Who Are You?

Eighteen years ago at this precise moment, I was cradling my new-born daughter while perusing the hospital’s options for dinner. Since halal chicken curry was the best it could offer, I went home for my husband’s home-made chilli con carne instead. 

My husband was aghast. He had been looking forward to one last night of peace before the baby and I came home and our 22 month old son came back from his grandparents. But then, my husband wasn’t the one looking at the menu. Nor did he have to try and sleep in a maternity ward.

The tiny bundle who completed our family was a mystery of course. She slept, fed a little, took a hazy look at her parents and decided it was better to go back to sleep.

She burst out crying at the first sight of her brother. He burst into giggles. They’ve been arguing, laughing, shouting, plotting, fighting, playing games together ever since.

My daughter, unlike my son, pretty much slept through her first two years. Then she emerged as a very individual, funny, fiery and no-nonsense little girl and hasn’t looked back.

By that time, I’d realised the character of one’s children is not really entirely under parental control. We loved our children the same, we did our best to give them the same opportunities and not gender stereotype with toys and colours. But of course, they’ve turned out to be – themselves.

It’s a lot simpler to make up a fictional character than to mould a real one. Isn’t it?

Actually it isn’t. When I started writing, I think the characters I created for the main point of view tended to be observers. I’m not entirely sure why but I suspect it was something to do with them being some aspect of myself watching things unfold. 

With my second completed manuscript, I realised what I was doing early on and decided I didn’t want the character to simply observe but to take part. Before I knew it, the story was about her and not about the person I originally intended it to be about. That story is still waiting to be edited.

By the time I started writing other things, which have since been published, I’d started finding out how important it was to know who the characters were outside of the page. When is their birthday? What’s their favourite colour? Who were their parents? Their religious views? Their politics?

Is that important? Maybe. 

What’s more important in my view, is not only who do I think they are, but who they think they are and who they want others to think they are. For some characters the last question is an irrelevance. They see the world as centring on themselves. Their view of who they are in not to be questioned. The idea that someone else may perceive them as arrogant, foolish or frightening wouldn’t cross their mind. Others are acutely aware that they are vulnerable. For all sorts of reasons they present a persona of confidence and capability when underneath they’re struggling and lonely. Others are the reverse: they appear shy and timid to others but in reality they feel quite at ease with the world.

I recently went to a workshop on characterisation run by Rosanna Ley. If you ever get the chance to go to one of her workshops, I can recommend them. 

With me, I ‘took’ the main character from the first full-length book I wrote, currently code-named LHG. I am still not happy with it. Why? Mainly because the main character is still largely an enigma to me. She is supposed to be fiery, but isn’t. She is supposed to have strong views but doesn’t. She is the only main character I’ve ever written whom I can’t ‘find’. Like my sleeping baby from eighteen years ago, I have no real idea who she actually is yet. 

The workshop made me think of some of the things that were missing about her. They may or may not be things that will ever factor in the book if I ever get it to the point when I’m happy with it, but they are part of who she is. One of the questions was ‘where is she at home?’ I had never considered that. She is a small-town woman who yearns to be elsewhere. But she’s never actually been elsewhere – so where does she feel mostly herself? It may sound like nothing, but I feel as if this may actually be a key to her. Eventually when I get there, I may even change her name.

Today has been a funny sort of day with endings and beginnings. My youngest child became an adult, another novel was finished and added to the ‘to be edited’ pile. The latter will almost certainly be ready before LHG. I feel both a little sad and a sense of completion. 

Incidentally, my daughter’s never entirely forgiven me for that decision to go home the afternoon she was born rather than stay in hospital. It was census day and all the babies born in the hospital on 29th April 2001 were given a babygro with ‘I’m a census baby’ printed on the front and individually named in the local paper – except my daughter. They forgot to give us the babygro and she’s in the paper as ‘and also another little girl.’ 

My baby is now a woman, complete with a liking for espresso. I am proud of who she is and hopeful for what she will become. How much I have moulded her I have no idea. She certainly doesn’t get the taste for coffee or cynicism from me. 

But she definitely gets her argumentative streak. 

And long may it continue for both of us. 

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

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The Case of the Fateful Legacy

One of my favourite books, Have His Carcase, is one in which the heroine finds a very fresh corpse on a beach and takes so long to get help, the tide has come in and swept it off by the time anyone can get to it. 

Whenever I read the efforts she has to make, I can’t help thinking ‘why doesn’t she just…’ until I remember it’s 1932 and she’s a long way from civilisation let alone any kind of phone or telegraph office. 

At least Dorothy L Sayers was writing about her own era so she knew what her characters’ challengers were. We have to research.

When writing fiction set in the past, it’s easy to forget what wasn’t around at the time. It’s hard to explain to my teenage children for example, let alone remember, that when I went to university, I had to communicate with all my friends and family by letter. It wasn’t even particularly easy to telephone unless you fancied queuing in the rain while someone told her boyfriend for the 300th time how much she loved him.

With Liz Hedgecock, I’ve been writing the Caster & Fleet series which is set in late 19th Century London. Our characters, Katherine and Connie, met in a cafe on a rainy day in November 1890 and soon found themselves unexpectedly solving a mystery. Despite disapproving relations and romantic distractions, they haven’t looked back since. 

I’m often asked how realistic we think our characters’ freedom is. Liz and I like to think their adventures are as likely as adventures in books generally are. It would be rather dull if they simply followed the norms for their generation and class. And we also know that a great many women didn’t do that anyway – they travelled the world, applied for jobs they weren’t expected to, refused to ride side-saddle, rejected corsetry. Connie and Katherine haven’t done any of those things but they push the envelope nonetheless (and frankly, if you told Katherine to ride a horse, I daresay she’d refuse to do it side-saddle too.) 

However, they’re still stuck with 19th Century communication techniques. There were more postal deliveries per day than there now. They can afford telegrams, they have a telephone each but a great many other people don’t, including Katherine’s in-laws in rural Berkshire which may only just about have some sort of telephone in the telegraph exchange by now but nothing out to any of the houses, no matter how grand. So contacting people quickly is challenging.

(This didn’t stop me from writing ‘Katherine had a series of emails to look through’ the other day, perhaps because I’m about to go back to work after a short break and am dreading doing the same thing.)

If you’ve been following the series, I hope you’ll be thrilled to know that book five in the series is ready to purchase. ‘The Case of Fateful Legacy’ starts in November 1894 with a party to celebrate James’s birthday and the success of Connie and Katherine’s business. Even the news of the death of a rather cantankerous old lady in the village can’t spoil the mood. And then – it turns out that the death might not be so simple at all and James’s sister is implicated. Connie has gone home – should Katherine bring her back to investigate? Of course she should.

If you like a country-house murder mystery, this could be for you. With action in rural Berkshire and rainy London, it will take more than toddler tantrums and troublesome relations to stop Katherine and Connie seeing that justice is done.

Out now in paperback and e-book. ‘The Case of the Fateful Legacy’ opens a box of secrets no-one knew existed.