Alchemy or Serendipity?

(This post was previously published on April 7th on the Authors Electric blog site.)

When it’s going well, there’s a certain alchemy to writing. I’ll explain with reference to the last (so far) of my novels, The Likeness. It’s embarrassing to admit that, when it was a WIP (Work In Progress), the IP bit went on for ages. In the good old days, it used to take me about 6 months to write the first draft of a novel, but The Likeness crawled on (and off) for at least 2 years. It eventually made it over the 70,000 word mark but I had no idea why it had been so much like hard work.

It’s a sequel to The Figurehead, which is a historical crime novel that, in the course of writing, also became a romance, and part of the reason why I’d been dragging my heels was that I wasn’t sure how I intended to resolve the problems of the relationship between a figurehead carver, John Grant, and Helen Anderson, the daughter of a rich merchant. The novel’s set in 1841, when attitudes to marriage and extra-marital goings-on didn’t leave much scope for … well, anything really.

But then something – a bit of alchemy – came out of the blue. As well as the romantic relationship and the obligatory crime, the story’s architecture relied on two separate threads: the arrival in Aberdeen of a theatre group to perform melodramas at the Theatre Royal; and the determination of Helen, an only child, to become involved in the family business. And, without me planning, or at first even noticing it, they both began to reach a crucial stage at about the same time. For me, it was an interesting – and pleasant – discovery. But I soon realised that it was more than just a coincidence and I started looking at them in a different way, not as the writer but as a sort of analyst of how the various elements were working, what their ‘significance’ was. In a way, I started thinking like a potential critic or reviewer. I don’t mean that I did it consciously; it’s just now, writing this, that I realise that’s the best way to sum up the experience. I wasn’t looking at the situation and wondering where to take each thread next; instead I was aware of what turned out to be pretty obvious parallels between them. On their own, which is how it seemed, these two separate elements had started feeding off one another and were moving closer together.

It’s not magical. The two threads were part of my imaginings. They belonged in the same mental space, and were, I suppose, bound to inform and affect one another, but that’s at a subconscious level. The effect it had when I started considering them at the conscious level was to help me to understand them better and see how I could exploit the parallels. It was one of those ‘being in the zone’ experiences which now and then make writing such a privilege.

There’s a secondary motive, however, for choosing this subject for a blog. As I mentioned in a previous blog, apart from introducing me to woodcarving, which I took up as part of my research and still enjoy, The Figurehead  allowed me to indulge in a dream I’d always had – to sail in a square-rigger. For just a few days I was a paying member of the crew of the Christian Radich on a voyage from Oslo to Leith. She’s the ship which featured in the old BBC series, The Onedin Line. If you don’t remember, or don’t know the series, you’ll see just how beautiful she is if you watch the opening of this Youtube clip:

Anyway, as well as the self-indulgence of taking turns at the wheel of such a vessel, it gave me the material for a long short story, Death Ship. I tried to make this permanently free on Amazon but apparently, that can’t be done. So, if you’d like to know what it was like on the North Sea in a fresh South-Easter (with added murders), it’ll either cost you 99p. for a Kindle copy or you can email me and I’ll send you the typescript for nothing.


Friends is the latest in the 800-word story series. You’ll find the first one here and the second one here.

I can’t speak for Eden, but I’m fairly confident that, like me, she finds that our collaboration continues to help us learn more about both our own writing and writing generally. This month it was my turn to write the opening and, having to include the seemingly unpromising prompt of ‘She found a diamond bracelet in the back of the car’, I really had no idea where to start, so, not even trying to guess where it would take us, I decided that the sentence suggested something about luck and took it from there. In fact, as you’ll see, the subject became something else altogether.

Prompt: ‘She found a diamond bracelet in the back of the car’
Parts 1 and 3 and title: Bill
Parts 2 and 4: Eden

* * *



Petey and Joe had been friends since Primary School and, even back then, it was Petey who had the girls and Joe who wondered why he didn’t. Neither was funny-looking, but Petey had the chat. He even used it to try to shift some of the girls’ attention to Joe. It sort of worked a bit but, in the end, it was always Petey they wanted to be with.

