Fiction, Writing Tips

Become a better creative writer with online classes!

Online creative writing classes at www.writingclasses.co.uk start today, but the first week is orientation, so you still have time to sign up! I know this because I’ve taken classes, and I used to tutor Creative Writing 1, Novel Writing 1, and (formerly) Intro. to Magazine Writing at the Edinburgh-based online school.

The Blue Suitcase
Director Marianne’s  historical novel

 

If you’re interested in creative writing — whether as a complete beginner or as an experienced writer who just needs a little boost — these are great classes! The tutors are so positive, and the notes and exercises help stretch your brain and get the creative thoughts zooming! Each course is 10 weeks, and you post writing assignments in public folders and comment on each others’ work. Students come from all corners of the globe — India, Scotland, England, Spain, Hong Kong, Dubai…

Anyway, I am still working away on The Rain Catcher and hope to post another snippet soon. Thanks to everyone who reads and supports my blog!

The Rain Catcher

The editing power of blogging!

For some reason, it is easier for me to edit on my novel on my blog than anywhere else! Is this because I know I have an audience and so toss out boring, redundant words out of consideration for the readers? I hope so! Does anyone else find that they write differently on their blog? Anyway, I’m posting another snippet from The Rain Catcher… feel free to comment if you want to!

Recap: Katy’s staying in Scotland with her estranged mother for the summer, but she’s starting to notice some flaws in the woman she only knows through letters…

Snippet Four

After dinner (or “tea” as they call it in Scotland), Mom and I walked to her apartment, about a block from Aunt Claire’s. Mom also stayed in a tall stone building, pressed right up to the busy street, but she lived on the ground floor.

“I have my own garden!”

“Wow!” I tried to sound impressed at the square of land the size of our dining room table, surrounded by black iron railings. Mom looked so proud of the gravel and lone rosebush, withered and crooked from the sharp wind. But all I could think was, “This is it?”

Mom’s flat was even smaller than Aunt Claire’s. Her bedroom contained one twin bed and a rickety bookshelf filled with pottery jugs and vases full of dried flowers. The bathroom had a shower but no bath. On top of every surface in the living room sat tiny brown bottles and glass jars of what looked like sea salt. Bunches of herbs hung drying upside down on the walls. The place smelled like an explosion of Yankee Candle.

“What is all this stuff?”

“My aromatherapy business.” Mom threw her yoga bag onto the couch. “I make bath salts and lotions, that sort of thing, and sell them at car boot sales and at the chemist’s on the corner.”

“What’s a car boot sale?” And what was a “chemist”?

But Mom was already on her way out the room. “I could murder a cup of tea,” she called over her shoulder. I dashed after her.

“Murder?”

Mom’s kitchen was the size of my closet. She’d stacked boxes of cereal and pasta on top of the short refrigerator. A loaf of bread and jars of jam and peanut butter balanced on the windowsill above the sink, and pots hung from a contraption on the ceiling light. Mom ducked her head to avoid a frying pan as she filled an electric kettle with water. How did she live like this?

“Didn’t you get enough tea at Aunt Claire’s place?”

“If there’s one thing you should know about the Scots, Katy, it’s that there is no such thing as too much tea.”

Back in the living room with our tea, Mom laid her head against the couch and closed her eyes. I looked around for a TV but couldn’t see one. Come to think of it, where was my 7th-grade school photo? I’d been proud of that one – caught off guard by a joke the photographer had cracked, I’d smiled with my mouth open, instead of clamped shut, and had actually looked pretty.

“Um… So, what will we do this summer?”

“Hmm?”

“What’s on the agenda, as Dad would say.”

“Och, we’ll decide that another day, Katy.”

“Dad said you wanted to show me around Edinburgh. Can we visit the castle? And where you guys used to live? And can we have fish ‘n’ chips in newspaper and eat them on the street?” Dad had told me about waiting for buses in the rain with Mom, their hands warm and tummies happy from the greasy fish and chips. I’d always wanted to try it.

“Yes, yes. We’ll do all that, Katy.” Mom sounded impatient.

My stomach began to ache. It didn’t feel right; Mom had invited me to stay with her for the summer. Didn’t she have an idea of what we were going to do for the next four weeks?

“Dad didn’t give you an itinerary?” I fake-laughed.

Mom sighed. “I suppose we could visit Chamber Street Museum. That’s got a nice tea room. And the Botanics are always nice…”

I had no idea what she was talking about but nodded keenly. “I’m happy with anything,” I said. “It’s fun just to be with you.”

Mom blushed and took a gulp of her tea.

