keep folders. You will be astonished how often you will be looking for some info, and you’ll find something that links into something you are working on. Don’t stop what you’re doing, cut/paste/save– take a screen shot or a photo – but save that info in the folder you have for that project and then get on with what you’re doing.
And this brings me to my most important point.
Finish your projects. Don’t get distracted, and I mean distracted by outside as well as internal influences. If you are working on a crime story, don’t start watching documentaries about the First World War, even if that’s something you are also going to work on. You’ll get distracted/inspired and lose your train of thought.
Stay on point – stay on theme – and you’ll get an astounding amount of work done.
Wow, Phil, thank you so much for your insightful answers. Wonderful!
And thanks in advance for sharing a chapter from Golgotha, which I know is wonderful.
Just one more to join our happy band of adventurers, Fitzhugh thought as they entered the Australian lines. They were immediately joined by several large men wearing the quintessential slouch hats the antipodean troopers favoured.
These men referred to themselves as ‘six-bob-a-day tourists’, referencing their daily wage, and their service meant the Australian government and senior commanders treated them with more respect than other nations treated their own men. The most obvious example was that no Digger could face a firing squad for any offence without the permission of the Australian government, and that permission was never forthcoming, despite the pleas of generals like Douglas Haig.
Soldiers being soldiers, the Australian servicemen took full advantage of this leniency by rarely saluting their officers and hardly ever answering with the proper use of rank. Instead, the Aussies called their commanders by their first name, never wore their uniforms in the ‘correct’ by-the-book-way, nor took part in much of the silliness that soldiers from other nations had to endure.
Fitzhugh knew full well the reputation of these men, both on and — in this case — importantly off the battlefield.
At one point, the unruly Diggers had found themselves located in the lines near the 10th Royal Fusiliers, and here they became concerned for their fellow soldiers when the Fusiliers commander ordered them to parade every morning. The very English and newly minted colonel had decided he would have his men march a full-dress parade, with spit-and-polish uniforms, during their morning mounting of the guard. This was all done as the unit’s brass band played a merry ditty for the Fusiliers to march back and forth under the braying vigilance of Sergeant-Major Thomas Rowbotham. A lifelong military NCO, Rowbotham agreed with his colonel that strict discipline within the ranks was the only way to go.
Amid the mud, carnage, and death on the Western Front, the Diggers watched these parades with growing incredulity. Stationed next to each other, the two units inevitably began mixing and the Aussies eventually had to ask their British comrades if they enjoyed all that marching and dressing up.
‘Not on your life!’ replied one of the Fusiliers.
Another jumped in. ‘We have to do the parade during our downtime. Even at rest, we’re busy polishing buttons and boots, all so our bloody officers can feel like they’re leading proper soldiers.’
One burly Australian grinned an evil grin at his new friends and, slapping the much smaller man on the back warmly, said, ‘Right-o, cobber, we’ll fix that for you.’
The next day, Sergeant-Major Rowbotham called his men into parade. The Fusiliers all dutifully filed in and the regimental band lifted their instruments, awaiting the Sergeant-Major’s signal. As Rowbotham lifted then dropped his arm to signal them to play, he was greeted by a cacophony of what some would later recount fondly as noise.
Marching up and down behind Rowbotham were the Australians, playing what could be kindly described as instruments. Most were rusty and showed the signs of a hard life, but none of this mattered as the Aussies couldn’t play them anyway. Instead, they just blew and banged as hard and loud as they could, to drown out Rowbotham’s orders. Each time the makeshift orchestra began to wane, and the Sergeant-Major tried to regain control of the situation, the Australians began playing again with even greater vigour. After nearly half an hour of this, the Sergeant-Major, in utter defeat, finally strode away in a huff and the Fusiliers were never called to parade again. The Australian trench band was always watching and ready to start up their battlefield symphony if they did.
‘Can I help you, gentlemen?’ one of the Australian soldiers asked.
‘No, thank you, just passing through,’ Fitzhugh answered as Andrews manoeuvred to place himself between the two men.
‘What have we here? It seems the officer is taking his dog out for a walk,’ another Aussie said. ‘Down there, Fido. Sit!’
Another of the soldiers asked, ‘Does your dog do any tricks?’
‘Sergeant,’ Fitzhugh cautioned, as Andrews took a threatening step toward the jokester.
‘Nice leash, puppy,’ the Australian said, indicating Fitzhugh with a nod of his hat.
‘Actually, perhaps you men can help me?’ the captain asked, his tone remaining warm.
‘What’re you after? A German flag? A helmet? We got lots of souvenirs to impress the folks at home. You can even say you collected them yourself, you big brave British soldier you.’
‘Even have an officer’s uniform. It’s still a little bloody from where Barney here gutted the bloke.’
Ignoring the clear threat, and taking the statement as a joke, thus passing the test the Australians had laid out, Fitzhugh replied sincerely, ‘No, no, do not offer me any of your baubles. I was hoping for some information. Do any of you men know Sergeant Hank Ash?’
‘Now what would a proper British officer like you want with Mr Ash?’ the soldier called Barney asked with a heavy Irish accent.
Both Fitzhugh and Andrews caught the sudden change in attitude. All had gone from casual, fun-loving jokesters to rigid and aggressively hard.
‘I’m here to try to save his neck!’
The newly demoted Private Hank Ash sat in his cell, his sleeves sporting discoloured sections where his sergeant chevrons used to be. Two armed English guards stood directly outside his cell, situated in a small outbuilding of the farm that was being used as a temporary prison behind the Australian lines. Outside stood more guards, while the farmhouse itself had been converted into a makeshift barracks.
Through a small field that should have been full of feeding chickens and a garden, but now housed a small latrine on one side and a smouldering fire on the other, Fitzhugh, Andrews, and their Australian retinue marched. Approaching the farmhouse door, Fitzhugh took off his cap and stepped inside, returning the salute of the guards as he did. His retinue moved on to the barn, calling out to their mates inside.
Walking into the prison’s makeshift office, Fitzhugh found an English major with a Douglas Fairbanks moustache taking a cup of tea from a brawny NCO.
‘No milk in mine, Corporal,’ he said, inviting himself to sit down at the major’s desk.
The corporal looked from one officer to the other, not sure if he should be turfing the intruder out and hoping for a cue from his commander as to what to do. The major flicked a look at the door and the man left.
‘Perhaps a little sugar if you have it, Corporal,’ Fitzhugh called after the departing man, ‘and a bikkie.’
‘How can I help you, Captain…?’
‘Fitzhugh, Major Preston.’
‘It would seem you have me at a disadvantage, Captain Fitzhugh.’
‘So it would seem, Major,’ Fitzhugh replied, mirroring the senior officer’s reference to his rank to let the man know he knew that trick and wasn’t about to be cowed by an officer just because he had a little more brass on his shoulders.
‘How can I help you?’
‘Well, sir, I’m here to take Sergeant Ash off your hands.’
‘Very funny, Captain. Now, why are you really here?’
