Writing about friends and family

I have long written about friends and family. What writer hasn’t? The description doesn’t need to be perfectly specific to anyone but how could we possibly write about people in general without including those we have met over the course of our exemplary or misspent lives? People are not a homogeneous mass, to be written about in one lump while we consider those things that make us all human. They are a glorious mish-mash of quirks, eccentricities and downright oddities. As a species we certainly want pretty much the same things, something I have learned very clearly during the years I have moved around the world and lived in different cultures, but by gosh we go about getting them in very different ways.

If Aunty Mabel makes sure she gets her nightly sherry by playing up her palpitations and the medicinal benefit of a small glass, whereas Uncle Matthias simply grabs the bottle and takes a slug at will, they both have a similar objective in mind, which is pure self-interest. But they both demonstrate characteristics on which any writer would leap gleefully and quickly parcel out to various characters in their newest novel.

Even when I have not intentionally put a friend or family member into a novel, resisting at times the very strongest of temptations, I am wasting mental energy in deciding not to. They will see themselves there anyway. ‘But why did I have blonde hair in your book?’ a friend will ask, having decided that the overdrawn caricature of a shrieking, hysterical woman is based entirely on their introvert, retiring self. I have learned not to respond in detail. Denial only gives offence. People would rather be immortalised in print than not, however unflattering the portrait. Everyone is convinced that any writer they know will naturally have included them in their work . They see themselves everywhere and are rarely insulted, however awful the portrait. As long as you get their hair and weight right, of course. Woe betide the character I write as a size twelve who faintly resembles a friend who wears a size ten. No amount of, ‘But you aren’t a Spanish portrait painter,’ will ever convince your German PE teacher friend that you haven’t grossly misrepresented them. Friendships have been shattered for less.

I wanted to use a particular acquaintance for a character as she had informed every line I wrote, and not that flatteringly, I must admit. I hesitated for a while and then changed her hair and gave her glasses. She loved the book and never once saw herself in it. My latest book is about a family of three children. I have based it physically on myself and my siblings, used our childhood home and written about some of the things we used to do. But these are simply the skeletons of people, the structure of a family. My three characters are not us. Not that anyone will ever believe that, least of all my siblings. They have even had me change the names of their fictional partners because they don’t like them. As far as possible I have obliged but am resigned to giving offence, even though I have to my mind been quite flattering and the characters I have created are pleasant enough.

The only time I have ever had a trouble-free experience in writing about loved ones is when I have mentioned my cats. They remained just as loving and unruffled as ever when I wrote about them as fat, duplicitous, greedy and self-centred. In point of fact they were all these things and I loved them to distraction. My life without them has never been the same. But I appreciated their pragmatic approach. Did my writing about their defining characteristics meant they received one less bowl of food or cuddle? No. Then what did they care? If only people were as simple to deal with.

Perhaps Dick King Smith was onto something when he decided to write about animals. My next plot line will perhaps be about a cat, with a dog for a best friend, who opens a pet food store. No feelings will be hurt, no sensibilities ruffled. No delegation of local felines will turn up on my doorstep with a petition for me to rewrite them as slimmer and less fluffy. And you know the Man Booker people are going to want to talk to me when it’s finished.

In the meantime, I will continue with my career of giving offence to those to whom it was never intended and insulting others with impunity. I should also finish this post quickly. I have a phone call I need to make to a writer friend, whose one-eyed, nearly bald South American mass murderer needs a little work before I will accept it as an entirely accurate portrait of me. Though I must say I’m very flattered that she has cared about me enough to put me into print.

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Half a cake is better than no cake

Yesterday was the first day of the school year. Since my five were small, I have baked a cake on the first and last days of term. Chocolate cake, Victoria sponge, carrot cake, coffee and walnut cake – you name it, they requested it. At one point, I was cooking for four teenagers and a toddler, plus assorted friends with the ability to smell baking from several miles away. A cake or a batch of cookies disappeared within ten minutes of their arriving home – inhaled rather than swallowed and never affecting their appetite for dinner.

But the baking of the twice-termly cakes was different, at least for me. It became a punctuation to the school year, a marker that celebrated their school releasing them for a while and a sad acceptance that it would reclaim them again all too soon. Holidays were always the best, the messiest and the noisiest times and I still hate their ending.