“Did you get those photos I sent you?”

“Em… Oh, right! Yes, they’re lovely! I’ve put them up at work.”

“Good!”

We sat for a few moments, and I tried to think of what to say. On the plane, I’d had tons of questions to ask Mom, but now we were together, my mind was blank. All I could think of was that she hadn’t been at the airport. It wasn’t that big of a deal, I told myself. Work was work, that’s what Dad always said. But when I tried to imagine Dad not meeting me at the airport, I couldn’t.

At 2:15 a.m. I woke up dying of thirst. I got up from the couch and tiptoed into the kitchen to get a cup of water. As I was gulping it down, I heard the front door close. I froze. Floorboards creaked in the hallway.

Suddenly, I imagined Ewan creeping toward the kitchen, an empty beer bottle raised above his head like a caveman’s club. I swallowed and tried to breathe, looking around for a possible weapon. I could block the door with the burlap sack of flour or crash the plant pot by the sink over his head…

But then a door creaked; it had to be Mom’s bedroom because I could see the bathroom from where I stood. I waited a few seconds and, not hearing any other noises, crept toward Mom’s room. Her door stood halfway open. From the dim light of the clock radio, I saw Mom huddled under her blankets.

I hurried back to the couch, my feet freezing cold. Why had Mom gone out at this time of night? Had she stepped outside to get a breath of fresh air? Or had she gone somewhere and left me all alone in the apartment? My stomach churned.

The Rain Catcher

The Rain Catcher, snippet 3

Well, here’s another nugget from my on-going Young Adult novel in progress, The Rain Catcher. I’m taking it slowly, as you can tell — whenever I rush things, I realize I’m getting away from the characters and the story. So, for now, I’m backtracking and am concentrating on making sure each chapter stays in the same style and voice, instead of rushing off to nowhere fast!

A quick recap: Katy has arrived in Edinburgh from North Carolina to stay with her mother for the summer. Her parents split up when she was three. But her mother didn’t show up at the airport; now, she’s at her Aunt Claire’s apartment (“flat”) and is about to be introduced to her aunt’s creepy boyfriend, Ewan.

Snippet Three

The man sat with his legs propped on the coffee table, eyes glued to the TV. He licked his lips like a lizard. I waited for Aunt Claire to yell at him to get his dirty boots off her table, but she just stared at him.

Finally, she said, “Erm… Katy, this is Ewan. Ewan, this is Katy.”

Ewan slithered his eyes to mine; they were the color of empty Coke bottles.

“American, eh?” He sneered as though being American was something only idiots did.

“Yeah, from Mebane, North Carolina.” Why had I said that? He didn’t know where Mebane was and didn’t care. When on earth was Mom going to get there?

“Do ye watch American football?”

“No.”

“Basketball?”

“Not really.” Dad and I were more into star gazing with the telescope Granddad had gotten him for his 40th birthday. We’d set it up on the back porch and look for meteors.

“Hmmph.” Ewan went back to watching cricket on T.V.

I followed Aunt Claire into a kitchen the size of Dad’s walk-in closet. She switched on an electric kettle (like the one Dad and I take camping if the campsite has electricity) and opened a tin box with a picture of Prince William and Princess Kate on it. I smiled.

Do you like the Royal Family?”

Aunt Claire snorted. “It was a present from Auntie Fiona. She loves them!”

She took out two tea bags and stuck them into mugs on the counter. We stood awkwardly, waiting for the kettle to boil. I studied her kitchen. On the refrigerator (which was shorter than me!) were postcards of beaches. One said, “Florida’s Calling!”

“Have you ever been to Florida?”

“No, but your mum went last Christmas…” her voice faded as she saw my face. “She wanted to fly up to North Carolina to see you, but it was a super cheap flight. Half price London to Miami.”

The kettle started to whistle and switched itself off. My aunt quickly poured hot water into our mugs, not looking at me. My face burned. Mom had been in the States and hadn’t even phoned to let us know? Dad could’ve gotten us cheap tickets to fly down to Miami, or we could have driven. Even if it took all night, it would have been worth it to see Mom again.

“Milk? Sugar?”

“Umm…” I’d never had hot tea, only iced and soaked in sugar, but right then I didn’t feel like drinking. I just wanted to talk to Dad.

“I bet you like it milky and sweet, like me,” my aunt said, stirring three teaspoons of sugar into each mug. “They don’t drink tea in America, do they? Heathens!” She smiled, trying to cheer me up.

“Can I use your phone. I need to call Dad to let him know I’m here. I have a phone card,” I added, figuring Aunt Claire probably didn’t have a long-distance phone plan.

