I sometimes think I must have a split personality or twin souls, or maybe, the genes passed me from my parents are constantly battling with one another. The part of me that needs the freedom of wilderness and chaos is in constant conflict with my OCD other, which demands meticulous planning and order. I sort CDs in alphabetical order with the titles all facing the same way, arrange pebbles in neat but random groups, and line things up very precisely but not quite equally spaced. My OCD self is constantly busy, whereas chaos self is, not to put too fine a point on it, lazy. Consequently, life is a constant state of organised chaos, which, believe me, is better than chaotic organisation.
My career, such as it was, typifies this. I spent years working in a bank and post office where accurate accounts were essential, and in the bank at least, accounts had to balance to the penny every day; in eight years, not one penny was unaccounted for. Two children later, and finding myself a single parent, my release from a surfeit of order was painting watercolour landscapes, which I took to like a duck to treacle. I stuck at it and recently published a how-to book about painting seascapes in watercolour.
OCD me isn’t helped by my having married a child of chaos. I know where to lay my hands on everything in the kitchen cupboards, which cupboard, left or right-hand side, back or front, until that is, hubby gets in there. Nothing ever goes back on the same shelf, the same cupboard, or even the same room. OCD me often throws up hands in despair, but I knew what he was like when I married him – his clothes hanging and thrown everywhere except in the wardrobe or drawers told me that. Trying to change people is a lost cause, so chaos me embraces him with love.
A typical ‘writing’ day will start with a cup of tea which I take back to bed, and usually, this is the time when plot ideas for the day’s writing, and remedies for the previous day’s plot dilemmas, start to form. I try not to not get up, not be dictated to by routine; I’m retired, I tell myself, but OCD me demands the routine is stuck to. Walk the dog, where the ideas blossom, and I wish I’d remembered my voice recorder to get them down before I forget them, then breakfast and coffee in one hand while typing one-fingered to rush down the bare outline of the ideas, answer my emails, and invariably get sucked into social media by responding to relevant comment, promoting my existing titles on Facebook and Twitter, and becoming mired in the dreaded newsfeeds. Already chaos has taken over, and the planned ‘writing while it’s quiet and getting stuff down while it’s still in my head’ has gone for a burton.
By this time, husband is suggesting it’s time for a cappuccino – and I for one can’t resist. As I write, we are in lockdown, so it’s coffee and chat in the garden if it’s warm as there are no planned outings or unnecessary shopping etc (husband is in the vulnerable group, so we aren’t allowed out). I love gardening and hate housework, and the lockdown has removed much of the distractions that gave my life order; I no longer have any concept of time or even what day it is. Chaos is taking over in the house, but the garden is immaculate!
My ‘office’ reflects my split personality. My computer word and picture files are terribly organised, (husband strictly not admitted) and my research books have relevant pages neatly bookmarked with odd-shaped scraps of paper that get smaller and smaller as I go. torn from anything I have to hand and carefully annotated with scribble I can barely read. I write at a laptop in a reclining chair in my living room, usually in the evenings having procrastinated for most of the day, while half-watching a war film, Forged in Fire, Salvage Hunter, or Chasing Classic Cars.
On either side of my chair is a small table, both made by my husband – they too reflect my personality – odd shapes, lovely grain, and wonky legs, but beautifully polished tops– they’re the only things in the house that are – polished I mean; there is much that is odd-shaped and wonky, including myself.
The surfaces of these aforementioned tables are piled untidily with research books and notebooks with website links, book links, ASINs, promotion sites, and all manner of useful and useless writerly things. The spaces between, on top of, or under these, at the time of looking, contain a dog brush and comb, a SATs monitor, a hard-skin remover, a post-it note, a part bar of chocolate, a cup, and a plate – both empty, though the cup is usually half full of cold tea or coffee, and I have to be very careful where I place it as the table has a hole in it large enough to swallow a cup – I did say they were odd shapes.
You might guess by now that I didn’t plan to become a writer. I was perfectly happy having graduated to becoming a watercolour seascape artist, but after proofreading several novels for a friend, my husband asked me why I didn’t have a go. I told him I had no imagination, couldn’t write, and wouldn’t know where to start. So what did I do? Typed Chapter One with no clue what I was going to write and haven’t stopped since.
Similarly, I didn’t set out to write historical fiction, and neither did I intend to write about the inequalities and degradations that women suffered during the 19th and early 20th centuries, or the horror that was Auschwitz and the killing fields of WW1 Egypt, or the constricts of faith in Victorian England or global warming, but rather these things presented themselves to me, made me consider what the research might teach me, and I found I had to tell the stories to the best of my ability.
My writing process is as chaotic as my ‘life plan’. Something will spark an idea, which I mull for a while. I do some research – okay, a lot of research, even down to knowing what the weather was like in the summer of 1841, how good the crops were, and when the full moons were (It must be OCD me who does the research) – I have a beginning and a rough idea of the end, and the rest I leave to my characters, trusting that they will get themselves where they need to be by the time I type The End. So far, they have managed it very well despite my occasional interference, and I love them for it, warts and all. To balance this, obviously, OCD me keeps a chapter by chapter plan of what has happened with all relevant names, dates, and details with timelines neatly mapped.
And that’s procrastinated for another hour. Rosie, my latest heroine, is demanding my attention with good cause. She’s got herself roped into going on strike against the chain masters of the Black Country in August 1910, a wet summer by the way, and she’s worried about how she’ll feed her family, so I’d better go and reassure her that I shan’t let her starve before she loses it completely and lets a long-held and dangerous secret out of the bag.
Thank you for reading, and remember to keep breathing. You’d be surprised how often I forget.
http://author.to/FTCGboxset (The three books above)