And yesterday marked the beginning of yet another school year. I pulled out the baking tins and recipe books as usual, then stopped. Almost without noticing it, our resident family has shrunk over the past few years. Now that our fourth child has left home, only the eight year old is still here. Without him I might not even have known that the schools were back. Looking at the familiar recipes, they suddenly seemed all wrong. The pictures of large and lavishly-decorated cakes only highlighted the painful fact that our family has shrunk and the house is much quieter nowadays. I almost gave up the tradition on the spot in a burst of self-pity.

Eventually, after much thought, I baked half a cake. It looked odd and sad when finished. But our youngest deserves to experience the same traditions as the older children, even if he can’t demolish a cake with the same swiftness as the four of them working as a team. When it was finally assembled, I looked at the half-a-cake sitting forlornly on the plate, as though bemusedly wondering where its other half was, just as I sometimes wonder where the rest of my family went. I breathed in the familiar scent of vanilla and sugar. My daughter always said her newborn baby brother smelled of vanilla cookie and cake crumbs. They were clearly some of her favourite smells and he was one of her favourite things.

The afternoon passed very slowly as I counted the minutes until school pick up and felt the pain and the pleasure of nostalgia for things which had been and which would never come again, at least not in the same form.

Until our youngest burst triumphantly through the front door, fresh from a day back with his friends and the excitement of a new class. He dived straight into the cake, just as his brothers and sister always had. No gloomy cobwebs of memory and regrets can hang around for long under the onslaught of young energy and a face smeared with cream and jam. He was purely, blissfully in the moment and so, after a second, was I.

Those cakes of years gone by were very wonderful. They punctuated our family’s year and helped soothe disappointing grades and broken friendships. They highlighted achievements and eased the transition back to school each term. But so too was this cake equally wonderful. It served the same purpose for our youngest as for his siblings. It highlighted the fun of a new year ahead. It gave me the same chance to connect and share in the rhythm of his life as it always had with theirs. Half a cake, a whole cake, it doesn’t really matter. It connected the past and the future, smelled of vanilla and sugar and gave my son and me a moment to share together, a joyful celebration of the fact that life does move on and change and that the joy is often in the change as much as in the continuity.


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My Writing Process

Thanks to Elise Abram for introducing me to this blog hop. It is a new concept to me but sounds a great idea.

Elise Abram, B.A. B.Ed., M.Ed

Teacher of English and Computer Studies by day, wife and mother by night and author whenever she can steal some time, Elise is the proud author of Phase Shift, The Mummy Wore Combat Boots, and Throwaway Child, available on Amazon and KoboBooks. She pens a blog about literature, popular culture and the human condition whenever the muse moves her.

Elise’s fourth book, a young adult paranormal thriller entitled The Revenant will be released in eBook and in print on July 10, 2014 by Black Rose Writing.

Connect with Elise at http://www.eliseabram.com


So, back to the set of questions we have been asked to consider

What am I currently working on?

I am currently writing a novel about Emma, a young woman who receives a parcel after her grandmother’s death. It contains a hand-painted glass Christmas ornament. With no idea where it originally came from or why it was sent to her, Emma decides to take a break from her unsatisfactory and directionless life and set off to trace the origins of this gift.

In the process she travels to Venice, discovers a previously un-guessed at part of her grandmother’s history, reconnects with her sister and begins to make sense of her somewhat fraught relationship with her mother. By the end of the novel she is finally able to understand the meaning of family ties and see that the myriad of tiny connections that bind families together have a meaning beyond anything she has yet acknowledged.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My first four novels are loosely connected by the theme of a British woman who, through circumstances or by choice, moves abroad. I have sent these women to countries in which I have lived for some number of years. I hope that the flavour of the different countries and cultures comes over strongly and adds something to the novels. You gain something by living in a place that can never be experiences simply by holidaying there.

The novels are light women’s fiction. The first of them The Cnnamon Snail, is set in Copenhagen, where I currently live.



It was reviewed by The Copenhagen Post http://bit.ly/1puSPwJ

Why do I write what I do?

I write for pure enjoyment. I wrote my first novel, When Winter Comes, out this autumn,as a semi-autobiographical novel, as so many authors do. It seems that we may all have to get our own story out of the way before we can write other people’s stories. But after that I began to write for fun. I write when an idea pops into my mind. Sometimes I expand it into an entire novel, sometimes a children’s book and sometimes just a short story. If I didn’t enjoy writing, I wouldn’t do it. I love to create new worlds and characters and get a glimpse into other people’s stories through my own imagination. The characters can be become so real that I dream about them and even think about searching for them on facebook!

