Why on earth have you written a book about older women?’ asked an acquaintance. I boggled. ‘Why not?’ sprang to mind, as did the fact that I’m no spring chicken myself. I could have flannelled away about the ageing qualities of wine and whisky, but in the end I came out with the truth. ‘Because they offered to publish the book and they paid me money.’ ‘Oh, all right, I suppose,’ she responded. ‘But why not write a book about normal people?’
Yes… well… that was more than eight years ago and while some things have changed, there are still plenty of points for discussion there as to whether women of middle-age and older are a strange sub-species. And I’m not going into that here because – believe me – I’ve spent the better part of the last decade arguing about that one!
No, what concerns me today is that reviews of my books, while thankfully complimentary in the main, frequently refer to the ‘eccentric characters’ that populate them. Eccentric? Moi? I write as I find and if I introduced some people I know into my books you simply wouldn’t believe in them.
Not long after the conversation chronicled above I did a talk in a local library. Nice bunch of people who had very kindly read ‘Scuba Dancing’ as one of their book club choices and had several points they wanted to raise. ‘How could I make jokes about senility and dementia?’ was one question. I’d expected that; one of my elderly crew of characters is clearly seriously dotty and becomes devastatingly more so, but I wrote about her daughter’s situation with sympathy and humour rather than gloom and doom. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t ignore the grinding misery of Margot’s daughter as she copes with her mother’s increasing frailty but I didn’t ignore the funny moments too.
I know a lot about living with dotty old ladies and I know that my mother and I used to get the giggles at some of my grandmother’s eccentricities though mercifully she had all her marbles until near the end. One cherished moment was when a couple of young and eager Mormon missionaries knocked on the door and my mother, desperate for a few minutes’ respite, dragged them into Granny’s room on the ground floor. ‘Aha,’ cried Granny in an increasingly rare lucid moment. ‘It’s Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; bring us all some tea, Sheila, we’re going to talk about the Bible.’ They drank the tea, then had some cake, then had some more tea before she allowed them to leave – looking shell-shocked. We never did find out what she’d been saying but they practically vaulted over the front gate in their anxiety to get away.
People find humour in difficult circumstances wherever they can – I’ve written about the British gallows humour – (9th Oct last year, still can’t do links. Duh!). Humour is what makes life bearable and every family has its oddballs. On another side of the family, my cousin’s great-uncle was a genuine eccentric and not keen on the human race at all. Unfortunately, his parents ran a guest house which meant he had to bump into people now and then. He had his own methods though – and stern measures had to be taken after a foul smell was tracked down to a kipper he had secreted under a guest’s mattress in an effort to make him leave.
My mother-in-law was the one in her family who got landed with keeping an eye on all the odd-bods in their declining years and used to giggle about Auntie Cissie, a formerly prim old maid, who used to declare loudly at visiting time in her residential home, ‘That mad bugger of a doctor tried to rape me again last night.’
As for my other characters, what is eccentric, pray tell, in an old woman who talks to an angel? And a man who believes he is the rightful heir to the throne of England? Or, in my historical mysteries, a roaring bull of a clergyman who takes his gun into church with him, shoots magpies and regularly misses them, peppering instead anything that strays in his path? There are others, a man who proudly carries within him a musket ball, relic of an ancient battle; a man who loves funerals, and an old lady who is the proud owner of a pair of Waterloo teeth. (These belonged to her late husband and she wears them in his memory – what’s eccentric about that? ) I will admit, however, that some of the characters in my new book, The Dead Queen’s Garden, (Dec 2013) might qualify as barking mad, though that pillar of Victorian society, Florence Nightingale, does turn up to put a temporary damper on things.
Going back to writing about ‘normal’ people, I was told by one member of a reading group that she – as a non-native – had visited many English villages and had never yet encountered anyone as unusual as the characters in Scuba Dancing. Why couldn’t I write about normal people? There it was again. I explained politely that a book about ordinary people doing ordinary things would be rather dull, and probably quite short – unless one happened to be Jane Austen. I told her truthfully that I’ve never yet met anyone I’d describe as ‘normal’. Sadly, I think she took it personally, as she sat down looking rather affronted.
Thankfully there are plenty of readers who don’t find my characters too weird; here’s a nice new review for the Kindle version of Scuba Dancing:’It was different and left me thinking about all sorts of things raised in the novel . There are a lot of novels published that are not well written or are reruns of similar plots. This one stood out.’ (Short but succinct, thank you, SKWhittaker)
Now for the commercial! The Collected Works of Nicola Slade – ahem – are now available from the Amazon Kindle shop among others. And A Crowded Coffin is still on offer at 99p until 5th September!