Who else finds writing Christmas cards the cause not just of gladness but pain and sorrow? I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.
There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself. Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to. Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.
And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.
Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.
So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.
But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives. As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list – the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.
Perhaps the candle flame is there to remind me of that.
An effective fictional villain has, to my mind, one essential characteristic. The villain should build up in the reader a passionate desire for his or her comeuppance.
Creative writing starts with passion. Therefore, if you want to be a creative writer, the first thing to do is identify your passion.
Why is it that we sometimes fail to express the person on the inside, on the outside? We can often be held back by self-limiting negative beliefs.
As a novelist I enjoy writing about relationships. I’ve spent years observing people’s behaviour in all sorts of situations – within romantic relationships, family relationships, within groups both informal and structured, at dinner parties or self-help therapy groups or in other group situations such as writing workshops. In my mystery romance novel “Mystical Circles”, I create a hothouse atmosphere within a closed community, where relationships and liaisons flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly. Much depends on the undercurrents of motive behind the behaviour and interactions of the characters.
Here is an extract showing the interpersonal tensions that may be found in the hothouse atmosphere of “The Wheel of Love”.
“Life is but a dream,” Rory said.
“You really believe that?”
“Of course. Who’d have harsh reality when they can live here?” he replied.
Oleg moved within range. “Life’s no different from what it was outside. Still goes badly for me most of the time.”
She glanced at him, bemused. “I noticed you last night in the barn with Beth, Oleg. Didn’t you two sort things out at all?”
He glared at her. “What d’you mean by that? Sort things out? How? And why were you watching us?”
She took a deep breath. “I can’t help noticing how much you care for her.”
“She doesn’t care for me,” he snapped.
Silence fell. She sought words. “Perhaps you’ve misunderstood her true feelings, Oleg. Perhaps you think too little of yourself. Be encouraged by Craig. He says you’re in tune with your higher self.”
“That depends upon what he actually chose to tell Craig.” Rory spoke in a snide tone of voice.
“Rory’s jealous,” said Oleg.
Rory moved as if he was about to strike him.
Juliet, alarmed, quickly stepped between them. “What’s up between you two?” she asked.
Rory looked surprised. “Nothing,” he replied, and sauntered on.
Then she turned back to Oleg. “What have you done to upset Rory?”
“Other way round.” His voice filled with self-pity. “It’s him who upset me.”
“Oh?” She ducked under a low branch. “What did he do?”
He looked dejected. “He asked me if I could possibly love him.”
Juliet took the risk of flippancy. “Didn’t you say ‘yes, as a friend? But I love Beth more’? This is, after all, a wheel of love.”
“No, I’d never tell him that,” he retorted, in a fierce undertone. “It doesn’t work that way. Not with Rory. He gets violent.”
“Oh?” She started. Her heart missed a beat. “Violent? D’you mean he beats you up?”
But Oleg was clearly unwilling to say more.
Juliet now felt a frisson of fear when she looked at Rory. She knew she shouldn’t judge anyone here simply on the basis of what someone else said about them. Even so… She would treat Rory with just a little extra caution until she knew him better.
But what she really wanted to know right now was: how did Craig mean to deal with all these conflicting desires? Was he really equipped to handle them? Or was this, for him, a dream he never intended to wake up from?
At a recent Writers Workshop which I attended in London, one of the delegates asked this question of all of us who sat at my table: “Is there anybody here who wants to become rich and famous?”
A silence followed, of about three seconds in duration, when it seemed that no writer present dared to admit to this hubris.
Then I spoke up, “Well, from the age of seven, I have wanted to become a successful published author and live by my writing.”
Nine pairs of eyes swivelled in my direction. Surely, by now, life had taught me otherwise? For what does it actually mean to “live by” your writing? It means a significant amount of reliable money, which flows persistently into the writer’s bank account over the course of many years.
And there is of course a universe of difference between living for your writing, and living by your writing. It is a popularly-held belief that that the word ‘novelist’ is synonymous with ‘huge advance and three-book deal’, and ‘bestselling author living in a mansion on an island with panoramic views of the ocean from his or her writing room in the tower.”
Nevertheless, you do need money to live. And if companies are prepared to pay a liveable amount of money, year in year out, to, say junior clerks and secretaries and post-boys, why should not the world also accord that privilege to creative writers? And of course it does, to a happy few.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you buy books secondhand, are you delighted when you pick up a book for a bargain? How do you believe the world should reward those who write books?