How does your writing process work?

I write every day. I am very disciplined about sitting down at the same time in the same place and writing something. I usually start with emails, to warm up my writing brain, then move onto my blog and any small pieces I might be working on. After about an hour, my creative brain kicks in and I can get on with writing my novels. I aim for 2000 words a day. I often fall short but on a good day can write up to 5000. The consistency of approach is what helps me and most days I will get at least half a chapter written.

Thank you if you have managed to read this far. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Don’t forget to take a look at the next authors on the blog hop. So far I have Kay Camden and Laura Berg. Their profiles are below. They will be blogging sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Kay Camden is the author of THE ALIGNMENT and is currently working on its sequel, THE TWO, which will be released at the end of the summer. She lives with her husband, two children, and three cats in the middle of the U.S.A. next to a big river. She’s always on the lookout for a good love story. Other interests include learning the Irish language and listening to a lot of EBM/industrial/synthpop electronica and dark/progressive/hardcore metal the only way those types of music are meant to be played: LOUD. Learn more about Kay and her books atkaycamden.com

Laura is a German currently living in Denmark. A risk professional by day, she enjoys writing and working on her blog as an outlet for her creativity. After graduating from university with a Masters degree in business, she worked in financial consulting across Europe, which led to many hours spent on planes and in airports. She recently decided to slow down and take a day job in Denmark, working for a large investment bank. She lives with her boyfriend in Copenhagen and is continuously trying to persuade him to get a dog.

Laura has always been keen on expressing herself, and she has written a blog before to chronicle her experiences in two semesters spent abroad in Paris and New Orleans. After moving to Copenhagen, she decided to start another blog about life as an expat in Denmark. She also freelances on the side, mostly about travelling or expat topics.



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When Summer seems to be the hardest word

In Denmark, we look forward to the summer. We really do. We endure six hour days in December and the sort of vitamin D deficiency that would only seriously be cured by eating a whole raw seal. So we watch anxiously for the first spring rays. And occasionally the sun does actually appear. I suspect the locals have some secret spring ritual that they perform in the quiet of their living rooms, one involving candles, animal sacrifice and possibly some special dance. I’ve never asked. I don’t really want to know.  If there is such a ritual, it only seems to work one year out of three so the Danes need to up their game. It worked last year so this year should mean the deluge. Unless global warming kicks in to help us out. There’s always a silver lining.

And the one thing I always forget, while eagerly counting the days until May and the brief feeling of thawing hands and feet, is that for ex pats, summer means all-change. Many of us have children so the summer holiday is the natural time to move on and settle in a new location before school starts. Looking back, I can’t remember a summer over the past two decades that has not been punctuated with the word goodbye and, quite frankly, I have grown to hate it. Promises of keeping in touch don’t often materialise, at least long term and that’s really how it should be. No one can fully establish themselves in a new life if they are always looking back to the old one.

Of course we don’t let go all at once. We glance over our shoulders for a while at what we have left behind us. We check that the old life didn’t suddenly get more fun just as we left. We make sure we haven’t been entirely and instantly forgotten in the influx of new and possibly more exciting people to what was our old life and now is their new one. But time intervenes and the new life becomes the real one and the old life becomes a ghost. It has to, or we could never live the life we do.

So the word goodbye is one I now avoid completely. I used to use it dutifully and emotionally every summer as old friends left and then, at the end of each assignment, as I was the one to leave. And the word weighed more heavily every year. Eventually, I simply quit. I refused to say the word at all, or even think it. After all, I reasoned, people emerge from the woodwork all the time and in the most unexpected places. One friend who left me in Denmark and went to England, wrote to me when I had moved to Australia and said they were moving again and would be near to us Canberra. Our goodbye in Denmark had hardly been necessary.

Really, though, I stopped saying goodbye because it is a painful word and associated with difficult emotions. Nowadays I duck the farewell parties, try not to think about any casual school gate conversations possibly being the last and generally make myself scarce as summer approaches. Perhaps we all have only so many goodbyes in us and I am reaching my limit. Perhaps this means I am also coming to the end of my capacity to live this kind of life. I have roots in so many places and in none.

