Miss Chatham

drawing of old lady

They walk together in the park
at three fifteen each day.
Miss Chatham and Euphorbia
quietly make their way.
One loved in life, one never held,
both showing time’s decay

Some note quietly, as they pass,
this singular mismatched pair.
The lady clothed in Sunday best
and her friend’s wild wispy hair.
Both alone, but twinned for life,
Miss Chatham and her teddy bear.

How do you write a novel?

how do you write a novel

I had heard from many different sources that there is a tendency to put a version of yourself front and centre of your first novel. I wanted to avoid this trap so decided to write from the perspective of a young woman. Writing is a form of escapism and jumping both gender and age was an interesting challenge.

The original concept
I started with the premise of a girl thinking she might be responsible for someone’s death. In law she might be guilty of manslaughter if not murder. Of course she isn’t, but doesn’t know the full details of that fateful night.

So she had to have some terrible grudge against him to make her feel guilty of wanting him dead, or at the very least punished. She would have to move away from the scene of the crime, create a new life and then return later to discover the truth. 

I planned for her to fall pregnant, but not want to reveal the father because it could have been one of two people. One being her boyfriend, the other his father who raped her when she was drunk after a party.

I also wanted to write from the point of view of a woman aged eighteen and her return, at the age of thirty-six, to the village where she grew up. 

And I wrote all this before the #metoo hashtag came into prominence.

White Lies and Black Sheep probably falls into the genre of ‘commercial women’s fiction’, not chic lit as it covers too many serious topics in an otherwise light novel. I still like the story structure and the characters, but it would be odd if I didn’t think my writing hadn’t evolved since my first novel.

Learning to be normal

people sitting differently

Everyone human being is made slightly different. Given that there are now over seven billion of us that’s pretty remarkable. It’s also not surprising that some of us malfunction in minor ways. Knowing what someone else is feeling can be a major problem.

When I was a child
I thought everyone else had a sixth sense that I was lacking. As an adult, and after several different and sometimes interesting psychiatric diagnoses, I have come to realise that we’re all different in some way (not just me) and that applying labels doesn’t change anything.

As a child I didn’t understand how social interactions worked. I watched, trying to see how people communicated beyond the words they uttered. Small changes of expression, subtle body movements and hand gestures, variations in tone of voice and small pauses – they all augmented what they said or even replaced speech altogether. I didn’t have an innate ability to pick up on all of this so I studied cartoons, where an artist uses a set of facial rules for expression.

The people watching syndrome
This problem with ‘reading’ people also turned me into an extreme people watcher. By the time I was at university I was also supplementing my course work with reading about non verbal communication and body language. And I devoured several accessible books on psychology and psychiatry – plus attempting a few that were beyond my understanding.

So this is me
I am a hotchpotch, created by observing other people and trying to imitate their tics, blinks and sideways looks. I’m quite good at it now.

What I never realised was that all that observation would turn out to be useful when creating characters in stories. I had unknowingly been building a reference library in my head of characterisations.

What about wearing a label?
Maybe all writers should wear a warning sign, ‘Everything you say or do may be used in a novel’.

My particular label?
According to a recent diagnosis (about 5 years ago and very detailed over several meeting) I am ‘sub clinically autistic. Even my GP doesn’t quite know what that means so who cares.

Have you had a label attached to you that either makes you laugh or explains some of your quirky habits?

For Adoption

pregnant woman illustration

She holds a distant memory
of when a heartbeat matched her own.
A summer secret locked inside,
a child barely known.

A small, now faded picture holds,
a truth in grey and white.
A daughter held for one short day,
one silent tear-torn night.

To give a life, to hold a life
to bear but never see,
the future that the world might hold,
for the child she set free.

Two lives diverged, two stories cleft,
one lost one led away.
But the incense of a child’s warm hair,
still holds her to that day.

A Prediction from 1937

This is an essay my father wrote in 1937 about the what he expected the world to be like in the year 2000. This was an exercise set by the Pelman Institute, London to help improve ones scientific mental training. I’ve included a transcript for easier reading.

Essay predicting the future from 1937

The World in AD 2000 – David James Aiken

Sixty three years hence? think of sixty three years back! would the average man of eighteen seventy four imagined out present world, with its fast traffic, its aeroplanes, the radio – and all that forms the fabric of our modern existence, but what of the future, will the world improve as much again?

The trend of modern life and its inventions is to give more leisure time to the average man, by speading up of work and an eventual shortening of working hours. This leisure time used wisely promises benefits to be reaped in the future, and as man becomes more familiar with the secrets and forces of nature, so will further secrets and forces become revealed to him.

With the advent of the telephone and television into every home, domestic private life will to a great extent disappear, distances will be reduced and it will be commonplace to speak with relations in far off countries and probably to see them on a television screen. Travel to distant parts of the globe will be speeded up by flying hotels travelling at speeds which today are records. Our ocean going liners will be used for heavy freight and as a cheap form of travel as well as pleasure cruising.