Rather than repeat himself, Fitzhugh removed a letter from his breast pocket, unfolded it, then slowly and deliberately smoothed its creases before handing the paper over. As the officer read the letter, Fitzhugh could tell when he read the name scrawled on the bottom of the page, as his eyes suddenly grew very wide.
‘This is signed by Haig.’
‘General Haig.’ Fitzhugh smiled warmly, continuing their game a little longer.
‘Are you sure it’s Ash you want?’
‘I have been hearing that question a lot recently. Absolutely it is Ash I want.’
‘And you know what he did?’
‘Let me see, he was wounded at Gallipoli after showing enormous courage, and has been serving very bravely here since….’
‘Since he broke a lieutenant’s jaw–’
‘From what I heard, the lieutenant deserved a broken jaw.’
‘He was still a superior officer,’ Preston said.
‘Senior officer, Major. I’m not too sure how “superior” the man was. Let’s not be conjuring facts we have no actual evidence. Personally, I refuse to condemn a man standing against a practice more in tune with the brutality of the inquisition. Now, I believe Sergeant Ash is yet to be convicted of this crime?’
‘May I ask why it’s taken so long to court-martial a man who struck an officer? The official report is frustratingly vague on why he has missed his last three court appearances. For that matter, how are you still in charge, having failed to get your prisoner to his hearing…if I may be so bold as to ask?’
‘Very simple.’ The major opened his hands, as though displaying something on the table before them. ‘My predecessor was a total and utter moron.’
Biting off a laugh from the unexpected comment, Fitzhugh regained control of himself. ‘Care to elaborate, sir?’
‘The buffoon arrested Ash and placed him in this stockade, a stockade, I’d like to point out, that is surrounded by the entire 1st Australian Division.’
‘Gotcha,’ Fitzhugh said, realisation striking.
‘Every time we have tried to move ‘Private’ Ash, those bloody Australians have intercepted us. It seems they are determined to make sure he never sees the inside of a courtroom, and their own officers are uninterested in doing anything to help clear our path.’
‘How are they stopping you?’
‘Well, you may have noticed the Aussies have men posted along every route into and out of this place, and they seem to be ready to move on a moment’s notice if they sense we are up to something. The first time we tried to take Ash to his court appearance, we found nearly a thousand men choking the road, doing the finest parade drill I have ever seen. Every time we tried to cut through them, some unseen voice would order a platoon to move into our way, and they would begin vigorously marching.’
No longer interested in hiding his mirth, Fitzhugh asked, ‘And the next time?’
‘We tried to sneak him out after making sure the time of his hearing was never announced. Somehow, when we went to move him, we suddenly had hundreds of Australian soldiers pushing into the little courtyard out there. They managed to never disobey an order, as the ones who could hear us became hopelessly trapped by the men at the rear continuously pushing forward. It took hours to disentangle everyone, and by then the court had dispersed for the day.’
‘So, I assume you next tried to bring the court here?’
‘We did, and here’s why I really hate those fucking antipodeans.’ The major almost spat. ‘Clearly, they have either befriended or bribed some of my guards, as no sooner did I have it planned for the court to visit us, the Australians struck again.’
‘Well, of course, I have no proof of this, but I find it suspicious that the horses the court were going to use to get here disappeared, and of course, they refused to walk all the way, and vehicles would never have made the journey through the trenches.’
‘The Australians stole the horses?’ Fitzhugh asked, grinning.
‘They steal everything not tied down, bloody convicts.’ Sensing he may have said too much, the warden backpedalled. ‘Well, as I said, there’s no proof. Though the Aussies did seem to eat well for the next few days. They had themselves a grand barbeque. They even invited us for a meal.’
Fitzhugh gasped and looked toward the heavens. ‘Thank God!’
‘Captain?’ the major asked, a little confused.
‘Sorry, sir, I was just thanking the Almighty that they’re on our side, because I wouldn’t want to be facing the bastards if they ever got really angry at us.’
‘I hadn’t thought about that,’ the warden said. ‘Thank God!’
Also, don’t forget that as a special for July, Golgotha is included in the Fromelles Anniversary Book Bundle from Odyssey Books – along with my novel The Stars in the Night, and Jim Ditchfield’s Nursing Fox. Something for everyone!
Drawing on her days as a divorce and professional indemnity lawyer, Caroline creates ordinary, relatable characters caught up in extraordinary situations, pressures, dilemmas or crime. She admits to a slight obsession with the human psyche, what goes on behind closed doors and beneath people’s façades. She also enjoys performing a literary sleight of hand in her novels and hopefully surprising her readers!
Caroline has also written Convictions and Confessions, a legal drama under the pen name Caro Land.
Let’s find out what inspires Caroline’s work
Caroline: My Secret Inspiration!
Everybody has a secret.
Yes you do! A study revealed that the average person keeps thirteen secrets, five of which he or she has never shared with anyone. Go on, count them. They can range from the little things that some people don’t feel are too bad, such as not mentioning too much change at the supermarket or exaggerating mileage at work. Or they might be major crimes such as a hit and run, robbery or even murder! Then there are affairs, betrayals and hidden relationships which can have devastating consequences, to easy small lies to cover looking for another job or concealing the early weeks of pregnancy. Or perhaps a person’s secret is simply unhappiness. Don’t we all do it at times? Put on our bright facade for the Facebook posts and Instagram photos to hide the the sorrow inside?
What about family secrets? Ones which only come out when Grandma has a few too many sherries on Christmas Eve: your great uncle was a bigamist; your parents married when you were two; your aunty was arrested for shoplifting a Rampant Rabbit.
Then there are the deadly secrets in my domestic suspense novels… Those which are so dark and deeply hidden that they’ve almost been forgotten. Almost…
My fourth psychological thriller, TRUTH GAMES, revolves around Ellie Wilson. Outwardly her life seems good – she has friends, her partner Cam and three boys. But when Sean Walsh, Cam’s old university friend, comes back into their lives, she becomes tormented by fragments of the past, and deep shame, which come back to haunt her. It’s time for Ellie to confront the layers of secrets and lies to reveal the devastating and destructive truth…
OK, I admit it; I’m a tad obsessed with secrets and lies and the human condition. Indeed, one reviewer described me as a ‘specialist in stories of secrets, lies and revelations.’ So I guess I am an amateur psychologist who drives my family bonkers with my interpretations of people’s behaviour, what they tell us and what they don’t. But isn’t it fascinating to find out what goes on behind closed doors – or indeed, inside the pages of a gripping crime suspense novel? Do secrets burrow into our psyche and poison us? Or are they sexy, powerful and make us strong?
I probably have thirteen secrets; maybe there are five I haven’t told anyone. Come on, spill the beans – what are yours?
Well, there’s a challenge for us all. Now here’s an intriguing extract from Caroline’s novel for you.
An extract from Truth Games
‘It has to be the truth, the honest truth. Everyone agree?’
‘But what is truth?’
‘It’s only a game, man. Besides, another slug and we’ll know.’
Six young adults in the high-ceilinged room, two cuddled on the sofa and four on the floor. A girl and two guys sit around a candlelit coffee table. Though late, it’s still balmy, the leaded windows ajar. They’re drinking Jack Daniel’s from shot glasses.
