Writerly research: meeting the rich and famous

In my day job in the legal profession, my firm occasionally has the super wealthy and/or celebrities as clients. Observing these mythical creatures up close makes for excellent character study and the writer in me loves it.  To mix with moneyed and larger than life humans is rather like being in a zoo full of beautiful and exotic animals and I have to struggle to ‘act normal’ around them.  Recently in one court case we had an A list celebrity client.  The insight into his world of fame was fascinating – and good research no doubt for a character in a novel somewhere down the line.

Let’s take the super wealthy first.  Oligarchs, captains of industry, royalty, old money and even organised crime figureheads.  Hand stitched suits, bespoke cologne, quiet authority: these people ooze money and confidence from every pore. (I am excluding in this a certain oligarch who looks more like an unshaven tramp than a multi-billionaire!) The women sport gobstopper jewels and expensive suntans that speak of year round access to a yacht – and are usually stick thin.   Such enormous wealth carries with it an air of entitlement and privilege.  The part of me that champions a classless and egalitarian society is secretly thrilled when they have to queue up for the same court loos as the rest of us commoners, or tolerate the bad machine coffee.   Several years ago, a court case in a British overseas territory saw everyone queuing for the one very basic cell toilet which had no lock on the door.  It’s a great leveller to have the Attorney General holding the door for you while you have a wee, while a woman who graces the Sunday Times Rich List waits her turn.

But what are these otherworldly people actually like?  They vary as much as any other human being.   Yes, there are the arrogant and the ignorant who slam doors in your face and treat everyone with contempt. But then there are the wonderful ones: one household name billionaire had boxes of £100 hand crafted Swiss chocolates flown in his private helicopter for everyone in the court after he felt he had caused inconvenience by requesting we worked late.  And he came round and thanked us all personally.  Others remain aloof, conferring only with their large entourage of staff and do not deign to speak to anyone else.  I once had the terrifying task of informing a Greek shipping billionaire that he couldn’t have the password to our wifi for security reasons. This man had never, ever been told the word “no” in his life, by anyone, and he was astounded. Luckily, he was very charming about it.

So what of celebrities? They are frequently in court and along with my colleagues, I have a considerable list of those I have worked with.  Familiar as we are with their larger-than-life presence on screen and in the press, many are diminutive in the flesh. Some are absolutely tiny.  All are surrounded by an extensive and expensively retained entourage of ‘yes’ people, lawyers and general hangers-on.

Once again, their personalities are variable.  Some are charming, modest and always in celebrity mode: happy to oblige with autographs for court staff and make small talk.  Some believe their own hype and are obnoxious and bad tempered. A few remain cloistered within their huddled group of legal advisers and won’t engage with anyone, hiding behind dark glasses and their minders

Again I refer to the court toilets as a good leveller, although I was struck in my recent case with a very famous TV personality how, such is his fame, he was unable to even use the gents without a member of the press sidling up next to him, or a fan wanting an autograph.  He took all of this with good grace and charm and won many new followers.  It’s not always like this.  I’ve gone off certain celebrities instantly having witnessed the ‘real’ them.   You can judge a man by how he treats his dog, so the saying goes, but you can also judge a person by how they treat those working for them.

So what have I learned from these encounters?  You can keep your celebrity and money for a start: the super rich are always suing or being sued.  And fundamentally although united by money, they are as varied in temperament and personality as any other person.  Fascinating as we may find them, they are simply human beings at the end of the day.

Knowing when it’s time to leave the party

Making a dignified exit is such a valuable life lesson and is very important for us writers.   It’s much better to end on a high and bow out gracefully while the going is good than keep flogging that dead horse.  I was recently dismayed on reading the latest book from one of my top five authors: it was hackneyed, samey and the plot was practically identical to her last three novels; reviews showed other readers felt the same.   Surely it’s better to quit while one is ahead before your writing becomes as unappetising as that stale leftover biscuit nobody wants. Keeping writing fresh and original is a vital part of the writer’s job.

This reminds me of the brilliant and peerless Fawlty Towers.  Each of those 12 episodes is a masterpiece and the series is still revered, cited and loved today. Contrast that to ITV’s Benidorm series which, in my opinion, started off fantastically but dragged on years after it stopped being funny.  We should all aim to create a Basil Fawlty rather than a Mateo the barman.

So it is time to resign from my newspaper column.  It has been three and a half years since my first was published and my last is now on the newsstands;  I’m their longest serving columnist .  I’ve loved writing my column and hope my readers have enjoyed it too but I simply feel I’ve said all I can and it is time to move on to other projects.  I’ve discussed subjects as diverse as men in flip-flops and Lycra, adopting a rescue dog, ghosts, tattoos, commuting, homesickness and the high cost of being a wedding guest.  But now I’m leaving without fanfare and just slipping away.