Up until they were both fifteen, it was OK, but when kissing and the other hormone stuff kicked in, Joe’s frustrations and envy began to show more openly and they spent less time in each other’s company. In one way that was good, because with Petey out of the picture, Joe got more female attention, but each missed the other and the rare times they were out together, they talked mainly about the pre-girl bits of the good old days.

One Saturday evening, though, the girl thing did come up.

“It’s just luck,” said Petey.

“Yeah, but it’s all one way,” said Joe. “Luck’s supposed to even out.”

Petey couldn’t argue with that and anyway, he was meeting Sally at ten, and so it was nearly time for him to go.


Joe had no interest in meeting Sally, but Petey insisted. The boys left the pub and walked toward where Petey had parked his car.

“Come on, you’ll like her. Besides, I’ll give you a ride home after I pick her up. You’re on the way.”

“Oh, where are you going?” Joe tilted his head in his friend’s direction.

“Umm … well …”

An uncomfortable silence filled the air. “Is it a secret?” Joe said.

Petey blew out a loud breath as if exhausted. “Of course not, don’t be daft. Sally wants me to see something at Colemans, that’s all.”

Joe screwed up his face. “You mean Colemans, the jewellery store? That Colemans?”

Petey nodded. “That’s the one.”

“It’s late, the store’s closed, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is, but she wants to show me something in the display window, been bugging me about it for weeks.” He raked his fingers across his hair. “I’ve put her off, but I can’t any longer. I’ve been meaning to tell you, but …”

Joe stopped mid stride. “Tell me what?”

Petey turned to him just as they arrived at his 1980 beat-up Ford Mustang. With a sheepish look, he said, “Sally and I are getting married.”


The silence as they drove was awkward, menacing. At Sally’s house, Joe, looking straight ahead, asked, “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Marriage. Why?”

“Dunno,” said Petey. “Love, I s’pose”.

“Yeah, right,” said Joe.

Sally was waiting for them. Joe moved from the front seat to the back. She took his place and kissed Petey, who jerked his head towards the back seat, said, “This is Joe” and drove off again. There was tension between them, an edge, and the silence stretched. At last, Joe’s voice, its pitch higher, came from the back seat.

“Better than your last… fiancée.”

The final word was a sneer. The silence returned, then Joe again.

“Daisy, was it? Debbie?… No wonder they put her away… Bloody liar… Just a slag… Said she found a diamond bracelet in the back of the car… a Rolex on a basin in the bathroom… that credit card on the pavement… Yeah, right.”

Silence again.

“Bloody chancer … She was anybody’s you know. All over Bennie every Friday night… it was his watch she nicked…”

Sally looked at Petey, who shrugged his shoulders.

There was the echo of a laugh and the silence fell again. Sally turned her head. Joe was crying.


Before the car came to a full stop, Joe opened the door.

“Hey!” Petey looked in the rearview mirror.

“Let me out!”

“What the—?” Petey hit the brake; the car lurched forward. Joe lost his balance and fell into his seat. The door slammed shut.

Petey immediately turned to Sally. “You okay? You hurt?”

“I’m fine … fine.” Sally smoothed down the front of her dress. “You weren’t going fast.”

“You sure?”

“Yes,” she said, breathless.

Joe ran out of the car. Petey put the car in park and ran after him. Moments later, he grabbed Joe by the arm, swung him around, and punched him in the face.

Joe fell, blood flowing from his nose.

Petey stood over his friend, hands on hips. He appeared ready to kick Joe when Sally ran up behind him. “No!” she yelled. “He’s bleeding.”

“I don’t care! You shouldn’t be here. Get back in the car.”

Sally ignored him, knelt in front of Joe and handed him a tissue.

Joe wiped his nose. “I love Petey.”

“I know,” she said, in a voice filled with compassion. She took his bloodied hand and pulled it to her belly. “Maybe you can love Little Petey too.”

* * *

As usual, comments, critical or otherwise, are welcome.



Here’s the second in a series of 800 word collaborative stories from Eden Baylee and myself. If it’s your first visit, you’ll find an explanation of the whole idea here as well as further examples of the form on both our blogs.

There was no prior discussion of plot, characters, situation or anything. The story’s starting point was a prompt; it had to include the two sentences ‘Margaret had this habit of spitting. It began to get on my nerves.’ It was chosen randomly by Eden’s husband John. For us, as with all the others we’ve written together, it was fun and satisfying. We hope you like it.