The girl snaps open the second bottle and pours. Her nails are bitten, her nose pierced, her short hair dyed black. Her attention is focused on the man stretched out on the floor.
Lifting his dark head, he glances at her. ‘Isn’t there anything other than that American shit?’ he asks, his accent distinct. He goes back to his spliff and takes a deep drag. ‘OK. Then we’ll use the correspondence theory of truth,’ he says. ‘A belief is true if there exists an appropriate entity – a fact – to which it corresponds. If there’s no such entity, the belief is false.’
The fair-haired boy laughs. ‘OK, genius, I’ll start.’ Blue-eyed and neat featured, he looks younger than his twenty-years. ‘A secret. A true secret . . . ’ He knocks back the whiskey. ‘I’m in love with somebody in this room.’
The girl whips up her head, her stark make-up barely hiding her shock.
‘Tell us something we don’t already know!’ This man is huge, his voice booms Home Counties. ‘Come on, old chap. What did you say? The honest truth. Something you haven’t told anyone before.’
‘Right; here’s one. My mum tried to snog me once,’ he says.
Everyone but the girl laughs.
‘No, it’s true, I’m not joking. Dad had buggered off, so she spent all the time drinking and crying—’
‘And snogging you?’
‘Yes, Your Honour.’ He guffaws. ‘The truth and the whole fucking truth, eh? Only the once, thank God, when she got close enough. I can’t do needy. Fucking disgusting.’
A silence of drunk embarrassment, then the eloquent voice again: ‘Are you two lovebirds playing?’
They turn to the couple on the sofa. The young woman is asleep. ‘We’re living our secret,’ her boyfriend says. ‘But one you don’t know . . . Let me think. My brother and me, we used to spit in the take-outs. Special treat for the racists we knew from school.’
‘Nah. Good try, but it won’t put me off your delicious—’
‘I saw my father beat up my mum.’ The man on the floor looks fixedly at the ceiling. ‘Badly. Watched the blood spurt from her nose. Did nothing to stop him.’
The Goth girl stares, but doesn’t speak.
The blond boy leans over. ‘Fuck,’ he says. ‘How old were you?’
‘Still a kid. But I blamed her. Probably still do.’ He sits up and throws back his shot. Then he squints through the smoke at the girl, still sitting cross-legged and silent. ‘What about you, nice middle-class miss? You’re not saying much. What’s your secret?’
Everyone is watching, all eyes are on her. ‘A secret truth?’ she asks, turning to him. ‘With an actual fact to which it corresponds?’
The man snorts. ‘Yeah. Come on, then; try me.’
She opens her inky lips—
What a place to finish! Thank you so much Caroline for sharing your inspirations, and especially for the enthralling extract!
Can you guess when and where we played the first women’s cricket game in Australia? Bendigo, 1874!
You may know that I have a history decades-long of loving cricket. I’m very excited about this book.
History, culture, sport, feminism…
Today’s guest, Louise Zedda-Sampson, is about to release a wonderful book called Bowl the Maidens Over: Our First Women Cricketers.
The book is an intriguing account of the first Australian women’s cricket matches. In 1874 at the Sandhurst Easter Fair (Bendigo, Victoria), two teams of women cricketers assembled to play a cricket match in front of a rather large and enthusiastic crowd. It was a charity match raising funds for the Bendigo Hospital and Benevolent Asylum.
Louise’s book follows the women players as well as the members of the Rae family. The Raes were pivotal in creating and running the matches. From the first ad in the paper to the media storm afterwords, this is an amazing story.
First, Louise shares her inspiration for the book.
LOUISE: I’m never short for inspiration and find it comes in the weirdest ways.
This one came about during my last year of the Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing at Melbourne Polytechnic when the course coordinator asked me if I would like to contribute to a volunteer project. The Youlden Parkville Cricket Club wanted to recreate the club’s history. The club president, Paul Sinclair, is a very passionate player and president and wanted this to be something special for his club. After compiling this information for the club, there were several stories that wouldn’t let me go. I’ve written one about Harry Boyle and David Scott who owned one of the sports emporiums ‘Boyle and Scott’ in the 1800s prior to the Depression. My new book book focuses on the first Australian games of women’s cricket. A topic that’s barely had more than a line or two in any other book on women’s sports to date!
You could say that the women wouldn’t leave me alone until I shared the story! So they were the inspiration and I just stumbled across them while digging through the history of early cricket.
It was a challenge to find the right piece to include as an extract as each section offers something different. Rather than explaining how it all began, I’m going to put you right there, at the very first game.
Second, a free extract from Bowl the Maidens Over!
The match begins. Read on…
At noon, as the fair opened for the second day, the cricketers arrived at the cricket ground in the same three carriages they had ridden in as part of the parade. Spectators numbered in the thousands. Mrs Rae led the Reds, and Barbara Rae the Blues, from the tent:two by two, arms linked – one pink one blue – backs straight, heads held high. They were greeted with loud applause. The women assembled on the ground in their teams: their ability for organisation further impressing the crowd.
A report by the Bendigo Advertiser on 8 April best covers the entire match and offers a clear sense of pride in the players.
THE LADIES’ CRICKET MATCH.
Bendigo Advertiser, 8 April 1874
It certainly required a very considerable amount of courage on the part of the ladies to undertake to play a cricket match in public. The thing was unprecedented as far as Australia was concerned, and such a remarkable event as a ladies’ cricket match has seldom happened, even in the old country—the home of cricket. The cause in which they were engaged however—that of “heavenborn charity”—over-came all scruples, and they came nobly forward to aid the destitute and the suffering.
Sandhurst has the honor of turning out the first twenty-two lady cricketers, and from the exhibition of their capabilities yesterday in this new field of love’s labor they have added an additional charm to the game of cricket, and shown that, as a healthy exercise, it is alike fitted for the gentler as for the sterner sex. The match was originated in aid of the funds of the hospital and asylum, and the large crowd of spectators who gathered yesterday to witness it evinced an amount of public interest in it far beyond what was expected.
For some weeks past the ladies had been practising the game on the Back Creek Cricket Ground, kindly placed at their disposal by the B.U.C.C., and the progress which they made was astonishing, for they picked up the points of the game with wonderful aptitude.
At first it was expected that they should play in the Bloomer costume, as being less likely to interfere with their freedom of movement than any other, but the innovation was considered too startling for a British community, and the idea was given up in favour of an attire of the ordinary shaped dress, made of calico, with a colored jacket to distinguish the respective sides. These dresses the ladies purpose handing over as gifts to the charities. The game was intended to be played on the Back Creek Cricket ground, but unforeseen circumstances prevented it taking place there, and it was played in the Camp Reserve.
At one o’clock the ladies, in full costume, arrived in three carriages. The wickets were pitched in one of the crosswalks by the umpires—Mr. J. Latham and Mr. John Glen who officiated in the absence of the Hon. A. Mackay. Everything being in readiness, the ladies—the one side wearing red Garibaldi jackets and sailors’ hats; and the other blue jackets and similar hats—marched in pairs—red and blue being linked together—from the tent into the field, headed by respective captains—Mrs. Rae for the Reds, and Miss B. Rae for the Blues.
