Where does your inspiration come from? How many times does a writer at a literary festival or book signing get asked this question? What surprises me is when I learn that everyone else doesn't have 101 ideas floating around to make into a story or a poem. I think it was author Mark Haddon who said that, as he got more experienced, he didn't have less ideas, he just got better at netting those that would lead somewhere.

I was sitting on the beach one warm Friday evening, there were groups of students playing football or quaffing from cans of lager (which they went on to leave littering the sand!) presumably post-exams. Then there was this trio which caught my eye. An older man with two teenage girls, both pasty, one waif-like, the other slightly more buxom, they both wore shorts and bikini tops, though this was the North Sea coast not the Med, neither were smart or seemed terribly confident. What was their relationship with each other? With the man who bought them a football so they could emulate the students in a rather ungainly way? These questions led me to a story which is unsavoury to say the least. It has the provisional title of What Makes Girl Killers or Crushed Buttercups (I found out later, rather pleasingly, that buttercups symbolise immaturity and betrayal).

Two of my favourites among the fictional pieces which I have written also started with observing people interacting and wondering, who? What? Why? What if? My novel Breathing Cell, came out of seeing an older woman with a man and two teenagers on holiday in the South of France. I wrote a whole tale about what happened on that holiday, which never made it into the novel but formed the backdrop to it. My short story, Adrift, came from spying an older woman with a boy of maybe 8 or 9 years old (obviously English tourists) on a vaporetto in Venice. At once she became the youngster's grandmother bracingly dragging him round Venice to "help him adjust" to his parents' divorce. And this led onto other characters who found themselves adrift in this beautiful and sinking city whose paths keep crossing, like the labyrinth of tiny streets which befuddle all but the natives.

When I told my husband the outline of the story I had made up about the three on the beach, he just raised his gaze to the sky and said, indulgently, I was letting my imagination run away with me as I always did. So is that what makes a writer? We don't know when to put the brakes on?


Is it me or are contemporary dance performances getting more obscure and shorter? I still remember sitting in a theatre as a youngster, maybe 11 or 12 years old, and being completely mesmerised by the Ballet Rambert's Ghosts. The music was Central/South American pan pipes (this was before we heard these on every street corner) and the narrative was very definitely about oppression, revolution and loss.

Last night's Love and War by the Mark Bruce Company was far more open to interpretation (it was also only an hour long, whereas we had two hours with an interval back in the 1970s). Was this a circus of life with each of us doing our own tricks for the ring master? Was this the eternal struggle with death (or depression) the hint being in the title? Was it merely vignettes with no over-all organising theme? Whatever it was, it was fab; absorbing, emotional, thought-provoking, scary and expertly danced.

It came to me that contemporary dance is becoming more and more like abstract art. The question is not what does it mean, but what does it mean to me? And, last night, having identified two of the dancers with people in my personal life, I happily riffed to my own tune, made up my own tale.

The only negative for me was that the music was turned up too loud! Now I am sounding middle aged.


Sometimes it's good to be proved wrong. No sooner do I write my last post for this blog than writers who have written political fiction start popping up all over the place. On Radio Four's 'Saturday Live' there was Prue Leith with her A Serving of Scandal. Then on Sunday's 'Broadcasting House' ('BH') there was Blake Morrison, whose South of the River takes the Labour Government of the '90s as a backdrop, and Michael Dobbs who has written numerous political novels including House of Cards.

I still think there's much fictional mileage in the present situation. We shall see what I, or another writer, can make of it.

Also on 'BH' was the author Sadie Smith who said something I have often challenged students with: fiction is about truth, lies are for reality.

Finally, I loved this little snippet, also from 'BH', about the bird song to be heard accompanying the first joint press conference by Cameron and Clegg. Apparently there was a robin singing from one side and from the other a blue tit tweeting as it was nesting. How apt.
Well this has to be a fiction writer's dream, because you couldn't really make it up could you?

First the live debates, then the election results, the parties' machinations, the unlikely Lib-Conservative pact (who says it doesn't make a difference that they're both public school boys and that the smell of power isn't more over-whelming than principle?) And now Brown's resignation. I still think he was the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time, but still there's a poignancy in his limping away, finally beaten, like an injured bison.

It already has the feel of a novel. And yet we don't see our political world mirrored that often in our story-telling. Wilson, Heath, Thorpe, Scargill, the Gang of Four, Thatcher, Blair, here are "off-the-peg" characters and plots which enthral, infuriate, anger and sometimes even move us to tears. Interesting that most writers appear to shy away from them.

I'm still playing with an idea for another novel and how to interweave the Thatcher years into the personal story of a deluded would-be Kate Adie trapped in a going-nowhere job at the BBC of the 1980s. But all of a sudden I'm off on a story about two young teenage boys who meet at a chess match between their respective schools - Eton and Westminster - and sneak out for an illicit smoke and make a pact....

Mary's Mother
She was brought up to know better.
It's the son of god, she tells me.
A poor excuse for not waiting,
for opening her legs before she ought.
She'll never know how
I meekly hid my face in shame
when she was expected before her time.

A proud one, our Mary,
my husband's doing.
If she was to be the only one,
then he would lavish all on her,
not me,
for he could see as well as I could,
the slope of her nose,
the tint of her hair,
the curve of her stubborn chin,
not his, but
my brother-in-laws.

Betraying twice over, my sister and my husband,
I could not find forgiveness for those
blue eyes which should have been brown.
My sin, my twice-fold sin,
how could I feel other than punished
and punishing?

And now,
bold as you like,
she holds her rounded belly.
The women gather and toss broken coins, spin needles,
touch her with a gentleness I have never managed.
She's carrying high, it's a boy,
they say.

The son of god, Mary replies,
with a certainty and a delight that cracks my chest again.

If only I'd thought of that one, all those years ago.
She's clever, my cuckoo daughter,
and she doesn't get that from me.

The Minotaur's Mother piece I was working on has evolved.
I now have what I hope will be a performance piece for many voices.
It's called, for now, Into the Labyrinth, and this is an extract.