It’s a great life, travelling the world, seeing new places, experiencing new cultures. It’s a privilege and generally one for which I am grateful. The benefits for me have always outweighed the negatives, just as the summer brings brings more fun than pain. I am, however, beginning to look forward to the time when the first spring days mean nothing more than a summer to look forward to and then a winter and another summer, all in the same place and with the same people. I’m not quite ready but that time is quickly coming, a time when summer will once again become the easiest word.


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Tome, Sweet Tome

Nine years after we decided our family was complete, our fifth child arrived. It was a glorious and shocking event for us all. We had been in Denmark for only a brief time and barely knew the people, or spoke the language. As a family, we had been on the move for decades, travelling in quick succession between three continents. We were no strangers to upheaval, but this one tested us all. 

As I look back on those turbulent years, I see now that a love of reading kept us grounded and sane, amid the insanity of our constant moves. I did not realise this so clearly at the time. It was not until I watched our new son’s brothers and sister gather around his cot, to tell him their favourite stories and read him their old picture books, that I appreciated the important part that books had played in their young lives.

Six years earlier, we landed in Auckland one rainy September, with four very young children. We spent three months in a dilapidated rental house, with no furniture and no possessions except the ones we had carried with us – a few clothes, a travel iron, some Lego and several suitcases of books. Every day, when their father left for work, the children rushed to the bedroom where the books lived. They snuggled in sleeping bags on the carpet and I read to them. The first three Harry Potters, the stories of the Baudelaire children, poetry and rhymes, Horrible Histories, comic books and Star Wars adventures. We read whatever came to hand and, when we ran out, we read them all again.

When we could read them no more, it became our daily adventure to walk to the ferry and sail across to the city. The bookshops in Auckland were wonderful. Every assistant was friendly and endlessly tolerant of the four children as they sat reading the stock, skimming, discarding, arguing, negotiating and finally choosing the perfect book for our next day’s reading.

Three years later, we moved to Denmark at only six weeks’ notice. Our possessions went into storage again for six months. Only our books came with us. We arrived at the tail-end of an unusually hot Danish summer. We rented a house with a higgledy-piggledy garden and an unkempt orchard. When their father left for work each morning, the children and I walked to the local corner shop for a litre of ice cream. The house had no freezer and ice cream had to be consumed at once or not at all. The children rose to the challenge. We lay under the plum trees with the drone of bees in our ears, and tried a different Danish flavour every day. We shivered at the dastardly Count Olaf and rejoiced at his final downfall. We cheered for Matilda when she left her book-hating  family. We sailed with Charlie down a river of molten chocolate.

None of the children ever commented on the lack of cooking facilities that led to months of scratch meals from an old microwave. They failed to notice the lumpy, borrowed mattresses that even the cats refused to sleep on. Their memories of that summer are of ice cream, ripe plums and several hours of stories every day. 

For us, twenty seven years of marriage has meant more than thirty moves across continents and hemispheres, and five children born in three different countries. Nothing has ever stayed the same for long. Nothing, that is, except for books. Our collection ebbs and flows. Old favourites pass on, fall to bits or go out of print. New titles come to join the family, often in multiples of two or three, if they are truly special.

Ten years on,  I still see our older children read to their younger brother. I am happy to know that the love of books, which began half a world away, will be passed down to their own children and grandchildren. Books have been the anchor that has connected our present to both our past and our future, the strands of multiple experiences that have tied us together as a family. To every author out there who has created new worlds for my children to inhabit, while their own was so constantly changing, I am truly grateful. 

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Easter Egg Hunt

No matter where we have lived in the world – and the places have been many and various – Easter Sunday has always meant an egg hunt. The first Easter that we had children, our oldest son was nine months old. I ‘hid’ a chocolate egg on his high chair tray. He still took about five minutes to notice it. As I write this, he is nearly twenty-four and living twelve thousand miles away. I had to send him his egg this year but still secretly wished I could be there to hide it for him.

Watching our eight-year-old run around the garden this afternoon in the brilliant sunshine, skirmishing with his teenage sister whenever her count exceeded his, I thought again about the nature of tradition and its place within a family. As someone who tends to be driven very strongly by emotions – an INFP for those who like Myers-Briggs – I have many times been guilty of trying to control traditions so that they replicate my childhood experiences exactly. Only in this way, runs my subconscious reasoning, can my own children experience exactly the same pleasures that I did at their age.