* * *

Prompt: Margaret had this habit of spitting. It began to get on my nerves.
Parts 1 and 3 and title: Eden
Parts 2 and 4: Bill

* * *

Margaret’s Last Term

Margaret had this habit of spitting whenever she ate cheese. It began to get on my nerves. Even the tiniest morsel subjected me to her disgusting routine.

Before I knew she was lactose intolerant, it alarmed me whenever she started coughing. Her coughs were violent, as if she were choking. Not only did they shake her three-hundred pound body, they shook the table as well. I used to rush to her side and give her sharp blows to the back, or prise open her mouth to ensure she hadn’t swallowed her false teeth, or force her to drink water. Now, I did none of that. I just ignored her.

Eventually the coughing stopped, but it didn’t end there. The finale occurred when she was able to catch her breath again. That’s when she sucked air through her mouth louder than my vacuum cleaner to spit a thick, yellow glob of phlegm onto her plate.

And though she was sitting less than eight feet away from me, she’d yell when she spoke.

“Banana!” she called me.

“You know my name’s not Banana. It’s Amy,” I said.

“Whatever, help me up!”

Not only was Margaret revolting, she was racist as well.


Yep. Hard to believe, I know. The sort of thing a hack would invent for one of those old-fashioned ‘penny dreadful’ stories – a character whose outward habits matched exactly her inner lack of morals.

Of course, I knew none of this when she answered my ad for a flatmate. We made all the arrangements by text, and we were both so desperate – me to get help with the rent, her because she’d been looking for a room for ages – that we didn’t get into full details, didn’t even meet before the contract was signed.

So when she first arrived and I opened the door it was a major shock for both of us. On the step there was this huge lump of a woman, looking years older than I expected, but the expression on her face made it pretty clear that I must have been as much of a shock to her.

She recovered pretty quickly, withdrawing her outstretched hand and closing her gaping mouth into a hasty, totally false smile. Being Chinese, I was used to it, of course. White and black ethnic clashes get all the headlines, but yellow’s well and truly in the mix, too. Hence, banana.


“She’s a racist, Amy. You didn’t come to this country for that.”

“I know.” I sighed and sipped tea from my styrofoam cup. “I thought people were supposed to be more civilized in this part of the world.”

Jeanie and I sat on a bench outside the Pharmaceutical Sciences Building. We had a twenty-minute break before our favourite class. The Pharmacy program was dominated by Asian students, many of them international. Like me, Jeanie came from southern China. We immediately connected after I overheard her speaking on her cell in a regional dialect from Guangzhou.

It was poor timing, unfortunately.

Had I met Jeanie just a month earlier, we could’ve easily become flatmates.

Instead, she moved into a house with three other girls much farther from campus than she’d like, and I was stuck with Margaret.

Jeanie put her hand on my arm and turned to face me. “You say she’s allergic to milk products?”

“It would seem so. She gets deathly sick.”

“And she’s overweight?”

I raised a brow. “Grossly, what are you getting at?”

A slow smile stretched across Jeanie’s face. “Just thinking, that’s all.” She stood up. “We better go or we’ll be late for class.”


As usual, the class was absorbing. Dr Ross is a great teacher – never rushes things, always happy to answer even the dumbest questions. Everybody likes her. But, for a change, my mind wandered occasionally – not through any failings on her part but because of Jeanie’s weird mood. After the lecture, she stayed behind but I got my things together and waited for her at the top of the steps that led down into the park. It was lovely walking home through the trees, and Jeanie’s bus stop was at the end of my street so she usually came with me.

She appeared at last, hurrying and a bit flustered.

“Sorted,” she said, with a smile.

“What?” I said.

“Next term’s living arrangements.”

She hitched her bag higher on her back and started down the steps. I had to hurry to catch up with her.

“What living arrangements?” I asked.

“Ours. Me sharing your flat,” she said.


I got no further. She put her finger to my lips and said, “I’ve just signed us both up for Ross’s course next term.”

My expression must have shown my puzzlement because she smiled and said, “It’s ‘Atmospheric Particulate Matter and Pulmonary Toxicity’.”

* * *

We hope you enjoyed it. All comments are welcome. Come back for more in the coming months.