“Oh, right. Follow me.” She darted through the living room, as though hoping Ewan wouldn’t notice us, and led me to a bedroom with a full-sized bed and orange knitted curtains.

“Don’t ask,” Aunt Claire said, waving at the curtains. “Your mum’s idea.”

She reached under the bed and pulled out a cordless phone. I didn’t have the energy to ask why she kept the telephone hidden under the bed.

“When you’re finished, come and have a cup of tea and a biscuit. You must be famished.”

“Um…yeah.” What on earth did “famished” mean?

I dialed the number on my phone card. After one ring, Dad picked up.

“Hey!” Dad was at work; the coffee maker gurgled comfortingly in the background, reminding me of mornings at home, and his co-workers laughed at something funny. “I was starting to get worried. Everything okay? You’re at your mom’s place?”

“I’m at Aunt Claire’s apartment.” I swallowed and tried to keep the tears out of my voice. “Mom’s not here. She’s teaching a yoga class.” Keep it together, Katy.

“Oh.” Dad didn’t speak for a couple of seconds. “I’m sorry, Katie. Your mom has a habit of getting her times mixed up. She’s got a brain like a bag of tennis balls, you know?”

That was his favorite expression, “a brain like a bag of tennis balls”; I had no idea where he got it from.

“Mom can’t wait to see you.”

“Sure.” My voice trembled and I sucked in a breath, trying to stop my hands from shaking. “Did you know Mom was in Miami last Christmas?”

“Miami? What was she doing there?”

“Vacation, I guess.” I breathed slowly and wiped my eyes with my sleeve.

“Huh,” he said again. “Well, don’t worry about it, Kiddo. Just have a good time and get me some of that great Scottish shortbread!”

Really? Mom had been in the U.S. and hadn’t even called us? And Dad was okay with it? Maybe Mom had been embarrassed because she couldn’t afford to visit us. Maybe she’d worried that Dad would offer her money, and she was too proud to take it.

“And call me if you need anything.”

“Okay.”

“Anything at all.”

“I WILL!” Jeez!

When I got back to the living room, Aunt Claire was sitting on the couch with a photo album open on her lap. She beckoned me to sit beside her. Ewan sat at the other end of the couch drinking a beer.

“Do you remember Auntie Fiona’s flat, where you and your mum and dad used to live?”

I shook my head, hoping she didn’t notice my puffy eyes. I’d been three when my parents split up, and Dad had taken me to live with him in North Carolina. He said he wanted me to grow up with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. Mom and Aunt Claire’s parents were dead, and they didn’t keep in touch with any other family members, except Auntie Fiona, who’d taken care of them when they were kids.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake! Look at my hair!” Aunt Claire pointed to a photo of herself with blue hair. “Liz dyed it for me. Can you tell?”

I smiled and pointed to another photo, one of Mom with half straight and half frizzy hair. “What happened in that one?”

“I tried to perm your mum’s hair but ran out of the chemicals halfway!”

Just then the living room door opened, and in walked a big woman in a brown coat. I just about jumped out of my skin, thinking she was going to rob the place!

“Mavis! Since when do you have a key?” Aunt Claire shot up off the couch.

Mavis ignored her and stomped past us. “Ewan, I brought ye some lamb for dinner,” she yelled from the kitchen.

Ewan dragged himself off the couch. “Aye, Mum.”

So, Mavis was his mother!

Aunt Claire stormed over to the kitchen. I followed behind, peeking over her shoulder. Mavis stood by the refrigerator, clutching a packet of frozen peas to her chest.

“Put down those peas!” Aunt Claire shrieked. “Those are my bloody peas. I bought them at Morrisons!”

“Aye, it’s all you bought!” Mavis snarled. “You’ve been starving my only child!”

Aunt Claire picked up a phone book waved it in the air. “If you don’t leave right now, I’ll drag you out by your hair!” I grinned. The fiery Aunt Claire was back!

The doorbell rang, and my stomach did a flip. Aunt Claire didn’t take her eyes off Mavis. The doorbell rang again. Nobody moved. Come on! I squeezed my hands together. What if it was Mom?

Someone called out behind us, “Hellooo! Anybody ho-oome?”

“Mom!” I dashed into the living room.

“Katy!” Mom wrapped me up in a hug. She smelled like dried flowers and wore her hair in a ponytail tied with purple ribbon. She looked like a birthday present. Her hair tickled my nose as she rocked me. I held on tight, afraid to let go in case she disappeared.