A couple of days ago the words ‘dream home’ sprang into my mind. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was a bit like J.K. Rowling on that train journey when she was gazing out of the window day-dreaming and she thought ‘Boy wizard – doesn’t know he’s a wizard – gets invited to wizard school.’ Anyway, these words ‘dream home’ came into my mind as I was driving along in my car. And then I thought, Whoever first came up with the idea that any of us might, or indeed should, aspire to one day living in a ‘dream home’? And what gives some of us the right and the privilege to live in a ‘dream home’, whereas thousands of others are constrained by money, location, convenience and so on, and end up in a home which is OK for them to live in but in no way constitutes a dream home and never will?
Of course there are those in this world for whom ‘home’ is an improvised shack in a slum or on a rubbish dump. But who says such people don’t also have ‘dream homes?’ Or is the very concept ‘dream home’ one that our consumer society has invented so they can attach dream lifestyles to it and then attempt to sell us the products that will somehow propel us into those dream lifestyles?
In my mystery romance novel “Mystical Circles” you will find a house that qualifies to be my own personal dream home. Ever since I was a young child, my dream home has involved flagstone floors, whitewashed walls, secret staircases within the thickness of a wall, exposed beams, inglenook fireplaces and diamond-paned windows. Perhaps I was first influenced by a lovely English country pub which somehow got associated in my mind with warmth, happiness, belonging…
So why on earth do I think that a fifteenth century English timbered cottage (beautifully restored and renovated of course) or farmhouse or indeed an Elizabethan hall-house qualify to be my dream home? Because they remind me of things from childhood, because such houses contain idiosyncratic corners and minstrels’ galleries and sloping ceilings and uneven walls, and probably because these things are the stuff of children’s stories, (or the sort I read anyway). Houses that may provide entrances to other worlds… perhaps this in itself provides the definition of my dream home.
C.S.Lewis was first inspired for “The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe” by the house he and his brother explored when they were young children. An unused room with a mysterious wardrobe… This was a concept that turned out to be powerful and fertile, as did that of the boy wizard dreamed up on the train journey. There is a rich tradition in children’s literature of houses that somehow become portals to another dimension – consider the world Lewis Carroll projects Alice into through the looking glass in her house, wait for the clock to strike thirteen and see what follows in “Tom’s Midnight Garden” by Philippa Pearce, or step with Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” into the chilling parallel world of the Other Mother and the Other Father.
Having written this, I have now convinced myself that the only qualification dream homes need is portals to other worlds. What do you think? What is your idea of a dream home? Have you too been inspired and influenced by the stories you read as a child?
In my mystery romance novel “Mystical Circles” I explore the interpersonal relationships to be found in the hothouse atmosphere of a New Age commune. This is a place where relationships and liaisons flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly. The group I describe is based in an idyllic farmhouse in the Cotswolds. It is a “closed environment” in the sense that all the people in the group spend a lot of time together, having to deal with all their emotions and feelings about each other, their conflicts, their doubts and fears. I also explore what people in these situations do about their baggage from the past. This particular group teaches its members to let go of their past. But is this, in fact, possible?
Extract No. 1 from ” Mystical Circles”:
For several moments then, they stood in silence, gazing at the Severn Vale spread out before them.
“Almost as good as the view from Beaumaris,” he observed wistfully.
“Looking across the Menai Strait to Snowdonia, you mean?” she said. “Beautiful.”
He regarded her warmly, clearly touched by her empathy.
“I might be a Londoner,” she said, “but I do appreciate the countryside. And I loveNorth Wales.”
“I’m so happy to hear that,” said Llewellyn.
A companionable silence fell between them, as they turned their attention back to the landscape. It was broken by the Welshman. “I wish there was more contentment among the others down there in the valley.”
“Yes, peace seems in short supply, doesn’t it?”
“It’s inevitable you’ve noticed, Juliet. I dread to think what you’ll have uncovered by the time you leave.”
She chuckled but made no reply. Her stomach still felt twisted. Craig… Craig… she thought.
“You probably wonder why I defended the group when we first met,” he said, “and I persuaded Don and you to come to Dynamic Meditation. It’s because I believe in the principles behind it all.”
“Maybe. But do those principles work out in practice? I certainly didn’t expect to find this level of frustration, anxiety and anger. I’ve found it in Oleg, Zoe, Sam…” She would certainly not mention Craig’s name.
“I don’t deny that,” Llewellyn said. “But, for my part, I’m convinced I’m in the right place. OK, we’ve all brought our hang-ups with us. And that prevents it from being paradise. But would paradise inspire me as much?”
“Surely it would.” She liked his grin. “It was good enough for Wordsworth, Keats and Tennyson, wasn’t it?”