Whether it is a party, relationship or job, there’s an art to knowing when to move on with your head held high.  The worst exit I ever made was on leaving a job after being headhunted.  Resignation tendered to my shocked colleagues, I swept towards the door – and my new, bright future – with all eyes on me, only to realise that as I had handed in my pass, I couldn’t actually get out of the door. The humiliation of having to turn round and ask for someone to let me out still burns to this day!

So watch this space for my new projects.  I’ve been asked to be a guest stylist on an interiors magazine, I’m ghostwriting for a dog website and I WILL stop procrastinating and finally finish that book!

What doesn’t kill you … makes a good novel

Conflict lies at the heart of the novel, the soap opera and the movie.  As human beings, we like to see how other overcome difficulties and heartache to emerge triumphant and stronger.  So-called ‘misery memoirs’ cash in on this and are enjoying their moment as a popular genre.  Whilst not specifically my thing (there’s only so much “Please, Mummy, No!” or abused puppy farm dogs one can take) they illustrate my point well: humans want to observe how others deal with conflict.

I’m a great believer in ‘no pain, no gain’ and trouble and struggles in our everyday lives make great material for writing.   Writing from personal experience adds a depth and authenticity that no amount of research can recreate.  My favourite authors prove this:  Marian Keyes has battled depression and alcoholism; as an attorney John Grisham spent years in courtrooms; and Kathy Reichs has conducted thousands of autopsies and assisted in many murder investigations.

We are in the middle of trying to move house and it is a truly soul-destroying, expensive and exhausting experience.  How bad can it be?, I thought before I took the plunge myself after hearing others’ horror stories. (“Never again” is what most say.  I now agree.) Five months in and I can confirm buying and selling one’s home is truly horrific.  It is so expensive I may as well walk down the street liberally throwing banknotes around.  The English property market affords every kind of time-waster and opportunist a safe haven to mess others about and rip them off .  But … it would make a great setting for a novel.  Just from some of the characters I’ve observed – estate agents, solicitors, vendors, viewers – there are some amusing and horrific tales to tell which anyone who has ever moved house could easily identify with.

Every cloud has a silver lining, and if you’re lucky, a rainbow.  There have been wonderful moments of levity.  For example, one property we viewed was obviously used for, ahem, “entertaining”, plus I will never forget the hilarious altercation between an estate agent and a small yappy dog at another house. (Why do animals always make a bee-line for those who are wary of them?)  For two gorgeous moments there was a blur of shiny suit, bared teeth and growling.  Friends have their own stories to add, like the couple who bought a house which turned out to not actually be for sale.  And even the most mild-mannered person I know has threatened to do physical harm to an estate agent.

Perhaps it’s like giving birth or flying long haul in economy: awful at the time but the minute you see the end product (the baby, the beach, the lovely new house) it is all worth it.  The body quickly forgets pain.

It’s hard at the time when in the thick of the misery of a bad situation (death of a loved one, divorce etc) to see how it can be of any benefit but it all adds to our richness of experience as a human and as a writer, provides wonderful source of material.  And what doesn’t kill you will make a great setting for your next novel and may possibly be cathartic to write.

Watch out for the house moving novel here!

Is Truth Stranger Than Fiction?

For my day job, I work in the legal profession.  Court rooms and private arbitration hearings are my office.  And before you say “Oh, that must be interesting”, for the most part I have to admit that no, it is very dry and can be deathly dull.  Like many jobs, it is full of routine and is often tedious.  And sometimes I have to check for a pulse at the end of particularly long-winded and technical court days.  Private business to business disputes, insurance cases, shipping hearings, VAT … are you still awake?

So why, when I’m watching TV or a film involving a court case, is it full of high drama and suspense?  And for those of you who are fans of Silk, let me also point out that in my 18 year career I have never come across a barrister resembling Rupert Penry-Jones.  Neither have I seen anyone leap the dock to freedom after being acquitted, but I guess the hour or so of release paperwork isn’t thrilling television.

Much as my colleagues and I enjoy howling at the inaccuracies of the TV court room, the truth remains that watching six hours of legal argument about a clause in an insurance contract does not great TV make. So much artistic licence is employed.   Most people are amazed to learn that in commercial cases, my bread and butter work, wigs and gowns are usually ditched in favour of formal business attire.  And on the whole, High Court judges no longer don wigs.

