Writing: in his shoes

Waiting to act

Could you put yourself in his shoes?

I wrote about this short story in a previous post Unlikeable character – makes you read on. I’ve just updated the e-book and reminded myself (slight shock) that I’d written horror rather than just crime.

Which writer was it who said we only know what our novel is about once it’s finished? A long time, and many thousands of words later, I remembered this because I’d had that flash of recognition: potential…how it can work both ways.

I’ve written non-fiction, historical fiction and short stories, often humorous, but I never expected to write horror. Sometimes your story runs away with you and you find it lands in a different place from the one you expected. To do this justice means writing in his shoes, that boy you come to fear.

Writing Process

It was seeing each news flash of school shootings and the consequent analysis of the boy responsible that started me on this path. I’d been painfully aware of the several times in my work as a psychologist I’d been asked to assess strangely difficult kids and/or school refusers and witnessed the same anomie and alienation that these perpetrators showed.

I created a character of a different age, imagining a potential perpetrator younger, more accessible, adding something positive – a potential event for saving the boy from causing disaster. But it worked the other way.

In attempting to walk in Jake’s shoes, I’d almost unwittingly written a story of horror. Although I’ve had very positive reviews, including a long-listing from Fish and a winner’s accolade from Bloomsbury, I had every sympathy with a 1-star reviewer on Amazon who said it was the nastiest thing he’d ever read.

It seems likely that many writers find they’ve ended up with a story they hadn’t predicted.

Here’s the beginning of mine: ‘I think I once killed a man and I don’t know why. The bloke lay at my feet, dead. I don’t think I knew him but I couldn’t look at his dead face and they didn’t make me. I’d never seen a dead person and I didn’t want to.’ The word ‘dead’ obsesses Jake when he’s ten.

If you’d like to read more about Jake and walk in his shoes, there are some free copies for the next readers who join my Readers List.

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A trilogy in one volume.

A Relative Invasion – a fateful rivalry.

Join my readers list and receive Book One FREE.

Set in 1937-1950, a fateful rivalry between two South London boys mirrors the emotions which led to the second world war: envy, desire for new territory, lust for power.

A Relative Invasion is probably the only trilogy I’ll write. 

Historical fiction – trilogy

Written for adults but suitable for teens. Teachers, parents can use Books 1 and 2 to enrich Year 6 and Year 9+ curriculum work on WWII and evacuation. Teachers might also use them for PSE because of the issues in the narrative: bullying, honesty, resilience and for older teens, Book 3 highlights long-term outcomes

The first draft of this work was runner up in the Yeovil Prize (novels) 2011. It also reached the editor’s desk of Harper Collins’ writers’ site, Authonomy and therefore won a full review. Extract:  “…a powerful and compelling narrative with strong and relatable characters, and offers an evocative portrayal of England’s war-time home front. Billy is immediately sympathetic and Minett perfectly captures a child’s viewpoint, adding a gentle and honest humour to the story. The mounting  tensions between Billy and Kenneth parallel the rising agitation in Europe …”

Book One INTRUSION.  War threatens at the very shores of home . . .  with ruthless Hitler in Europe and devious Cousin Kenneth at the doorstep.   

Intrusion has been awarded a B.R.A.G medallion (Book Readers’ Appreciation Group USA)

 In 1937 five-year-old Billy meets  his cousin, the idolised, frail and manipulative Kenneth. As the adults worry about war emerging in Europe, the slow burn of  a fateful rivalry develops between the boys. With emotionally distant parents, bullying uncle and manipulative cousin, Billy starts to stutter. The one thing that upholds Billy’s spirits is the Cossack sabre, owned by his father’s work colleague. Once seen, never forgotten, the sabre becomes an icon of power – but possibly, destruction.

Historical Novel Society Review. “…the author very skilfully portrays the misery of being bullied…. “thoroughly enjoyed the book. The reserch is meticulously done with convincing historical detail.” 

“Very strong writing this; a book pleading to become a film.” Grady Harp, HALL OF FAME, TOP 100 REVIEWER, VINE VOICE

Receive Book One FREE when you join my Readers List.