Their appearance was very pretty and picturesque; and they were loudly applauded by the onlookers. It was suddenly discovered that though the ladies had brought bats and wickets, they had forgotten the ball, but this little difficulty was got over by one of the umpires producing one of Duke’s best. The respective captains having tossed for innings it was decided that the Reds should go to the bat and they secured a total of 62 runs before the last wicket fell.
The highest scorer was Miss Kate Petrie who obtained 27 runs. This young lady not only acquitted herself well with the bat, but she trundled the ball with effect. Miss Nellie Rae distinguished herself by smart fielding, effecting a capital catch by which a good bat, Miss Clay, was got rid of. Miss J. Murdoch proved herself a first rate bowler. After the lapse of half an hour the Reds took the field, and they put their opponents out for 83 runs. Miss B. Rae was top scorer, with 36 not out; while Miss Gerber scored 10; and besides did good execution with the ball, bowling underhand with precision, and lowering six wickets. Miss Clay caught out Miss Luthwhyte by a splendid left-hand catch, which evoked tremendous applause, and brought the innings to a close. One innings each only was played, and victory therefore rested with the Blues. Mr. Coffin acted as scorer. When the ladies had assembled in the booth Mr. Abbott, chairman of the hospital committee, thanked the ladies for the successful effort which they had made on behalf of the charities, and the gentlemen present sang “They are jolly good fellows.” Mrs. Rae, on behalf of the ladies, replied, stating that the ladies had thoroughly enjoyed the game, and had the utmost gratification in knowing that their efforts had been productive of a substantial addition to the funds of the charities.
Annexed is the score:—
Mrs. Rae (capt.), b Gerber. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Miss K.Petrie, run out . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .27
Miss N. Rae, b Gerber . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .6
Miss J. Murdoch, b Gerber . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Miss L. Williams, b Gerber . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Miss E. Carr, b B. Rae . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1
Philippa East is a fiction writer with HQ/HarperCollins and she also works as a clinical psychologist, which I guess can come in pretty handy for writing thrillers.
Philippa grew up in Scotland before moving to Oxford and then London to complete her clinical training. A few years ago, she left the NHS to set up her own part-time practice and dedicate more hours to writing. The result was her debut novel LITTLE WHITE LIES, which was long-listed for The Guardian’s Not-The-Booker Prize and shortlisted for the CWA “New Blood” Award 2020.
Philippa’s next book SAFE AND SOUND is another twisty and compelling tale. For a fun preview, check out the video trailer on Philippa’s Amazon Author page (best with sound on!).
Philippa now lives in the beautiful Lincolnshire countryside with her husband and cat. She loves reading (of course!) and long country walks, and she also performs in a local folk duo called The Miracle Cure. Alongside her writing, Philippa continues to work as a psychologist and therapist.
I’m excited to have Philippa as my guest today, as she tells us about what inspires her. Philippa also shares an extract from SAFE AND SOUND, which you’ll find below.
Phillippa: It’s a funny question, isn’t it? ‘Where do your ideas come from?’
For me, a book often comes alive when two (or even better, three) different ideas come together in my head. That’s generally how I know I might have enough material for a whole 90,000-word novel!
I write in the psychological suspense genre, and actually get a lot of my ideas – full disclosure! – from watching true-crime documentaries on TV. At heart, I’m fascinated by what people are capable of and why they do the things they do. This also overlaps with my day job as a clinical psychologist.
More specifically, individual plot ideas, character motivations or story twists can get sparked for me in various ways: reading other books in the genre can help get my brain in ‘thriller’ mode; I also often go for long walks around the Lincolnshire countryside to get the brain wheels turning, plus sometimes I just have to pin down a friend and brainstorm relentlessly with (at!) them until the pieces finally fall into place.
The inspiration for my latest book, SAFE AND SOUND, was actually the true-life story of Joyce Vincent, a woman in her thirties who died at home in North London in late 2003. Her body was only discovered in 2006. Around 2013, I found myself watching ‘Dreams of a Life’, the incredibly moving docu-drama produced by filmmaker Carol Morley about Joyce’s life and death. The film stayed with me for years, itching away at my brain, until I was compelled to write my own version of this heart-breaking story.
Thank you so much Philippa for sharing that with us, and especially for the (rather scary) extract. All the best for your work and your writing.
Extract from SAFE AND SOUND
Before I started in this job, I used to picture bailiffs bashing in people’s doors and dragging furniture out into the street.
Of course, it isn’t like that really. We’ve sent this tenant a letter to let her know we’re coming, all correct protocol with the London Housing Association that I work for. I have two bailiffs with me but, really, all we want to do today is to ensure that this tenant, Ms Jones, knows about her debts, and hopefully sort out a means for her to pay them. That’s why I’m here: as her Housing Manager. Hopefully, I can agree a payment plan with her, something to help her out of this mess.
The bailiff with the kind face takes a deep breath and knocks hard on the door. ‘Ms Jones? Ms Jones, we are here about your unpaid rent.’
I think I can make out voices coming from inside the flat, but as I lean closer I hear someone saying Capital FM!, and I realise it’s just the radio playing. If the radio is on though, I can be pretty sure she’s in there.
The bailiff knocks again, thump thump.
A song comes on a moment later: ‘Everywhere’ by Fleetwood Mac. We’ll keep knocking and hope that eventually she will come to the door, even if she doesn’t open it. She has a right not to open it to us, but I really hope we can speak to her today. That way I have a chance to help. We can let things go for a while – the longest I can remember was four months – but we can’t just let it go on forever. Ms Jones is already three months behind. We’ve sent half a dozen letters already, but she didn’t reply to any of them, so now it’s come to this. If we can’t arrange some kind of payment schedule today, the next step is an eviction notice and I would really hate for it to come to that.
‘Ms Jones?’ the bailiff calls again.
There are footsteps on the stairs above. I step back and look up to see who’s coming. A neighbour from upstairs, nobody that I recognise, a black woman, smartly dressed, probably on her way out to work. There are dozens of people living in this block but now I wonder how many of them speak to each other or even know their neighbours’ names. But she must pass this way at least, most days. ‘Excuse me,’ I call out to her. ‘Do you know the tenant in this flat? Is she usually home at this time?’
The woman comes down the last few stairs.
‘She’s got the radio on,’ I say. ‘We’re assuming she’s in.’
The woman pauses next to us and shrugs. ‘Her radio is always on,’ she says. ‘I hear it every time I go by.’
She loiters for another moment between the staircase and the doors to the outside, sizing us up. But she is busy, she has her own life to be getting on with, and no doubt she’s learnt that it’s best in a big city like this not to get involved. ‘Sorry,’ she offers as she hitches her handbag more securely onto her shoulder and makes her way through the heavy door to the lobby.