“No. Poets need this imperfect world. What sort of effect d’you think La Belle Dame Sans Merci had on Keats? Hardly the ideal relationship, was it?”
“No,” she admitted. “I’ll take your word for it, Llewellyn.”
But what she really wanted to know was who wrote that letter to Craig.
Llewellyn didn’t say anything for a few minutes. Then he said, “Let’s talk instead about your part in this, Juliet.”
“Mine?” She was immediately on guard.
“Yes, you, of course, Juliet,” he said impatiently. “You’ve changed everything.”
She threw a glance at him, and stumbled over a tree root, which nearly winded her. “How so?” she said, regaining her balance. “I’m only here as a journalist, Llewellyn.”
“No, you’re not,” he said unexpectedly.
“Last night,” he added, “was a step in the right direction.”
“A step in what direction?” she asked.
“In the direction of getting to know you better.”
“I hope you haven’t misunderstood me,” she said. “I enjoyed reading and talking about your poems, but…”
“Come on, I want to know what you really feel; not just about the poetry but about many things.”
She shook her head. “That’s not in my plan, Llewellyn.”
Extract No. 2 from “Mystical Circles”:
“The tank? What’s that? And what happens in it?” asked Juliet.
Conversation halted. James, Craig and Sam all swivelled their eyes to her face.
“Let me explain, Juliet,” said Craig. “I teach my students to seek their answers in the unconscious mind. A tried and tested way of doing this is in the isolation tank.”
“How?” she enquired.
Craig wore an enigmatic expression. Opposite, Zoe threw her a sharp glance. “The answers will come,” said Craig, “as you float. The tank’s filled with a thick, warm saline solution. You climb in, close the lid, and you’re in total blackness.”
Juliet shuddered. “I should hate that.”
Craig gave a tolerant smile. “Many love it. They find bliss there. It all depends on your viewpoint.”
“Where is the tank?” she asked.
“In a cabin of its own. The former cart hovel. Halfway between the barn and the goose house.”
“Ah yes, I’ve seen it.”
Craig waited a few moments. “Some of my methods may appeal to you more than others.”
They regarded each other slowly. “I doubt it,” she said.
Extract No. 3 from “Mystical Circles”:
Edgar said, “You don’t like things getting out of control, do you, Juliet?”
She felt stung. How dare he? But relaxing her professional mask, she laughed. “I admit it’s not a nice feeling, Edgar.”
He regarded her with a sardonic eye. “You won’t continue here for much longer and remain in control.”
“But that’s exactly what I propose to do.” She had no desire for a battle of wills. But if he wanted one, so be it.
However, when he next spoke he used a softer, more conciliatory tone. “I understand how you must feel, Juliet. Desire for self-determination; that’s true of each person here. When we first come we all intend to stay in charge of our lives. Look at Llewellyn, for example.”
“Llewellyn? What of him?” Juliet felt her jaw tighten.
Edgar now slipped into a more bantering style of speech. “Well, I understand he’s thought of little else but you, Juliet, since you both chatted together in his room on the night before last.”
She gripped both sides of her laptop. So he was leaping to conclusions about her and Llewellyn. She stayed quiet, but her face burned.
His eyes remained on her. He went smoothly on. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Since you first came, he’s quizzed me about you several times. It’s plain he’s got his eye on you. Go for it. You can’t stand back for ever.”
Extract No. 3 from “Mystical Circles”:
She experienced a pang of wistfulness. The farmhouse looked very peaceful: a visual representation of everything Juliet felt a community like this ought to be. Loving, tranquil, harmonious…
And yet, here she was, being eaten up by all sorts of worries. Zoe, and her infatuation with Theo. The doubts over Theo’s background. Then the fact that she still hardly knew who Craig was, and what he was about.
Was he hiding something? What really lay behind his dysfunctional relationship with his father? And was it any business of hers anyway? But the answer to that, she knew, was yes. Because she cared about it – despite all her best intentions, she cared deeply. And she still hadn’t resolved the mystery of who wrote that letter to Craig. The writer clearly loved Craig, longed for him to come quickly, had felt guilty about him in the past, but had now been forgiven by Craig. Juliet wanted to know who that person was. She felt she had a right to know. And she wanted to be rid of this terrible feeling in her stomach whenever she saw Craig. Was it yearning? No, impossible! All she knew was that it was tearing her apart.
And then there was the question of Rory and his unpredictable outbursts of aggression. Juliet knew Rory needed to be locked up. But that wasn’t going to happen. Not while Craig, for some twisted reason of his own, allowed him to run loose in this community.