Book Two INFILTRATION

Two boys, one family, a world at war – the invasion continues           

Now it’s autumn 1940. Relentless bombing in London means evacuation once again.  Billy is billeted with an elderly couple. Though happy in their care, sinister cousin Kenneth – who is billeted beside Billy’s mother and sister – haunts his life. Billy’s imaginary power from the precious Cossack sabre, now comes only from its photograph.

A catastrophe causes a new invasive threat from Kenneth. This one will affect both their futures permanently and increase the fateful rivalry. What’s more, the precious photograph goes missing. Can Billy become a hero when his parents are not?

Infiltration tells of childhood resilience in the face of war, rivalry and parenting ignorance. It follows a boy’s growth into personal responsibility.

Historical Novel Society review: “A delightful read.”  

 

Book Three, IMPACT   

Post-war, adolescence, austerity – the fall-out

Book Three was awarded a Discovering Diamonds

1945. The VE party is over and so is evacuation. Bill must tear himself away from his firm attachments in the village and face a new life in post-war Wandsworth. Uncle Ted had returned from service, but in what state? And how have Bill’s grandparents fared through the blitz and just recently, the dreaded VIs and VII rockets.

So much is in ruins, not least the life Bill had known as a child. One area remains wonderfully stable: supportive Mr Durban and the exciting icon of his Cossack sabre. Kenneth, however, is even more present. Now adolescent, the cousins are developing their separate skills and identities but the home context is claustrophobic. Their fateful rivalry increases in intensity, culminating in a dramatic crisis. All the family’s lives change forever. It’s a terrible fall-out. Is it Bill who must take responsibility and find a fair way forward?

“Well executed emotional drama.” Historical Novel Society

“utterly compelling … the climax is utterly unpredictable yet shockingly apt.” Amazon reader.

There’s a 1930s prequel, and a kindle trilogy with all three books in one. Receive Book One FREE when you join my Readers List.

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In Writing: hidden undercurrent

 

hidden undercurrent
What lies beneath

Writers’ undercurrents: in the novel you’ve just read — or in your own writing?

Sometimes it’s only after finishing a novel that you become aware of its undercurrent.  For instance, in Dead Water (Simon Ings) the fast paced plot involves the protagonist in a deadly international chase after an evil target; but the undercurrent is the dangerous potential of shipping containers which cruise the globe; an understandable preoccupation.

You may be more unaware of hidden undercurrents in your own novels.  After a while without reading your work again, consider what you’ve actually ‘said’. It may be a romance or a crime story, but what you have allowed to happen in the plot, or between the characters – such as unexpected capitulation –  or within the protagonist him/herself, can suggest unspoken drives or attitudes in your writing.

Even when there’s a distinct variety in the subject matter, authors may unconsciously repeat themes that have marked their lives.

Take two important writers Kasuo Ishiguro and Elif Safak. In 2015 they happened both to be speaking at the Bath Literary Festival, but on separate days, and were probably unlikely to have conferred. However, both authors had a ‘burying’ undercurrent in their novels.

buried
Fons Heijnsbroek

Ishiguro’s first novel for ten years, The Buried Giant, is a fantasy. Its fantastic beings form the plot but the ‘buried’ in his title refers obliquely to the human tendency for suppressing memories about painful matters. Ishiguro suggested all his novels had an underflow of this unspoken, part-forgotten material.

Talking of The Architect’s Apprentice, Shafak referred to the ‘collective amnesia’ of Turkey, saying so much has been suppressed. Sadly, historic artefacts are not being preserved perhaps because, then, uncomfortable events in history are more easily ignored; the role of the woman, the existence of minorities.

Shafak said that there is little urban memory:  residents do not know the origin of their street names, for instance, and are not encouraged to ask questions or to care about the past. She mourns the loss of cosmopolitanism in Turkey. The variety of cultures, nations, sub-groups is precious and stimulates creativity.

This strong feeling about burying discomforting events and feelings, drives these authors’ writing; the undercurrent enriches the work. What undercurrent can be detected from your writing?

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Writing at the speed of light

carbonaceous chrondite
meteorite

 

SPEED OF LIGHT was the theme for September’s Story Friday evening, held at the cave-like theatre at Burdell’s Yard – in conjunction with A Word in Your Ear

Story Fridays are held every second month in Bath, UK. Six or seven writer-performers read freshly-minted stories inspired by a theme, this time Speed of Light. The packed audience heard stories intriguing, exciting, sad, straight and downright hilarious.

