Writing my book: the first story, The Rented Room.

As I picked up the last dust-covered book and placed it carefully into the box, I found myself considering that night so long ago. I sat surrounded by cardboard vessels filled with printed tales to delight and horrify, but of all the stories I have written and read, none made such an indelible mark on my life as the story I became part of some 40 years ago.’

In 2019, just before lockdown, although we saw it coming, I was sitting next to one of the last students I taught face to face for a while before going on line. We were practising the ‘creative writing part of the English GCSE. Whilst they wrote, I re-worked the opening of a story I had started years earlier to give them a model example. It was inspired by the Larkin poem, Mr Bleaney. I imagined this lacklustre person’s spirit being trapped in the old room where he had died, and slowly taking over the next inhabitant’s spirit and energy. It grew into something slightly different, although I’m not going to give it away entirely. It was also slightly influenced by H G Wells’ The Red Room, which is a ghost story with no ghost. Like the scene in The Empire Strikes Back, where Luke goes into the tree, (die hard fans will know!), he only has to fight what he takes in with him. As Sherlock says, ‘there are no ghosts, save those which we make for ourselves.’ (yes – I’m a Star Wars and Sherlock nerd!)

In my story, there definitely IS a supernatural entity, although the psychological element, and the nature of life being just a ‘rented room’. is there too.

It’s also got a beginning a bit like the opening of The Go-between by L P Hartley – ‘The past is a foreign country’. Because I analyse lit for my other living, the literary influences and references are deliberate and fun for me to do. Actually, like work itself, to me it’s as necessary as breathing.

I love the idea of gender fluidity, and although I’m a straight girl, and identify as She/her, I sometimes feel in my head I could be any ‘character’. This may be because, as I later found out, I’m autistic, and it’s quite a common thing. I look like a ‘make-up and nails woman,’ but if you get to know me, you will begin to realise i’m not a girly girl at all. Never understood why we assign certain traits to certain genders since being really young. But, as usual, I’ve digressed. I think gender fluidity, a la Orlando is a post all on its own. So, the point I am trying to make, is that – ok I’m going to give it away- my protagonist is male. But many people read it with the expectation of a female voice and could not tell it was a man narrating until a good way in. I liked this.

It’s set in the past for most of the story, as it’s a flashback. I imagined post war England, grey, cold and wintry, a monochrome movie in my head. I LOVE those really creepy B&W horror movies of the past. Those which suggest, but do not reveal too much. The imagination is far more potent than anything served up on a screen. When I thought of tales that ‘delight and horrify,’ I imagined some of my own favourites: Poe, Stevenson, Wilde, Wells, Stoker – oh the list is endless! The language I used is deliberately ‘oldy-worldy’, and I wanted readers to feel they were reading a classic. I am also a hammer horror fan, so there’s more than a bit of playfulness in my scary tales.

The story itself reflects, I suppose, one of my fears – the fear of inertia and failure. Of having the life blood drained out of you. I obviously want you to read the book, so this is not the place for spoilers, but there’s something ghoulish and vampiric going on in the story!

Finally, how did I manage to write such a long short story? It’s around 8 thousand words I believe. Well, I did it on a train to Cambridge. How English is that? I wrote half on the way up (carrying on from the tuition lesson) and half on the way back! I promise there was a lot of re-drafting and editing though after that. I sent it to a magazine book quarterly called The Weird and Whatnot, based in the US. A paying journal which looked good – I saw it calling for submissions in Writing Magazine. They loved it and published it. It’s has one small tweak since then for this book, now the collection published by Austin Macauley.

Having this story published spurred me on to do more, and I started more stories, actually the last one in the book with a view to a novel. However, as I have already said in the last post, I decide to serialise it! Instead, poetry started flowing out of my brain – and I wrote a poem, An Afternoon Walk, sitting with a glass of wine at the kitchen counter. It took around 10 minutes – I write poems Elton John style – and it was published by Acumen. It is now in my second book Tourist to the Sun.

So I leave you with a creepy bit: ‘All the time I edged closer to the stairs, the dull thudding sound continued, growing more insistent with every tentative step I took. It seemed to mimic the sound of the footsteps of a slow and heavy beast, first a slide, and then a thud, repeating itself again and again, over and over, never changing pace but growing louder and more menacing as I moved towards it.’

You can buy the whole book, including this story, on Amazon, Waterstones, etc and from Austin Macauley with an author code discount as mentioned in yesterday’s post.

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I’ve been Virginia Betts, today.

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