What about the written word?  My Work In Progress is set in the legal profession, but I am fortunate enough to be able to distil the highlights of 18 years into a single novel.  Yes, there have been a few instances of jaw dropping drama, but far more interesting are the characters I have met: not just barristers and judges but witnesses, oligarchs, court staff, solicitors, celebrities, politicians, captains of industry; the list goes on.  The large libel or fraud cases you see on the news, big public inquiries – I’ve sat through many.

There is definitely a book in there, but obviously all names and dates will have to be changed.  And I’ve also been involved in many cases where I’ve had to sign a confidentiality agreement so I can’t breathe a word to anyone.

But here’s the strange thing.  The truth can often be implausible too.  Several years ago, whilst doing a writing course to brush up on my dusty journalism skills, I submitted a rough draft of the first three chapters of my novel to my tutor as part of an assignment. Although he enjoyed it very much, it was returned with ‘highly improbable’ and ‘not believable’ scrawled across it.  But every single word was true. Everything I wrote about I had observed first hand, just altered situations and people to protect the guilty.

So perhaps the truth really is stranger than fiction!  Watch this space …..

You Are What You Read: True or False?

As writers, we should read and read and read; everyone knows that. To be a writer you must first be a reader.  Reading and writing are Siamese twins. I could go on.  But is it OK to read light-hearted and frothy stuff or even what some would class as (ahem) downright trash?   On some days on my train commute I give silent thanks for the anonymity of my Kindle.  Nobody knows I’m not reading War and Peace when instead I’m gripped by a Penncy Vincenzi family saga!

After recently finishing the latest offering in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, I felt like I’d scoffed a huge box of chocolates: a bit nauseous and not particularly well-nourished, but it was huge fun while it lasted.  I am also a devotee of real life story ‘my sister had a baby with our brother’ type magazines.  At the other end of the scale, wading through a very worthy tome can feel as nutritious as one of those healthy vegetable juices I whizz up in my Nutribullet (other brands are available): hard going, tasteless but oh, boy, do you feel virtuous afterwards!

Jackie Collins, Martina Cole, Take a Break magazine: I devour them all. Jackie Collins can definitely work a great plot and while her novels are of questionable intellectual merit, her sales figures (and bank balance) speak volumes.  I also love a gripping thriller, a biography and am a sucker for a self-help manual.   The Fifty Shades genre isn’t for me but I can’t bear reading snobbery and I take my hat off to those authors who make their living from erotic fiction.

The genre of chick lit is a tricky one.  Very much maligned by some as trashy, I would strongly disagree.  Romantic fiction is written and read by highly intelligent and accomplished women from all walks of life. It is great escapism, like a fizzy glass of champagne.  And who, apart from Gwyneth Paltrow, can exist on a macrobiotic diet with none of life’s pleasures such as wine or chocolate?  Give me the latest Catherine Alliott over a heavyweight economic read any day. Likewise, John Grisham and Kathy Reichs are superb authors: bleak and depressing Scandi Noir just doesn’t cut it for me.

Books can change your life.  The final nail in the coffin of motherhood for me was the brilliant “We Need To Talk About Kevin”.  Owen Jones’ “Chavs” changed my entire thinking about society and the class system and challenged everything I thought I knew.  Christopher Hitchens’ superbly scathing expose of Mother Theresa was a gripping read.  But Rowan Coleman, bestselling chick lit author, had me crying with her ‘The Memory Book’, a touching story about a woman facing early onset Alzheimer’s.  So who says chick lit is fluffy and meaningless?

Sometimes I worry about reading too much froth but I love it. It is escapism and as a member of Mensa and with numerous educational and work qualifications under my belt I don’t feel the need to prove myself by ploughing through heavyweight political stuff or some of the drier of the classics.  If that’s what you love, then I say go for it, but it’s not for me. I love Shakespeare, John Donne, TS Eliot and I’m currently reading Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which has long been on my to-read list.  But I’m interleaving this with the latest Val McDermid.

So read widely and read what the hell you like and remember: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure!

A Room With A View: where do you write?

Room With A View

Room With A View

Who wouldn’t feel inspired to write with this as a view?  I took this photo at Noel Coward’s estate, Firefly, in Jamaica.  This was the view from his writing room.  (He also had a large private income as well which can’t have hindered his writing in any way!)

So where do you write?  Where inspires you to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard?  Bestselling author Marian Keyes claims she writes in bed wearing her pyjamas.  Roald Dahl created his magical stories in an armchair in his beloved garden shed which was his writing hideaway.  Carrie Bradshaw penned her column whilst gazing out of the window of her New York apartment.  A friend wrote her first historical romance novels whilst on her commute to her day job, and now frantically writes at the kitchen table once the children are in bed.