I was very happy that another of my short stories was one of these: The Find.  It was not written at the speed of light, however. If you write about meteorites you have to find out about them. This certainly took time, especially as I have no geology in my background. This tale was about the finder who became a – wait for it – meteoriticist, (takes practise to say!) It’s the story of how a young man turns tragedy into obsession and how that obsession separated him from “a peopled life”.

It was read by talented actor, Kirsty Cox. You can judge here how brilliantly Kirsty performed my tale.

Mine was only one of the stories read, the packed audience enjoying a wide range of content that evening from talented writers using sci-fi, romance, humour  to interpret SPEED OF LIGHT in their own ways.

(Story Fridays, A Word in your Ear in conjunction with Kilter Theatre, are the creation of the talented playwright and short story writer, Clare Reddaway.)

I didn’t ask the other authors how long they took to write their stories, but this is relevant because there’s currently a great deal of interest in writing a great many books in a short time to ensure (attempt) a very good income (Anderle). That has sparked a great writers’ debate around quality versus quantity and, in effect, whether everyone can write at the speed of light, or what may seem like it to those who need a couple of years or more to complete one novel.

Writing a huge number of books in a short space of time? Well, it’s been done, it’s being done. Usually there are characters who appear in different adventures/situations in each book, with the genre being closely defined – e.g. urban fantasy. There may be a close similarity of structure, characterization and plot within the books in the series. It fits with a life-style that demands instantaneous gratification.

This writing is at the opposite end of the scale to writing Flash Fiction which may be read in a flash but can take many attempts to whittle away the word count. This means heavy investment in word choice and serious consideration of meaning.

Short stories – that is stories of 1,000 words upwards – are different in many ways and different to write. There’s more to discuss as shown on sites such as Shortstops, Tania Herschmann’s website. How long does it take to write a satisfying story, beginning, middle, end? Something credible, because it has been properly researched. Something memorable? It’s worth asking different short story authors for the answer, which in itself depends on how the germ of the idea came to the author’s mind. More of this in another blog post.

 

 

 

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Civil war 1644 – recreating history

 

Great Chalfield Manor

Near Melksham there is a lovely manor house

built in the 1460s by Thomas Tropnell. The Arts and Crafts gardens are worth visiting in their own right, as is the manor itself but on Saturday 5th & Sunday 6thAUGUST 2017 from 10am there is an

ENGLISH CIVIL WAR RE-ENACTMENT EVENT

   Admission £5 for Adults, 16 years and under go free.

Writers re-imagine historic events but here – where the garrison was billeted for the two years of the Civil War – the events will be re-created.

Re-enactment  The Marquess of Winchester’s Regiment of the English Civil War Society will re-enact the two-day Royalist occupation of the manor house in 1644.  The Regiment and accompanying civilians will march in at the start of each day and guards will be posted to keep watch.  The regiment will drill and fire muskets and cannon during the day.

In tents in the garden civilians will show and tell you how people lived in the seventeenth century (Living History).

A clerk will be set up in the Great Hall to replicate the writing of the accounts of September 1644.  The Chaplain and officers will also recreate various activities in the adjoining parish church and around the manor.

During the afternoon a small Parliamentarian patrol will be driven off in a sharp skirmish in the Orchard to the rear of the manor.  Any prisoners taken will be tried and then marched off under escort.

“It’s actually bringing history to life; you can really smell gun powder, hear the noise, and for children it gives them a sense of actually being there and makes history more interesting” (visitor comment 2016)

Admission charges for adults including National Trust members at this event contribute to maintenance and development of the Arts & Crafts gardens at Great Chalfield.     Evensong will be in All Saints’ Parish Church at 6:00 pm on 6 August.

   GREAT CHALFIELD MANOR SN12 8NH

For further details see:  www.marquisofwinchesters.co.uk and www.greatchalfield.co.uk

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FIRST FLASH FICTION FESTIVAL

This weekend, Jude Higgins pulled off a wonderful feat in initiating the first Flash Fiction Festival in Bath.

