Give January a Chance

When I first started writing this blog post it was Blue Monday – officially the most depressing day of the year, scientifically calculated by factoring in the weather, broken resolutions and post Christmas debt. January is also a peak month for death and divorce. (I’m specifically talking about those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, of course. If you’re in the height of your summer now then please stop reading immediately!)

Now we are very nearly into February, so how was January for you? Well, my husband and I had a great time, as we always do in January.  We have our annual holiday over the new year and usually start back at work around the second week of January. This is mainly due to our work schedules but also because there’s something wonderful about stepping off the plane into warm air or being poolside in a bikini when it is minus 5 at home. Who wants to leave the UK in the summer when the weather is hot here?  In January we go out a lot, eat and drink loads – and spend a lot too. We had our UK black tie and diamonds Bond-themed wedding reception in January six weeks after our December Caribbean wedding. Last year we had our housewarming in January. It’s always great to have something to look forward to after Christmas and I never find it a problem to entice people to events in the gloom-filled first few weeks of the year.

I’ve never seen the need for the harsh regimes and self-flagellation that almost seem mandatory for a UK January.  It helps that each brand new year is heralded by my New Year’s Day birthday and this year I enjoyed a double celebration with a good friend who shares the same birthday. I love the idea of new beginnings: the writer in me likens it to starting a gorgeous new notebook blank with possibilities. It’s definitely not the time to deny yourself or diet or detox like mad when comfort food is the order of the day.

And there’s so much to look forward to.  The nights are slowly getting lighter, spring is round the corner, the sales are on, great new series are starting on the telly and it’s time to start thinking about a new job or a house move or an exciting new project. Every year, I truly believe that this is the year I’m going to finally finish my ‘work in progress’ novel.  Ok, the weather sucks but there’s nothing like a dog walk on those beautiful crisp brilliant days. (The flip side, there’s nothing like a wet excitable dog on a freezing foggy day either!)

I guess that it is all a matter of perspective. I’m of the view that life is what you make it and that applies to January. Having said that, I haven’t stepped on the scales yet or received my January credit card bill!

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!

 

 

 

 

A Very Belated Happy New Year …

… even though it’s way too late now for new year greetings, but apologies for the delay in posting: I’ve been on my annual holiday. January is always much easier welcomed in with a bit of sunshine and as it’s my birthday on New Year’s Day the new year always brings the promise of fresh starts, a bit like opening a brand new notebook and anticipating the endless possibilities on each blank page. (Like many writers, I love stationery and regularly need a Paperchase fix).

Everyone’s resolutions are nearly all broken by now.  I always begin January with the same writerly resolutions: finish my book, a work in progress since 2009; pitch more articles; and care less what others think.   It was so easy to make plans from my sunbed and feel inspired and fired up, but back in the January gloom with jetlag and a mountain of laundry to do, feeling broke and depressed (and having to return to the Day Job) it’s a real struggle to recapture that optimism.

Quiet determination and sticking power are the key.  It’s a bit like exercise: writing needs to be done every day until it becomes a habit, to keep those writing muscles honed and the brain lean.  Little but often is the secret.  A friend wrote her book on her daily commute and as I have previously commented, successful writers use the magic formula of “bum on seat, fingers on keyboard” every single working day.    Similar to weight loss, there’s no quick fix, just discipline.  Knowing all this doesn’t make it any easier though, especially as my personal resolutions also involve diet and exercise!

Wish me luck as I embark upon 2015 and I wish you all a happy and productive 2015!