We turn back to the flat and the other bailiff knocks this time, his fist bigger, his knock that bit louder. I look down at the file of papers I am still holding against my chest. I’ve been in this flat before; I checked the last tenant out. I can still picture it: the tiny apartment is only a bedsit really, tucked away on the ground floor, hidden under the stairs so you could quite easily miss it. The living room and bedroom are one and the same, the sofa tucked behind the front door doubling as a bed, and there is a kitchen, but only an archway divides the two, so you could hardly even call them separate rooms. There’s a tiny toilet, with a shower attachment that hangs, a little bit crooked, above a plastic bath. And that’s it.
The last tenant, I remember, only stayed a few months. They complained about the commercial waste bins that always somehow ended up against the rear wall of this block, even though they belonged to the restaurant twenty yards away. Then the flat was empty for a good while, until this tenant moved in a year ago. Into this flat, now allocated to me.
The song has flipped over and it’s another tune that’s playing now. I recognise this one too: ‘Beautiful Day’ by U2. Out of nowhere I get a sort of roiling feeling in my stomach and a prickling up the base of my spine. I hand my file of papers to the bailiff with the plain, kind face and walk right up to the door. I bend my knees so that my eyes are level with the letterbox and lift up the flap. With my cheek against the flaky wood of the door I look through the slat of a gap that has opened up.
I see all the post, a slithering pile of it silting up the floor on the other side of the door. No doubt the letters we sent are among it. The strangest smell reaches me in thin wisps from inside, and suddenly I find myself thinking back to last year and the annual inspection I was supposed to carry out. I let the flap of the letterbox fall and straighten back up. My chest has gone tight. I can’t seem to speak.
Now both bailiffs are looking at me, but I can’t find a way to tell them what’s wrong. The older one leans down, copying what I have just done and sees for himself what’s through that narrow space.
He puts a palm on the door, as though to steady himself.
He manages to say something and he says: ‘Holy shit.
Oh my goodness! What a great beginning. Thank you Philippa for sharing.
Malve’s forthcoming book, The Amber Crane (to be published by the fabulous Odyssey Books this year), is set in Germany in 1645 and 1945. Currently, she is working on a biographical work about a woman coming of age in Nazi Germany.
Today she is sharing an extract from her novel Alina, and explaining how history inspired the story.
Malve’s Inspiration: the trobairitz
Malve: When writing my historical fiction novel, I wanted to incorporate and give voice to the trobairitz, the women singer-songwriters of the 12th century. My protagonist Alina is a young woman who aspires to become a trobairitz.
Who were the trobairitz?
Trobairitz are female troubadors. In the early 12th century, the troubadour school or tradition originated in a region of southern France as well as parts of Italy and Spain known as Occitania. The art of the troubadours declined and eventually died out by the middle of the 13th century. Trobairitz came from that same tradition.
Why did most of the known trobairitz emerge from the Provence and other areas in southern France?
The social-economic factors defining the lives of ordinary women in that part of the world reduced their choices. Other than marriage and childbearing, few alternative paths were available to women in the 12th century. Women from the upper classes had the same restrictions, unless they chose the church. In rare instances, women made names for themselves as writers or healers, or managed to carve out positions of political power at various courts.
In southern France, compared to other regions in Europe, women had more control over land ownership. That meant women had access to sources of power. This was perhaps reinforced by the fact that during the Crusades, many men were away, leaving their wives to administer their estates.
The trobairitz moved far beyond the traditions of the troubadours. Like the troubadours, they often sang about courtly love. However, trobairitz had a much sharper, more grounded, and even mocking tone. Their lyrics were often more sincere, direct, and passionate than that of troubadours. They wrote about political and social inequality and questioned the prevailing mores of the times that silenced women and relegated them to the realms of motherhood.
For the first time in European history, women could claim authorship of their lyrics and compositions. All known female composers who preceded them wrote sacred music, with their works published under the names of men for their music to have any chance of being distributed and played.
Sand had gotten into everything I owned. I gave up trying to shake it out and resigned myself to being covered with a layer of dust until we arrived in Jerusalem. My hair was even more disheveled than usual, and I could taste the salty sweat on my cracked lips. My eyes burned from the hot glare of the day. I was tired.
And I was happy.
It was as if I was drunk on the colors of the desert, the silence, the vastness, and the impersonal harshness, drunk on traveling and on being far away from home. With one ear I tried to catch the sounds of the men talking. Occasionally I could make out Count Stephen’s voice.
“Let’s play some music.”
Startled out of my reverie, I glanced around. Milos had walked over and crouched on the sand next to me. He helped himself to a date. “How about it?”
I hesitated. During the journey from France, it had seemed a natural thing to do in the evenings, but now with Count Raymond, Count Stephen, and other older knights, I felt uncomfortable. I hardly needed to draw more attention to myself.
“Come on, Alina. This might be the last chance we’ll have for a while.”
Reluctantly I took my lute out of its wrappings. “What would you like to sing?”
“How about Can vei la lauzeta?” Milos asked.
For a moment I yearned for home. Right now the hills would be covered with wild thyme.
I began to play a few chords, and then Milos began to sing, softly at first. Heads turned, and a few of the knights wandered over to listen to us.
Behold the lark
In the sun’s rays and
Swooping into the depths, borne down by the delight in its heart.
It makes me yearn to be one with all who have tasted happiness.
After the first few lines, I forgot my discomfort. Milos and I had done together this so often that we didn’t even need to look at each other for cues about when to increase or lower the volume or when to slow down or to pause. For Milos, it was just one of many facets of his being. He liked to perform, but he had never hounded our father to teach him new songs.
For me, it was so much more—not just a joy, but something vital in a way I couldn’t explain. Maybe in part it was because I could control it when I couldn’t control anything else. Perhaps it had been like that for our father as well. Of course he was a man, and nobody could force him into a marriage or tell him how to act. So maybe it wasn’t the same. Anyway, for me it was more than that.
When Milos finished, the last drawn-out note echoing through the still evening air, I made a sign to him and whispered, “Now it’s my turn. I’ll sing Ar em al freg temps vengut.”
Milos shook his head. “But that’s about winter, and it’s too long,” he whispered.
“We’ll do just a few verses,” I said stubbornly. All afternoon I had watched the shifting light transform the desert into a glowing purple void, the silvery green leaves of the scrubby desert brush the only signposts reminding us of the ground beneath our feet. I had kept thinking of the right music to convey all this splendor. Finally, I remembered the song my father taught me by the trobairitz Azalais de Porcairagues. Gently I strummed the strings and began.
Winter is upon us, and time stands still,
Trapped in ice and snow and mud.
All birds have fallen silent
(for none wants to raise her voice in song).
Milos picked up his flute and followed my voice. The melody was sparse and severe, a song of immeasurable sorrow, glorying in desolation. It was as if one could hear the high-pitched whistling and groaning sounds from a frozen lake, echoing across the ice.
Now, with the heat of the day drifting away into the darkness, the flute’s plaintive notes evoked the wind sweeping over the sands. I kept my eyes on Milos as I sang. A hint of sadness in his eyes reminded me of our father and his lost, hungry expression at the end.
When we drew to a close, Milos lowered his flute, but I didn’t want to stop yet.