Gaining support from the Arts Council Fund, she was able to attract some of the best flash practitioners to give readings and workshops to enthusiastic participants from five countries.

Vanessa Gebbie, Kit de Waal, Tania Hershman, Paul McVeigh, David Gaffney, Ashley Chantler, Peter Blair, David Swann, Meg Pokrass, Jude Higgins, K M Elkes, Christopher Fielden, Michael Loveday and Calum Kerr all gave generously of their time and expertise.

The weekend course opened with an overview of the genre from Peter Blair (Senior Lecturer, University of Chester) who led through saucy double-entendres and allusions to describe the range of names and kinds of very short fiction. From dribbles, drabbles, palm-held, micro-fiction and many others, he showed how a world could open up from a hard-worked choice of words, and from the power of omissions. Using examples of thought-provoking word-minimalists he discussed the significance of white space, and came near viewing the tiny story on the big page as an art form.

The writing tutor, Pamela Painter, Emerson College, Boston, opened the workshops with a charm that held the audience in her grip. Within minutes she had writers composing the most unlikely but captivating story titles.

Subsequently her workshop plummeted writers into developing stories they had not known were in their heads.

In a thought-provoking and directly helpful workshop Kit de Waal brought participants into her world of powerful stories. She demonstrated how to make the title work for the writer, and used images to stimulate imagination within the ‘container’ that is flash fiction.

Jude, herself, led a dream workshop that produced amazing results. Using three different techniques the original dream fragment developed into a meaningful whole, using myth, underlying thoughts and a current experience.

Charismatic Paul McVeigh talked of the power of every word to summon up a setting, a character, an era through saying little but saying it exactly. He described “opening a box in readers’ brains” calling on their past knowledge to furnish what was not written. He advocates laying personal pain on the line and imbuing every sentence with passion.

Tania Herschmann enlivens her writing with her scientific background. She fascinated her workshop participants with examples and exercises using scientific concepts to form innovative prose.

There were other workshops from Vanessa Gebbie and Christopher Fielden: it was impossible to attend them all but informal discussion between events revealed a very high level of satisfaction. There was enthusiasm for the possibility of a second Flash Fiction Festival next year. Will it need a larger venue to meet the demand?

 

 

 

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Suggestions for writing a trilogy.

 

Much advice for writers suggests that series work best for indies. Is the same true of a trilogy?

A trilogy suggests an entity like the three-movement sonata in music, or the triptych in art. The form must be complete, whereas the novelist has more freedom to finish where s/he likes, at any point, at any length.  

A Relative Invasion is probably the only trilogy I’ll write. It was meant as a novel. I began to write the story of a good-hearted boy, Billy, who was going to need all the resilience he could muster to weather the threat of war, as well as that of his manipulative cousin. A trilogy never entered my mind. I wanted to explore how the emotions that led to WWII might play out in micro, in a South London family. This was a story about a life-time rivalry that would have lasting effects, mirroring the tensions in micro of those in pre-war Europe.

This is what happened when I was in the throes of writing the story:

Billy was only five years old at the start of the narrative. At around the fifth chapter I knew what the ending must be, and I wrote that in full. I then returned to Chapter Five. Just a matter of getting Billy from that point to the end, but by the time I had written one hundred thousand words, he was still only seven. At that point I stopped, thinking I had better made the story into two books. Backtracking, I wrote a suitable ending to Book One, which came at around seventy-five thousand words.           

When Book Two reached a similar length, World War Two had just ended, but I was a long way from the climax and culmination of the story. VE Day provided a natural conclusion of Book Two. Billy was then twelve, and cousin Kenneth, thirteen. Adolescence and the terrible austerity of London’s 1940s lay ahead, together with the fall-out from their life-long rivalry.

Book Three had to bring the boys to adulthood, and by the time I’d written to that point, I was at one hundred and twenty thousand words. I could have started the boys’ careers and made four books, but I had published and described the previous books as part of ‘a trilogy’.  I stuck to this, revised, and cut Book 3 down to one hundred and five thousand words. After all, the climax and the ending were set just as I’d planned.

Billy’s story was told, the arc I’d envisaged had been completed. I had written a trilogy. What can I advise would-be trilogists?

Early on, write a time-line.