Mavis barged past us. “Cow!” she hissed before slamming the living room door. Ewan dashed after her. “Mum! Come back!”

“Och, what a woman!” Mom bustled over to the couch and sank onto the cushions.

“She’s not a woman; she’s a monster!” Aunt Claire came into the living room carrying a tray of cookies and a pot of hot tea. As we sat, “blethering,” I watched the way Mom moved her lips around words and tucked the hair behind her ears. She had my long forehead and thin lips. I touched her denim jacket to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

“I don’t know how you put up with that man,” Mom said, finally.

“You should change the locks, now that he’s gone, Aunt Claire. Is there a hardware store around here?”

They both looked at me for a second and then burst out laughing.

“You’re not as meek and shy as you make out!” Mom said. My cheeks burned.

“Katy, that’s the best idea I’ve heard all year,” Aunt Claire said, and I felt a lot better.

The Rain Catcher

The Rain Catcher, Snippet Two!

Kind words from my writer friends have inspired me to keep on working on my Young Adult/middle grade novel, The Rain Catcher! I feel really lucky to have such great support! Here is the next snippet…. If you didn’t read the first section, please check it out here.

Snippet Two

We stepped outside the airport, and the wind hit me like a blast of refrigerator air. Aunt Claire dove into her purse and pulled out a packet of cigarettes, which surprised me, since no one in our family back home smokes. Well, Granddad sometimes chews tobacco, but that’s just for show, Dad says. Whenever his “Yankee” neighbors jog past the front porch in their yoga pants, Granddad throws a wad of tobacco into his mouth, gnaws on it for a few seconds, and spits out the juice into an old brass spittoon he got at a yard sale. After the neighbors have passed, he rushes in and brushes his teeth, Dad says.

“Where’s my mom?” When I didn’t see her at Arrivals, I’d thought she must be waiting outside, perhaps circling the airport instead of paying for a parking space, like my Aunt Marsha does up in New York City.

“Em… She has to teach a yoga class.” Aunt Claire tugged my sleeve, leading me toward a yellow sedan with dents in the sides, as though someone had rammed a shopping cart into it many times. She wiggled the key in the lock and banged on the trunk until it creaked open. Then she threw my suitcase in; I was glad the only breakable thing in there was my sunglasses, which I probably wouldn’t need, judging from the blanket of gray clouds above our heads.

“She couldn’t take off a few hours?”

“Well… she’s already missed three!”

“Why did she miss them?”

“Hmmph! She’s a bit of a free spirit, your mum.”

“What does that mean?”

But my aunt didn’t answer, just put both hands on the roof, planted her feet, and began rocking the car back and forth. I stood watching her.

“What on earth are you doing?”

“It helps to get the car started; on the way over here, it conked out. Had to coast into the parking space.”

“But why does rocking it work?”

“No idea. I saw Ewan doing it before, and it seemed to do the trick.”

She got back in, and sure enough, the car started.

“Who’s Ewan?”

Aunt Claire ignored my question.

We drove past fields of brilliant yellow flowers and then cottages with brown roofs and little gravel front yards and tiny cars parked on the street; they looked like Lego houses. Behind them, low green hills lay like piles of cabbage in the distance. One cliff stuck out like a book lying on its side.

“That’s Arthur’s Seat,” Aunt Claire said, seeing me staring.

“Who’s Arthur?”

“No idea.”

Storefronts began popping up as we got closer to the city. A man in a black turban stood in front of a fruit stand, perhaps waiting for someone to buy a bag of oranges or apples. (I think there are maybe three Indian people in the whole of Graham.) Girls in navy school uniforms trotted down the sidewalk. Summer vacation hadn’t started here yet, obviously. My school had finished at the beginning of June, and here it was nearly July. Thank God I didn’t live here!

We drove for what was probably only a couple of miles but got stuck behind the red “double decker” buses, and so we didn’t get to Aunt Claire’s place for another 40 minutes. By that time, I had dozed off and didn’t wake up until Aunt Claire jerked up the handbrake, nearly sending me into the windshield.

“Here we are!” She jumped out of the car and began assaulting the trunk again until it finally opened. Then she pulled out my suitcase and began marching up the street.

“Wait!” I called, struggling to unfasten the seatbelt which suddenly did not want to let me go. I pulled on the strap until I had enough to slide under it, then pushed open the door and dashed after my aunt. We passed a Scot Bets and a bar called The Malevolent Crow (weird name for a bar, surely?) and another fruit stand. The green apples looked kind of bruised, and the oranges looked more green than orange.