I concluded with one of my father’s pieces. Eerily, he had composed it a year before my mother died. It was about a dreamer who walks through a misty valley, blind to the flowers at his feet, in search of his love. He walks and weeps and does not hear the birds all around him. Faster and faster he rushes through the woods. His steps lead him to the brink of a ravine. He never falters as he steps into the void. I didn’t sing the lyrics, instead just picked out the chords of the simple melody.
A last dark note and I placed my fingers on the strings to still them. When I raised my head, I looked directly into the face of Count Stephen. He had moved quietly to join the others listening to us. The fire lit up his features—plain, with a jutting nose and a wide mouth slightly off-center, a broad forehead, and grey eyes under thick brows. Courteously he inclined his head toward me and smiled. It transformed his face.
I realized that I was staring at him, and felt myself go red, hoping he could not see this in the dark.
“Thank you, Mistress Alina. I hope we will hear you perform again.” Then he turned and walked away.
The next day we arrived in Jerusalem.
Goodness! Now I want to read on. I hope you do too. Here are some useful links to help you do that. Many thanks to Malve for sharing this with us. Until next week!
The Last Circus on Earth leapt out of my reading pile last year and filled me with that rarest commodity of 2020: delight. You can see my review here.
Today author Ben Marshall is treating us to his take on inspiration, and a Fabulous Extract from the novel.
I know you’re going to enjoy this!
Welcome to the blog, Ben. Can you tell us what most inspires you?:
Ben: Connections inspire me. Between people, nature and ideas.
Science, art and gardening are three great ways to connect.
I guess pubs are actually places of connection, so I see a theme.
Now for our special treat: an extract from The Last Circus on Earth. The story is told by Blanco, a surprisingly likeable killer … Yes, I know! But I truly do love him 🙂
In Blanco’s Words:
Strombo smiled at the Gaffer; a nasty smile what promised nothing but bad stuff for Sparrow. ‘I’ll give her a test run, eh?’
Which is when I lost it.
Later on, Madam Tracey explained to me I got what the head doctors call ‘impulse control problems’. But when she said it, there was a hint of a smile in her voice, like she approved but couldn’t let herself show it. Don’t get me wrong, I know what I done was stupid, but that’s what comes of no sleep, no food, murdering people, dealing with psychopaths, and having the girl you like kiss you.
Strombo didn’t know what hit him. Me—with a punch that had my heart and soul in it. For a big bloke he stayed upright what seemed like a long time. But his eyes were glazed over and all of us could see he wasn’t with us no more. Like a big tree chopped at the base, he slowly toppled, and everyone jumped out of the way because Strombo’s big enough to kill you even when he’s unconscious. Time sped up again as the Gaffer turned, knuckle-duster in place, and threw a feint with his right before launching the metal with his left. Normally, I’d let him graze me, then roll myself up for the beating. But this time I was angry in a way I never been before, and I let my reflexes do their thing. I sidestepped, drove a fist into his solar plexus, brought me shoulder up into his chin and finished him off with a Glasgow kiss.
Madam Tracey’s jaw dropped, the Professoré’s eyebrows went up and stayed up, and Mala and Milosh looked impressed—and like they were ready to finish me off if it came to it.
As the Gaffer hit the deck, I dropped my fists, opened up my stance and looked into Milosh’s eyes. ‘If anyone ever looked the wrong way at Mala, would you do any different?’
In the split second it would’ve taken him to bury a blade in me, he didn’t. Milosh don’t hesitate when there’s trouble—he’s in there and it’s all over. This time he just shook his head. ‘You just make bad trouble.’
I shrugged and walked away. ‘Trouble’s me middle bleedin’ name.’
I finished my prep and sat with the rest of the freaks, waiting for the axe to fall. We all agreed I’d basically given myself two choices—do a runner, or stay and be killed. If I stayed, the Gaffer would put me in the circle with Strombo for a straight-up bare-knuckle fight. Then it’d be on until someone—me—got beaten into a coma.
There’s a code, see. You do a colleague an injury like what I did to Strombo and the Gaffer, and there’s consequences. It’s like an old-fashioned duel except you’re tied together, and instead of a neat bullet hole I’d have Strombo’s ham-like fists tenderising my skinny body into sausage meat.
I cuddled Daisy, letting her lick the cold sweat off my face, and considered my fate. Baba Yaga brought me a concoction she said would clear my mind, which it didn’t, but Moineau—Sparrow—come in all done up for her Nightingale act looking right serious.
‘Madam Tracey tells me what you just done.’
I shrugged, brain jammed with misery and fear—not for me but her. ‘You need to run, Sparrow. Tonight. Now.’
‘Madam Tracey said otherwise.’
‘You’re not safe here.’
‘Nor you, you big pillock. Always looking after other geezers, you are. Which proves you is a diamond geezer and worth likin’. A lot.’
I kept looking away, stroking Daisy, who was cheerfully chewing my thumb. I couldn’t answer Sparrow because she made my head spin.
She kneeled and looked up into my dial. ‘You been protecting me. Now it’s time I helped you.’
‘You can’t, Sparrow. I’m done for. If not this time, the next.’
‘Listen—I been stuck inside this head of mine watching and listening. And what I don’t know about the people in this circus in’t worth knowing. I also know you in’t just strong in here.’ She thumped my chest. ‘You is smart up here.’ She tapped the side of my head. ‘And people likes you—even if you is a misery sometimes—because you care. It’s inside of you to look after other people. You can’t help it. So maybe it’s time to see Splinter again—get him to sort things for you, so we can start working on a new Steering Committee.’
I looked up, startled, and the freaks, all listening intently, looked to each other. They were shocked by what she said, but not so shocked they were shutting her down. Baba, Erik and Methuselah nodded first, then Elasto, Lobby and Dislocato followed suit.
‘You’re all madder than me,’ I said. ‘You’d be cutting your own throats going against them lot.’
Methuselah cleared his throat. ‘Splinter is mortal and will, or so you tell us, die sooner rather than later. The Gaffer will then become a power greater than he already is, but without Splinter to check his excesses.’
Baba Yaga nodded. ‘The Gaffer rules by fear. I don’t like.’
‘He’s already in the top job, if you ask me,’ I argued. ‘He does Splinter’s evil will, so he might be a better Gaffer when Splinter’s dead.’
Sparrow snorted. ‘Either way, you won’t be around to see it if you don’t sort this beef you got with him and Strombo. You need to talk to Mister Splinter.’
I shook my head. ‘Nothing short of a gun in me back could make me go in there and face him again.’
A minute later, there I am, standing on the steps of Splinter’s caravan, Sparrow prodding me in the back. ‘Go on, Blanco. What’s the worst thing what can happen?’
Isn’t that marvellous? Whatever is happening, the wry, sassy voice of Blanco makes me smile.
Thank you so much Ben for sharing.
Now here are some links that you’ll love to follow up
Clare Urbanski is a fantasy author and Twitter-certified villain fangirl. She’s managed to confuse and alienate many a friend who can’t understand why she always falls for the brooding villains instead of the courageous heroes, or why she always wants to play villains even though no director ever casts her as one. On top of that, she can’t find any fictional villains who will date her. As such, she’s had to settle for creating fictional villains of her own, ignoring the temptation to give them all happy endings.