I write on the train too, at home at the dining table, in the garden and I love writing on holiday – for me, sunlounger writing is fabulous.  When I’m relaxed and in holiday mood, the creativity just flows. However, attempts to go on writing retreats have failed dismally as I am too easily distracted.  On a writing retreat in Nice I shopped, did the museums and Old Town – and wrote not a single word.  I had more success in September 2009 when I holed up at Champneys for a weekend and produced the first three chapters of my novel – which has sadly remained a work in progress.

I guess it’s an individual thing and once again, the secret to writing success is just sitting down and doing it, wherever that is: under the duvet, at the kitchen table, on the 7.59 to London or in a study with breathtaking Caribbean views.   We are hoping to move shortly and I am going to have a room just dedicated to my writing and crafts. However, I still need to put my bum on the chair and write and not spend too much time decorating the room!

Ghostwriting – yes or no?

For the past few months I have been proud to guest write for the great Phileas Dogg website – it’s all about travelling with your dog in the UK and is written for dogs – by dogs.  I guess you could call it a form of ghostwriting.  I have to really get into the character of the narrating dog (they are, incidentally, all dogs I know well!) and decide what sort of personality that dog would have were it telling the story.  There’s the cheeky terrier cross from Essex, the aloof and beautiful Tibetan Terrier show dog and the patient German Shepherd from Northern Ireland in charge of a home with 12 cats.  It’s a great opportunity to combine my two passions – writing and dogs.

I have actually met one of the great contemporary ghostwriters through a friend.  A very modest guy, he is responsible for writing many of the official bestselling biographies on footballers, TV personalities, oligarchs and celebrities on the bookshelves today. The chances are, you’ll have read some of his work, yet you will have never heard of him and unlike his famous subjects, you will certainly never recognise him in the street.  He’s in the process of writing the biography of an incredibly famous pop star at the moment, but although I’m dying to tell, confidentiality means I can’t breathe a word!

Many writers turn up their nose at ghostwriting. It is definitely not a place for the inflated ego. There is no recognition and little glory: you won’t even be acknowledged for the hard graft that you put into that bestselling celebrity biography that is at number two in the charts. Ghostwriters are the unsung heroes of the writing world, shadowy figures that lurk in the background and take none of the credit for their work.  A friend ghostwrites a celebrity column in a women’s magazine. The celeb in question can barely string a sentence together.  So why do it?

Ghostwriting takes immense skill.  It needs a very special type of writer to get under the skin of a famous person and make them open up about all the intimate and painful details of their lives. You will need to completely gain their trust, before you tell the world their story: in building a close rapport with your subject, you will become their confidante. For those interested in human nature and the psychology of fame, unrestricted access to the private lives of the super famous and wealthy can be fascinating.  Of course, confidentiality agreements are always signed so the chances are you can never breathe a word of the really mind-blowing stuff!

Celebrity ghostwriting is, on the whole, very well paid. (The dogs I write for sadly aren’t able to keep me in the manner to which I am accustomed; it’s a labour of love.  But it does combine two of my favourite ways to spend my time!) Writing for the rich and famous is excellent bread and butter work which pays the bills and in the writing world, that is an opportunity not to be missed. In my day job I’m a legal proofreader, which enables me to spend the rest of my time pursuing my writing until such time when my writing pays for itself.  I read somewhere on Twitter that the average writer’s salary is £11,000, so another form of steady income is needed for those of us without a trust fund or wealthy partner.  As well as being lucrative, ghostwriting can also be very interesting, good for your writing portfolio and although you will likely not be acknowledged, your work may be read by millions.

Jane Wenham-Jones’ excellent Wanna Be A Writer series examines ghostwriting and its pros and cons.  My advice would be to consider it as an option. The ghostwriter I know is, as I write, likely sitting on a private jet with the pop star, or by the pool at his Caribbean home as they work on the book.  Like writing a column, ghostwriting is an avenue every writer would do well to explore.

http://www.phileasdogg.com

Is it OK to use people you know as your characters?

IMAG0156“Am I in it?” friends and colleagues have often asked of my Work In Progress.  Is it ever OK to use someone you know as a ‘fictional’ character in your novel or short story?  Some bestselling authors auction off their characters for charity: if you are the winning bidder then a character in their next novel is named after you, or you at least get a small ‘walk-on’ part. Marian Keyes and Jojo Moyes have both done this and it’s a great idea: who wouldn’t want to star in a top ten bestseller?

But what of us mere writing mortals?  Can we use real people without getting sued?  My WIP novel is set in the legal profession so I am going to have to be doubly – if not trebly – careful that nobody in my book bears the faintest of resemblance to anyone in real life!