Put in the historic events, check exact dates of these. Ensure you record each character’s date of birth, location, key events. In a trilogy, you may need to come back to them. Old incidents come back to bite the bottoms of the unwary.

Write your real ending before you get too far into the narrative.

You need to retain a clear sense of where your story is going as you write chapter after chapter. 

Mark out how much will happen in each book.

This way you can pace the drama evenly, making sure you don’t stack up the high points too closely together.

The flow of life needs to show:

precursors in Book 1, developments in Book 2, outcomes in Book 3. In music the third part would be recapitulation. Outcomes do have this element: a reworking of earlier events. If there’s a crisis in Book 1 it can resolve, but not really conclude there;  longer-term effects should pop up in Books 2 or 3.

There needs to be some sense of linear movement

even if the books are not arranged in chronological sequence. The reader will want to feel the size of the whole time span by the time s/he reaches the end.

Include several fully-imagined characters.

Three books are too many to focus on just one or two main characters. The work needs other characters with their own concerns for the main ones to knock against and react to. The range of possible interactions gives a more detailed picture of the protagonist(s) and a fuller character development .

Similarly, there needs to be more than one theme.

For instance, the main theme in my trilogy is the far-reaching effects of an ongoing childhood relationship. Connected to this is the theme of coming-of-age, bullying, parenting issues, the subtler effects of war service, and a re-examining where personal responsibility lies.

Although the trilogy will follow one arc each book also needs its own arc

My trilogy arc was before WWII began until the war effects in Britain ended – “You’ve never had it so good”) The three books fell into line with historic events: Book 1 – threat of war until its onset; Book 2 – the war years; Book 3 – post-war austerity. Each book contained its own drama; each marked great changes in Billy’s life. It’s these changes that make for a satisfying place to end one book and start the next.

AND I’d also suggest the following about a trilogy:

The story has to be substantial.

It has to touch on something in human nature that will resonate meaningfully over the timescale of your three books so that the three do comprise an entity, not three stories about the same people.

Finally, you need to be a sticker;

someone with a persistent, resilient personality who does not give up what they have started. I wrote these traits into my main character, and he helped me to stay the course.

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Fiction: EVERY character counts.

An exhibition of Breugel is showing at the Holburne, Bath, the first UK exhibition devoted to the dynasty. Not huge or cheap, but well displayed. The family tree shows the connections between the different artists. Breugel the elder, his two sons, one of Jan’s sons, two of his grandsons.

According to Johnson’s recent article in the Guardian, only Pieter, the elder is worthy of acclaim. The younger, he finds derivative, although his copies of Pieter snr’s work have served us well for centuries.

Things might have been different if the sons had received tuition from their father but sadly he died when they were infants. They were apparently taught by their grandmother. That’s a tale in itself.

Johnson doesn’t rate this, that the Holburne displays proudly:  

For the writer, however, the fascination lies in the characterisation shown in every tiny face appearing in the lively paintings. The Breugels studied and reproduced their local people and events rather than imagined religious ones. Avarice, shame, embarrassment, lust, enjoyment are only some of the emotions portrayed in the works. The faces, movement and expressions take us to a time we couldn’t have summoned up with that accuracy.

Writing a novel, have you made every character notable, memorable, as those in a Breugel painting? Even a walk-on part can illuminate the scene, his character impinging on the plot even if minimally.  It’s a wonderful recommendation if readers comment on the particular characters you have created, superb if they’re recalled some months later.

Breugel characters  are alive in the moment of seeing the paintings. This gives the writer a goal to strive for.

 

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REVIEW of IMPACT from Discovering Diamonds

It was good to receive this review of IMPACT, which is Book 3 of my trilogy, A Relative Invasion. The review comes from the Discovering Diamonds website. This site reviews historical fiction exclusively and awards a ‘Diamond’ to successful books.

The reviewer said,

“Impact is the third book in a trilogy about a family torn apart by World War II.

The obvious first question is: should the reader have read the first two books in the trilogy (Intrusion and Infiltration) in order to fully appreciate Impact? My answer would have to be that it is not necessary, but advisable. My enjoyment of Impact was not significantly impaired by not having read the earlier volumes, but I did feel it would have helped to have had a better understanding of what lies behind the hostility between Bill and his cousin Kenneth which is the source of the central conflict in the novel, particularly as this is a good story.