“Wait here.” Aunt Claire disappeared into the shop, leaving me standing beside my suitcase, the wind whipping my hair above my head. I stared at my shoes, hoping nobody would notice the strange teenager standing by herself. I wondered if people could tell I was American; I just had on jeans and a green sweatshirt (my usual outfit), but suddenly my sneakers seemed unusually bright in the grimy street.

“Back again!” My aunt stuffed two unopened packs of cigarettes into her purse, and we were off again. Three more blocks (why had we parked so far away?), and we reached a grungy-looking black door. Brown scuff marks spotted the lower half, making me wonder if someone wearing big work boots had tried to kick it open more than once.

We stepped into a stairway as damp and dark as a dungeon, the only light trickling from a skylight high above.

“I’m on the top floor,” Aunt Claire said, lugging my suitcase behind her. Why wasn’t I surprised?

Once inside Aunt Claire’s “flat,” I followed her down a shadowy hallway, the walls lined with hooks of scarves and coats and umbrellas. A holey rug covered the floorboards, which creaked horribly as we walked over them. I felt a breeze from somewhere and shivered. The T.V. or radio chattered from down the hall, and I wondered who was there, waiting for us.

Suddenly, I had a thought. Maybe it was Mom! Maybe she wanted to surprise me; it had been so long, the only contact we’d had was through letters and a yearly phone call (maybe not even that often). I held my breath, a smile creeping across my face, not wanting to give the game away. I’d act surprised, so as not to spoil their game. My heart sped up, like the wheels on the old-fashioned steam trains Granddad had taken me to see at the Transportation Museum in Spencer. It had been Easter — I was six — and we’d ridden a train with the Easter Bunny. Had I remembered to bring the photograph album to show Mom?

Aunt Claire pushed open the door at the end of the hall, and I poked my head in, unable to wait any longer. My eyes stung with anticipation and then, dread, as on the couch sat not my mother but the creepiest man I’d ever seen.

Uncategorized

Yes or No??

In honor of Scotland’s historical vote for independence today, here’s The Proclaimers! Whether the country votes “Yes” or “No,” taking positive action of any kind is a step in the right direction. My mother and I left Scotland more than 20 years ago because of the lack of jobs and the lack of livable wages. I don’t think things have changed hugely today; just look at all the Scots in America, Australia, and across the world who’ve had to leave in order to have successful careers. We didn’t leave because it was the easy way out — we had to leave behind family and friends, who we still miss dearly today. My mother and I came to the U.S. with two suitcases, leaving behind our mementos, culture, and everything familiar to us. We left our homeland because the choices were limited to none.

Let’s hope that from today onward, Scotland will push forward onto a brighter future!

Book Reviews

Taking Scotland by storm!

In honor of my upcoming novel, The Rain Catcher, which is set in Scotland, I’ve decided to share two Scottish books that I think are great! The first, Women Talking Dirty by Isla Dewar, my aunt sent me years ago. It’s one of the few books I’d label “irreverent,” and every time I read it I feel better about life!


The novel describes the eclectic friendship between polar opposites Cora and Ellen. Cora’s a Highlander, while Ellen grew up in the drab Edinburgh suburbs. Cora’s a single mum, struggling with two boys and a lifetime-worth of guilt over her misspent youth. Ellen’s a reclusive comic-strip artist, caught up in a dead-end relationship with Daniel, whom she recklessly marries. The two share laughs, buckets of tears, bottles of vodka, and the secret to a successful dinner party — the edible bloody Mary!

 

The second book, I actually never finished. When I was 10 and still living in Scotland, my teacher read The Hill of the Red Fox by Allan Campbell Mclean to the class. We were hooked! But before she finished the book, I moved with my mom to the States. I always wondered how the book ended! I don’t remember much about it, other than it’s kids’ thriller set in the Isle of Skye. The main character 13-year-old Alasdair takes a train ride through Scotland and on the way encounters a shady character who slips him a note before disappearing from the train. I honestly can’t remember what happens, but our whole class loved it and was hooked on our teacher’s every last word! All I remember is being enveloped in this mysterious Scottish landscape — it was really magical!

Uncategorized

The Rain Catcher

YA novel, The Rain Catcher

Our first publication, The Rain Catcher, will be released summer 2014. This young adult novel follows Katy as she spends the summer in Scotland with her estranged mother, Liz, and living-on-the-edge Aunt Claire. The three end up on a bizarre road trip through the Highlands, whizzing past Loch Ness and Inverness, supposedly sightseeing, but Katy begins to wonder if her mom and aunt are actually running from something — or someone!