My answer, though, is of course you can use real people for inspiration.   Observing people is one of my great passions in life.  How we interact, our relationships, the complicated dynamics of family and friendships, our character quirks, even office politics: people just fascinate me.  In another life I perhaps would have been a social worker or a psychologist; I even have the sociology degree gathering dust.  In fact, I spent years wanting to retrain as a prison psychiatrist.  The depths of evil in the human psyche amaze me, but that’s another blog post.

The trick is not to copy wholesale but to use snippets and observations from here and there, stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster to create the whole character.  Borrow a single character trait from a colleague by all means, but change their appearance, job, age and even sex.  The chances are most people won’t recognise themselves anyway but be extra vigilant that none of your fictional characters instantly bring to mind a real person – especially if the character is an evil one. When people ask if they’re in your novel or story, they always envision themselves as the romantic hero: nobody wants to appear as the vile mass murderer who skins puppies alive! Tempting as it is to take revenge on those I don’t like by casting them as the villain of the piece,  I try not to offend.

What about family?  Three years ago when I had a short story published featuring a woman at the end of her tether who stabs her evil mother-in-law to death, (Mother-in-law’s Revenge, Best, January 10 2012 issue) I had to hurry round to my in-laws to reassure them it wasn’t based on real life!  Luckily, my late mother-in-law had a great sense of humour (we joked about her not coming near me when I was wielding a potato peeler!) and I can state here with confidence she was nothing like Maggie.  Was Maggie, the mother-in-law character of my story, someone I actually knew?  No, she was a hybrid of several mother-in-laws about whom friends and colleagues lamented , with a dash of two women I once met thrown in.

For my novel which is based in the courtroom, I am thinking about little bits and pieces of the people I’ve met over the last 18 years. Like tiny glittering jewels, these characteristics will be strung on the necklace of my story to make what I hope is a dazzling whole.  Some of those I’ve encountered are wonderful, some are hideous, with just about everything in between.   Take judges, for instance. We all think of the stereotypical out-of-touch, dust and crabby old man in a wig, but in my experience many are charming, warm, friendly, compassionate and very switched on to the modern world. And maybe I’m getting older but a lot of judges are looking younger!

Another rich seam of material for characters is those who own, show or work with dogs.  Since becoming the owner of a rescue dog four years ago I have been plunged into a whole new world: groomers, vets, behaviourists, dogsitters, breeders and other dog owners.  I also volunteer at an animal shelter.  Although I maintain that dog lovers are the nicest people ever, and I have made some great friends, there are also some very unusual characters out there and it could definitely be the subject of a book!

Good luck with your characters and if you have a tricky mother-in-law, bite your tongue and stay away from the potato peeler!

 

 

 

 

The Woman Who Stole My Life (or the writer’s inspiration)

IMAG0153Inspiration for my writing can spring from the weirdest of places and as a writer, you need to constantly be asking ‘what if?’

Over Christmas I ordered a personalised iPad cover.  That’s the one on the left. Instead, the one on the right arrived  – for the wrong Rebecca.   A simple mix-up, but I was immediately intrigued (after recoiling at the unforgiveable spelling of karaoke!)  Who exactly was this Other Rebecca? It felt a bit like I’d stolen her life.  What if we were to swap lives?  Gin and fish are two things I loathe and my karaoke days died along with my job as a holiday rep.  What about the mysterious Mr Webster?  Is he a partner, a man worshipped from afar or even a dog?  Is there a story there? The Other Rebecca would doubtless hate my life too. Presumably she was sent my iPad cover in error: dogs, tea, Coronation Street, writing … (it really is as boring as it looks and she probably thought: bloody hell, at least my life isn’t as bad as hers is!) We are both creative but what brand is her creativity?  Does she knit or paint or is she just creative with the truth?

There was definitely enough material here for a short story and possibly a novel. The idea of life-swap isn’t a new one but the idea of stepping into someone else’s ready made life always fascinates.  What if I tracked Other Rebecca down?  Is she really a gin-soaked, fish-eating box set fanatic extrovert?  Would we be friends or would the hackles rise on sight?  And I do really want to know who Mr Webster is. Eventually the correct iPad case was sent but the mystery lived on in my imagination.

There are so many elements of everyday life that can light of touchpaper of a writer’s inspiration.  Overheard conversations, newspaper articles, chance meetings, something on the TV.  Life is a very rich seam to be mined.  On my dreadful commute to the Day Job I often scrutinise the weary faces of my fellow travellers and wonder about their lives, hopes, regrets and secrets.  And the Day Job itself is a great source of material, soon to be a book if I can finally make 2015 the year I turn my work in progress into a physical novel rather than a rough draft.  Watch this space!