At the start of Impact, Bill and his mother arrive back at their London home as Victory in Europe has been declared. The war in the Far East is still continuing. The women and children have been evacuated to the countryside in order to escape the bombing of England’s capital city (the period covered in the earlier books). The men are serving in the forces.

The book follows Bill’s adolescence in post-war London with its bomb sites and shortages of food and clothing, as he matures from a twelve-year-old boy helping his mother and grandparents, into a teenager about to embark on National Service. But it is his relationship with his older but weaker cousin, Kenneth, that gives unwanted shape to his life, a constant source of simmering resentment.

The style of writing changes subtly as the boys age, the early chapters using language appropriate for a twelve-year-old, such as might be found in one of Enid Blyton’s juvenile mysteries featuring the Famous Five or the Secret Seven. By the time we reach part two, with both boys now in their mid-teens, the language is more mature, though still using expressions in dialogue which, whilst commonplace in that time and place, seem archaic today.

In some ways the relationship between Bill and Kenneth is reminiscent of that between Tom Brown and Flashman in Thomas Hughes’s nineteenth century classic, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Bill is the quiet, hard-working, kind and athletic, rather than intellectual, character, whilst Kenneth is the academically gifted bully. The characters are so well drawn that, as with Hughes’s novel, it is not impossible to feel some sympathy for both.

There are other parallels: Hughes’s novel is deeply revealing of Victorian attitudes to society and class; Ms Minett’s, similarly, exposes the snobbery and contempt for the labouring classes that existed among the suburban middle classes in 1940s Britain. The well drawn period details provide a believably realistic context for the development of both plot and character. Although I did spot one error regarding the radio show Round the Horn, which was in fact, first broadcast later than this novel depicts.

The story progresses steadily towards the shocking climax of Part One which drives the reader to  continue reading into Part Two in order to discover the consequence for both boys.

(It would have provided spoilers if the reviewer had said more about Part Two and I appreciate that he avoided this).

He concludes: “Impact provides a reminder for my generation (I was born in 1941) of how different life was in those distant, mid-twentieth century, days. For younger readers it offers valuable insights into the hardships and sacrifices their grandparents made in order to create the many social and educational advantages they enjoy.”

(I do think that adolescents would be shocked by what ‘austerity’ felt like in the 1940s, particularly the restricted diet!)

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Obsessive women: satirical short stories

 

In this 2nd edition of Me-Time Tales: tea breaks for mature women and curious men, there are stories short and long about women of all ages, at all stages.

Katie Fforde called the stories “Quirky and Intriguing”. No, they are not erotica. Hardly a glimpse of bare flesh. There is a subtly dark edge to the stories, most of which seem, at first, light-hearted. My intention was for readers to have second thoughts, just after they’ve finished a story.   

There are Kindle and ebook versions while the paper-back — neat enough to slip into a handbag or breast pocket — is available in bookshops (ISBN=978-0992716790) and on Amazon. It makes a good present for someone you know, or better still, their husband. A top-100 Amazon reviewer states “. .  . their hallmark of wry humour reminds me of a female, modern-day Saki” while another suggests it’s a delight “for both sexes”

During the writing, I imagined being each of these women: aged sixteen, covered with tattoos and lusting for good legs in a man; a shocked and frustrated shopper experiencing a moral dilemma; someone infertile, another overly fertile, a women with a dreadful aversion, someone adored and someone certainly not. I wrote them at different times and in different places, and subsequently forgot them.

The collection began when I came across one story, describing the most neurotic character. I realized I had several stories about women unused in my files. Looking them all out, I discovered their obsessions. I added more stories, coveringimages various kinds of angst. Reviewers converge on the descriptor ‘quirky’.

My other fiction is more serious, but, look, my avatar has two sides. These stories represent my irreverent one. I did enjoy writing them!

 You’ll encounter an array of fish, a pile of hot money, a loving mattress, a mangy dog, a range of bras and a prosthesis. I hope each story will perk up your commute or dispel your night-time preoccupations, and send you to work or to sleep with an uneasy smile of recognition on your face. Do enjoy, do write a review.

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