And this, I have grown to realise, is nonsense. Any pleasurable experience is, by its very nature, fleeting. As soon as we make an attempt to pin it down for posterity and impose too much tradition and restriction on it, we lessen it. As we moved from country to country, it used to bother me if we couldn’t find Cadbury’s eggs. I had them as a child and I thought my children should have them too. In Florida it took a sixty mile trip to a Butcher’s shop in Miami to get hold of Cadbury’s chocolate. Best not to delve too deeply into that one. On that occasion maybe I was justified. Hershey’s chocolate has always reminded me of the dog treats we gave to our friends’ puppy at Christmas. But I doubt my toddler sons would really have noticed the difference, or cared.

In New Zealand, Cadbury’s tastes different, because the climate dictates a higher melting point. Again, none of the children really noticed. Stranger to us all was the fact that Easter was in the autumn. In Australia, a British friend in Queensland put her children’s eggs inside thermos flasks and made the children dive into the swimming pool to retrieve them. In Queensland the eggs would have melted if they had been hidden in her garden the way we always hid ours in Canberra. She did what worked and that was a lesson to me.

Here in Denmark, where we have spent so many Easters over the past decade, we can’t even buy Creme Eggs and are stuck with the Easter dragees that none of us like. So this year I threw tradition to the winds and bought a large jar of Quality Street to hide around the garden instead. I am finally in the place where I understand that the meaning of a tradition is in the joy it creates and not the structure in which we choose to enclose it. I am not saying that I am quite ready to celebrate Christmas on the 24th December. Some traditions die harder than others. But I do put an almond in our ris à l’amande and whoever gets it receives a marzipan pig. I am now ready to meet the Danes halfway.

Quality Street in a Copenhagen garden, waxy Hershey’s kisses in a Florida apartment, odd tasting Cadbury’s hidden in the trunk of an Auckland feijoa tree or under our giant eucalypt in Canberra. Finally, I get it. Despite many years of trying, I never managed to replicate the Easter egg hunts of my childhood, nor the Christmases, nor the birthdays. Now I don’t even try.

The magic of an Easter egg hunt is not in the kind of confectionery we use. It is in the appearance of usually rationed treats, the excitement of the chase, the fun of hunting with siblings or friends, the spring sunshine if we are lucky. My children had just as much fun today as I did at their age. And I watched them scrambling up trees and under the trampoline, wrestling for the purples and the pinks, simply thankful for another Easter memory to add to the joyous stock we have amassed over the years.

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Mother’s Day

And it is Mother’s Day tomorrow in the UK. Or Mothering Sunday if you prefer – which my mother emphatically did. Either way, it is a great time to show her you care – as Amazon, Marks and Spencer and a hundred other companies have been reminding me for weeks now. My mother would apparently be bowled over by perfume, flowers, chocolates, meals out, books, toiletries, balloon rides, bungee jumps or a hundred other wonderful things that might, completely unrelatedly of course, make the multinationals some money. And you know what? I wouldn’t grudge it. Not a penny. Except that I don’t have a mother. Not any more. Not for four years now. And these annual reminders in my inbox don’t sting any less with the passing of time. Which isn’t to say I don’t think other people should celebrate the day because of those of who no longer can. Quite the opposite. I think they should celebrate the heck out of it. They should take the opportunity to show those who love them that they love them back. Every Mother’s Day I re-read the letter I sent my mum when she told me she was dying. It was the last chance I had to say the things I wanted to. I wish now that I’d written one every year on Mother’s Day. I almost left it too late. I hope that everyone remembers to speak in the midst of joyous life and not only when facing incipient loss. When my mother knew she was dying she wrote my husband and children a birthday card each for the coming year. And one for me of course. They all opened them in turn and read their special message and smiled. It took me nearly four years. Once the card was opened and read, I knew I would never again see my name in her handwriting, never again read something written especially for me. I took out the card each birthday and held it for a while and put it back. When I did finally open it, I wished I had opened it earlier. Apart from the words of love, it told me not to be too sad. A message I could have used during those first few months. When faced with a terminal diagnosis, not everybody thinks immediately of others and wants to make sure they will be alright. It is the act of those who truly love. It is the act of a mother. I have children of my own and I hope to behave in a similar way to them. In that way my mother’s gift will go beyond her children and to my children and to their children whom she will never meet. I have no one to send a card to this year. I wish I did. but I do have the precious memory of a quintessential act of motherhood and I will always be grateful.

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