A world tour will be a matter of a week or two instead of months.

With this increased facility for travel and increased leisure, education will have progressed, and the risk of friction between nations minimised byt the interchange of ideas and visits. It will not be so easy to mislead people about their neighbours as it was in the past.

Our men of science will also be progressing, and we shall find bloodless surgery holding a very high position in medical treatment. The people may even pay doctors a weekly fee to keep them advised as to their health and not pay when they are ill.

Interplanetary communication may be a possibility, and new realms for explorers to search. News will be in the papers almost as soon as it is an accomplished fact.

In general, life in 2,000 AD will be faster and consequently leisure will be of utmost importance, and the correct use of this leisure. If wisely used it will be a happy world.

How this essay came to light

I never saw this essay until after my father died in 1983 and I was going through his papers. This was a peculiar affair as not only had I lost my father, but he had been a very secretive, reclusive man. He worked for the government, ostensibly in the civil service, but his work was covered by the official secrets act. I never knew what he did and neither did my mother or sister.

As children my sister and I were sometimes entertained by curious pieces of equipment he would bring home, usually only for one evening. Miniature tape recorders, tiny cameras and on one occasion a bottle of mercury (times were very different in the early 1950s.

This essay was written before the second world war and I imagine he would have been disappointed by that part of his predictions being so far off the mark. In most of the essay he got he pretty close to what has happened.

You left

sad man sitting on floor

You left cold sheets one side of our bed
A book laying open, partly read
Silences, where once we talked
Grass now growing, where once we walked

You left a picture of when life was bright
The shape of your body when I held you tight
Your touch, your laughter, your every way
The colour you cast on the greyest day

You left rooms that echo of the life we knew
Nights much darker when I think of you
Words you whispered in our bed
And tears on the pillow beneath my head

You left

Plots and storyboards

plot a novel on cards

My first novel was planned meticulously
I had no idea how ‘real’ authors developed their plots. Previously I had tried to write a novel with very little planning and my plot got confused – even the characters in my novel got confused. So I set about working out everything beforehand. This is probably an aspect of having a autistic personality.

Here is my nerdy, old-fashioned, personalised method of plotting.
You will need…
Hundreds of small bits of cardboard
Two coloured felt-tip markers
(blue edge on a card for a chapter head and date, red for a chapter summary)
A pen of your choice that doesn’t smudge easily
A roll of clear sellotape
A cup of tea (coffee is an acceptable alternative)
Patience

The advantages of this method (which I still use in a modified form)
You only need to know three or four things in your plot, scribble them on bits of card and put them on your table.

You don’t have to imagine a whole plot in one go. Once you’ve started you can move them around, add ideas, even push some to the side. Before you know it the story will grow in front of you. Sellotape them together before the wind blows them all over the floor (it happened to me once).

Don’t let it rule you
In my work process this is produced as a guide only. Once I start writing everything changes. But you can just cut up your bits of card and replace them with new strands and characters as they appear. You can see my scribbled character spider in the top left of the picture.

Software options
There are software programs that emulate this method and probably give you more options, but…
1) I don’t have a computer screen as big as my table.
2) Getting away from the screen can liberate your imagination – it’s a touchy-feely thing.

There’s No Point


There is no point in travelling,
when you’ve no place to be.
No sense in searching,
when your heart cannot see.
And no doors unlock,
when you don’t have the key.

There is no point in sowing,
where love cannot grow.
No questions worth asking,
of a life you can’t know.
And no reason for staying
when your heart says go.

There is no point in searching,
with dulled tired eyes.
No use in listening,
when you only hear lies
And no sense in living,
because everything dies.

Character Spiders

writing aid character spider

Spoiler alert
This character spider contains facts about characters in my second novel The Act of Falling that don’t appear in the text. If you know anything about personality disorders you would probably work them out anyway, but just thought I’d mention that.

The size of the circle
My focus is on Emily Hampton, therefore she takes centre stage in this diagram. However, the novel is written from the POV of Richard. The size of each circle is roughly the prominence of a character in the text. There are three circle sizes, therefore primary, secondary and bit part players.

My nerdy approach to plot and character
I usually have a broad idea of the plot and theme of the novel – although I’m personally not so concerned with the theme as it seems a bit like lecturing to your readers.

The plot develops intricacies as I write. I keep that under control in another way, which is by using a storyboard. The characters also develop and this character spider helps me to keep the salient points of their relationships and history consistent.

Dancing Alone


A sirens sounds for the daily dance,
a game that is carelessly played.
In covert signs and coded words,
Liaisons are sought, alliances made.

But those who don’t hear, or don’t know the rules,
are lost in this masquerade.

By day they are silent, in the evening alone,
weaving dreams that may never see light.
Mouthing the words of songs they have learned,
while dancing alone, hidden from sight.

Shrouded with empathy, dusted with love,
Trapped in their room, alone at night.