Hello, it’s so nice to meet another Clare! We should form a club…No, onto more important things. What was your favourite book as a child?
Clare: The Truth Cookie by Fiona Dunbar. I still love that book. A little bit of magic and a whole lot of emotional family struggles—which the main character does use magic to solve, but very much through her own initiative.
It’s really well-written, I agree, and a great premise. What about creative writing courses – do you think they are valuable?
Totally depends on the instructor and what you need. If it’s all about craft and doesn’t involve practical feedback at all, that can be helpful to extreme beginners. Instructors who impose their own preferences on you and give you bad grades for not being Ernest Hemingway shouldn’t be allowed to teach creative writing, but they can help you develop a thick skin if nothing else. The kind of course I recommend is the kind that’s basically a workshop guided by the instructor’s expertise. I’d argue those are useful for everyone.
Workshopping is a wonderful resource for any writer, I think. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
Someone once told me Sixth in Line was like “Crime and Punishment times seven.” (Dostoyevski’s) Crime and Punishment happens to be one of my favourite books, and I definitely wasn’t purposely trying to imitate it, but I was absolutely delighted by both the compliment and the realisation that Sixth in Line actually does take a bit of a jab at the übermensch philosophy. I guess Dostoyevsky and I both hate it. No one is special enough to be above consequences!
I’m all in favour of undermining the übermensch! What’s your favourite writing food and drink?
I actually have this nasty habit of not eating or drinking at all when I get on a good writing streak. I remember texting my writer friend once saying “HELP I’VE BEEN WRITING FOR THREE HOURS STRAIGHT AND I JUST WROTE A REALLY DISTURBING SCENE AND IT’S ALMOST 9 PM AND I HAVEN’T EATEN SINCE NOON PLEASE TELL ME I’M NOT INSANE.” Not sure how she puts up with me.
Ah, you do like olive dangerously! Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
I was in fifth grade. I used to be super into those Bailey School Kids books, and I remember being very disappointed to discover that not every type of fantastical creature I liked was featured in the series. Then, suddenly, one day I thought, “What if I wrote a book about the ones they missed?” And as soon as I realized nothing was stopping me, that’s exactly what I did. (I still have that one. My mom printed out all 150 pages for me and everything. Not a bad achievement for an eleven-year-old… which is the only thing that’s kept me from burning it. It is exceptionally, prodigiously terrible.)
Ha! Lucky for me, my early efforts are long-lost. Is there anyone in your past who’d be surprised at your writing?
Anyone who knew me as a child: Oh, are you still writing?
Anyone: [Remembering cute story about plucky middle school detective girls and the evil fairies’ labyrinth of doom] So what have you been working on?
Me: Well, I just finished a novel narrated by a serial killer…
Me: And I’m editing one about a teenage prince having a mental breakdown over all the deaths in his family…
Anyone: [Runs away]
That’s hilarious! Where do you write?
Actually, for me it helps to move around. For some reason I focus better if I don’t write in the same place twice. I’ve gotten a surprising amount of writing done in very non-romantic places, like while riding the city bus or trapped in the lobby of a Russian hotel (long story).
Ooh, perhaps another book about the Russian hotel…Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?
The most random places you could imagine. I did some excellent character development once by walking into a Walgreen’s to get out of the cold while I was waiting for the bus. The only money I had on me was a dollar in quarters, and since I was bored waiting I decided to search the store for anything I could buy with that. Unfortunately I was extremely hungry, and it was torture looking at all the candy when I could only afford an eraser. My mind immediately jumped to one of my main characters from a work in progress, an ex-criminal. I pictured him walking through his local market as a twelve-year-old, doing the same thing I was, but knowing full well he and his mom would go hungry that night if he couldn’t find anything cheap enough. Suddenly I understood exactly how his thieving habit started.
That’s very clever, and a kind of method-acting way of getting inside your character. I like it. If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?
It might be funnier to tell you who I wouldn’t suggest. I think the absolute worst candidates would probably be 1. the Jack of Spades, the villain’s sidekick from Queen of Spades, and 2. Crystal, the main character’s twin sister from Hero of the Hinterland. They’re both an incredibly dangerous combination of powerful (in combat and magic, respectively) and spectacularly socially inept. You don’t want to be the one to accidentally make them feel threatened.
I will keep that in mind! Eek. *looks over shoulder in case a magic villain has materialised* Who helped you most when you were starting out?
My parents had this one friend who used to read my works in progress when I was in high school. Every time he came over I would print out a chapter or two for him, and he read every single one of them. Considering how terrible I think those high school projects are now, I actually get a little teary thinking about how kindly and generously he encouraged and supported me by being my first “fan.”
That’s a lovely memory. Early constructive support is very important, I think, more so than early criticism or corrections. Thanks for speaking with me Clare – and adding yet more to my long ‘want to read’ list.
Real people living though unprecedented times – sound familiar? This is what author Louise Fein brings to life in her novel People Like Us (see my review of this wonderful book here). Inspired by her family’s real life travels and tribulations, Louise looked at the historic events of Nazi Germany from both sides, creating wonderful characters who will resonate with readers. How can such things happen to ‘people like us’?
Welcome, Louise, lovely to speak with again. I see mention of your novel everywhere such as in the latest issue of the Historical Novel Society journal. I’m so glad to see it getting the attention it richly deserves. You came to writing later, after studying your masters – what advice would you give an aspiring writer?
LOUISE: My advice is: persist, persist, persist. Writing is a long game, so don’t be in too much of a hurry. Read as widely as possible, it’s the best and most vital way to becoming a writer. Set yourself easily achievable targets. Ones which don’t seem too daunting. You most likely have a job or busy life around which you must write, so at the end of a long day, you probably won’t want the prospect of writing 2,000 words. But, if you set a target of just 500 words a day, four days a week, you will easily have a first draft within a year. A comfortable target means you are less likely to bail or procrastinate. Then, once you have a first draft, even if it’s terrible (and most, certainly mine, are) you will have something to rewrite, edit and polish. Only when it is as good as you can get it, should you consider sending it out.
Yes, I agree, and I’d probably add that you need to put it aside for a little before sending. How much research is involved in your writing?
A lot! I am currently writing historical fiction, so it’s a huge part of the process. For People Like Us, I travelled to Leipzig twice to conduct in depth research there; I read everything I could get my hands on about Leipzig in the 1930s, as well as fiction and non-fiction set in that time period. I listened to people’s recollections, read contemporaneous diaries, letters, official documents and even Mein Kampf, to really understand the mindset of the Nazis. My current novel is set in 1920s England and I’m having to do just as much research for that, although a totally different subject matter. Luckily I love the research part of the job.
Can’t wait to see the new one! I guess that’s part of your writing goal for the next twelve months?