A US reviewer says: “What Juliet finds when she reaches the ranch is an oddly charismatic and dysfunctional group of people…. there are strange things happening in the commune, and when a priest shows up it further traumatizes the group… This loving and freedom-believing cult, while wonderful on the surface is a cauldron of deceit and depravity on the inside… keeps you in suspense… deals with how relationships are formed and how the smallest of happenings can shatter lives… Skillman is a deft hand at creating characters. If you are interested in people and their foibles, you will enjoy this book.” Read the rest of the review on www.amazon.com.
In “Mystical Circles” I explore the conflict between two sisters Juliet and Zoe. Juliet, the older sister, aged around 30, is worried that the impetuous Zoe, age 22 and fresh out of university, has fallen in love with charismatic New Age guru Craig McAllister, and rushed off to join his esoteric spiritual group in the Cotswolds, where she seems determined to stay forever. How can the more sensible, responsible Juliet make Zoe see otherwise, and rescue her from this unsuitable man?
EXTRACT No. 1 from “Mystical Circles”:
“How are things going with Craig?” she asked.
“Fantastic. Couldn’t be better.” Zoe scuffed her trainers against the gravel, then pointed in a northerly direction. “Come on. Let’s go round the house to the front garden. We can sit there and talk.”
“Sure.” Juliet hurried after her sister. How she hoped Zoe would be reasonable, and at least understand her feelings.
Unlatching the gate, Zoe went through, and Juliet followed. Before them appeared the uppermost of a flight of stone steps leading down to a sunken lawn with a water
“This is stunning,” she said in awe.
“Isn’t it?” Zoe indicated the Scots pines and the blue cedars over to the north of the sunken garden. The two girls went towards these. Scattered beneath were a number of white cane chairs, set amid clumps of purple delphiniums.
As soon as they sat down, Zoe burst into excited speech. “So Juliet, what do you think?” Her eye fell on Juliet’s pocket. “You already have the brochure.”
“I’ve started reading it. Craig makes big promises, doesn’t he? They certainly lead you to expect huge rewards.”
“And you’ll find them,” declared Zoe. “Wait till you meet him. He’s out of this world.”
Juliet’s confidence began to fade. How would Zoe cope with her objections? “I already have met him, Zoe.”
“No! But that’s wonderful. So you’ll already know. He’s perfect.”
Juliet fought to hold onto her patience. “Well, I’m not quite sure about…”
“Whose side are you on?” Zoe’s expression had chilled.
Juliet leaned forward, and took hold of her by both shoulders. “Hey, I can see why you’ve fallen for him. He’s the best-looking guy I’ve ever met.”
Zoe visibly relaxed.
“If he feels the same about you as you do about him,” continued Juliet, “then that can only be good news.”
A smile of relief spread over her sister’s face. Juliet hated to spoil the mood. But she felt compelled to push home her point. “You’re here for the best of reasons, Zoe. And I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Let’s suppose that Craig is everything you believe he is. But even so – what’s with the Wheel of Love? Sounds a bit dubious to me.”
“We’re not like that Heaven’s Gate sect, you know,” Zoe protested.
Certain key words hammered into Juliet’s brain. Sharpen your subtle knife…cut a window into heaven…freedom you’ve never dared dream of… “This heaven stuff he goes in for… the bit about freedom you’ve never dared dream of, and him reaching into your spirit… What’s that all about?”
“You’d need to live as one of us to understand,” said Zoe.
So she was going to be evasive. Juliet flared up. “Give me a break, Zoe. I won’t do that.” She saw her sister bite back a swift retort.
Juliet is a freelance radio journalist. And while she’s here at the Wheel of Love she takes the opportunity to do interviews for a radio documentary about the group – with Craig’s permission of course. It’s a useful cover for her true motive of rescuting Zoe. But can Juliet stay objective?
Extract No. 2 from “Mystical Circles”:
It was probably best to concentrate on her lunch. But she couldn’t resist pushing Edgar further on the subject. “I’m not a member of the group, and have no plans to join. I’m here as an impartial observer. And there are various guidelines that I have to observe…”
“The broadcast media has the highest code of conduct…” murmured Edgar. A titter passed between the other three at this.
“What you suggest is impossible. If you’re to achieve anything here, you’ll have to take part, and live as one of us,” said Laura.
Juliet swallowed two or three times to control her sense of panic. Deep down she knew Laura was probably right. And that was exactly what worried her. Could she pretend to go along with their beliefs without compromising herself? Weren’t they all nuts, in one way or another? She shrank from it. And yet she knew she wasn’t the only one here who felt like that. Surely Don did too.