I am in the editing cycle for my second novel. I am excited for this book, but can’t say too much about it at present. I am also thinking ahead to my third book, and doing some early research for that. I have a setting for it, a premise and rough outline of a story, which is how I usually start. The early research is quite general but helps me to hone the story. I will then write a pretty rough first draft which will be a chance for me to explore my characters and story lines. Most of it will end up being ditched, but it’s part of the process. When I write the second draft, I will do more specific and detailed research as required. I will finesse and add depth and detail to the storyline. I will do at least three drafts, probably, before I feel ready to submit to my agent and editor. There will be further edits after that following their input.
And that process is why your writing is so good! Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
Before I started my master’s degree, I didn’t know any other writers. Through the course, I soon had a core group of writing friends and we continued to meet up long after the course had finished to critique each other’s work and to support each other in our journey to publication. Since getting my publishing deal, I have met a great many other writers, both virtually and in reality. They are, in my experience, THE most supportive, generous and lovely group of people who cheerlead each other. Writing is a lonely job and chatting to others who understand the writing life is crucial for me!
I find the #writingcommunity wonderful! Do you belong to a book club?
I belong to three! Reading is my passion and I also love chatting to likeminded people about books.
Three book clubs! That’s very keen. Where do you write?
I am very lucky in that I live in a 400-year-old converted watermill. In the garden we have an Elizabethan barn (dating back 500 years), beneath which runs a small stream, and which used to house a horse and some farm equipment. It has been converted into a library-style writing office, where I have my desk, a rug, couple of sofas and shelves full of books. I share the barn with some tiny birds who nest in the rafters and the odd bat! It is wonderfully peaceful and the perfect place for creativity, although, despite being heated, it is a little cold in the winter! My dog always accompanies me, curling up and sleeping in her basket at my feet while I type. Walking with her helps me solve many a plot hitch.
Writers and their dogs – a heavenly match. If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?
I think I would have to choose Erna. She is the best friend of my main character, Hetty. Erna is incredibly brave, selfless and a brilliant friend. We get to know Hetty in the book very well, having access to her inner thoughts and feelings. It would be great to know more about the lovely Erna.
I loved Erna, she’s great character. Do you send out a newsletter to readers?
I do. I send a quarterly newsletter to my readers who sign up to my website: www.louisefein.com You will receive a free WWII themed short story if you sign up and I promise, I won’t spam you!
That sounds like a wonderful deal! All the best, Louise, and let us know when Book #2 is here!
Unusually and rather shockingly for women of the time, they opened a Wall Street stock brokerage and published a newspaper. In 1870, Victoria made history when she became the first woman to run for President of the United States.
Welcome, Carrie, and thanks for speaking with me. Can you tell us why writing is important to you?
Carrie: Writing is important to me because words and language are the most basic and spontaneous way for us (ie people) to convey our thoughts, feelings, dreams and everything else that goes along with being a human being. I love, love, love all forms of art- music, dance, theatre, and the visual arts, but writing is something almost everyone can do- at least to one degree or another. So that pushes its significance to the top of the list.
What’s your take on creative writing courses?
I think creative writing courses are incredibly valuable. They help tease out whatever natural flair you might have as a writer, at the same time as (hopefully) drilling in a little bit of discipline when approaching one’s work.
What would you like to tell aspiring authors?
My words of advice to any aspiring author would be to read as much as you can, particularly those writers you admire and would like to emulate. The books that you read are like free lessons and can only help you grow as a writer.
Can you give us some insight into your writing routine?
My go-to routine for writing involves as much procrastination as possible! But sitting at my desk is very heaven. It’s in a smallish room at the top of the landing at the house where I live. There’s a wall of books on one side and a small bed across from that where my dog snoozes while I work. The desk was a gift from a friend and had been her mother’s. It’s an elegant burled oak lady’s desk with a patina full of good vibes. It’s centered on the window and looks out onto the street. I can peer around my computer screen and watch the comings and goings outside. I don’t allow myself to quit for the day until some writing happens….Writer’s block is not really a thing for me, because a very brilliant writing teacher I had said, “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, you just have to work through it. Just get to work!” She also pointed out that 300 words a day come out to a novel a year, so there isn’t any excuse. My favorite writing food and drink is preferably something that isn’t sticky. I’m a pretty messy person, but a gooey keyboard is the worst. I tend toward salty savoury things whilst working, but then again it’s a rare sweet that I’d turn away from too..
Procrastination staved off by snacks sounds like a good plan! What kind of responses to your writing have you had?
“I didn’t want it to end….” was the best response I’ve had to my novel. However, reviews are tricky. Because whoever is reviewing the book might really, sincerely not have enjoyed it at all! And that puts the reviewer in an awkward position, I think… so one shouldn’t take these things too much to heart, but getting a negative review never feels good. Alas, it’s part of the deal of putting one’s work out there! An agent who wrote me a really nice rejection letter said my novel made him think of Annie Proulx‘s writing…. But I haven’t read much of her work, and the agent also rejected me, so I don’t know what to think about that. I guess I realised that I am a writer when it just became the default setting of how I spend my quality alone time. I wrote something in medium about that: this is a friend link so anyone can click on it and see it in medium. https://medium.com/@carriehayz/for-dad-in-time-for-fathers-day-2f3368f78455?source=friends_link&sk=f730af86b5cafa8217227457ce1f1425.
It ‘s about my dad, who was involved in the New Journalism movement of the 1960’s. He would constantly say that I would be a writer. Of course, if one’s parent says something, it almost becomes a challenge not to do the opposite thing…. It wasn’t until he’d been dead 30 years that the writing thing really took hold and I just stopped fighting it.
That’s very interesting, if a little sad, but your dad was right. If writing is your go-to quality activity, then it’s definitely your way of life. Do you like reading too?
My favorite genre is historical fiction, which not coincidentally, is my genre. I love doing the research. It’s everything to me. In fact, I wish I were better at it. And to be honest, my favorite reader would be someone who just likes to read what I like to read! Something challenging but not too difficult! Something with lots of nuanced, even feminine perspective that doesn’t necessarily end the way that I want but something that leaves me feeling a little bit breathless and amazed by the narrative journey I’ve taken whilst reading the story, you know?
Your writing style is quite different to a lot of historical fiction. How have readers responded?
So far, my book has yet to gain much traction. It may be because it isn’t very straightforward. Also, some readers have really disliked the way I used news clippings and letters from the period to frame the action. Then there are those who find the jump cut style of the narrative rather jarring. I am a huge Baz Luhrmann fan, and the way he incorporates the jump cut in Romeo and Juliet left a very powerful impression upon me in terms of storytelling and structure, even now, years later. So, the way I wrote the book was an attempt to emulate that sort of perspective. I think that were I to write it again, I would stick with my guns, too. I just like a jarring, staccato style narrative. I do. So, if I could write a note to a reader, I think it would say,
THANK YOU for reading this! If you don’t know who Victoria and Tennessee were, now you will. They were real women who did incredible things, but were largely lost to history.
I wrote this book with the hope of inspiring you, if only just a teeny tiny bit to take chances and to do incredible things.
Also, Reader, please rest assured that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if your efforts go unheralded,
incredible things are still worth doing. What matters is that you did them.
With every best wish, Carrie
Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Carrie. Your Naked Truth book is on my TBR list for this year, and I’m very much looking forward to it.