My short story. The Kindness of Strangers (and where I got the idea from)

Before I was married I used to work in Bristol city centre and would catch the bus (it was, if I remember, the #18 for Clifton) to and from work.  And the buses were, at times, erratic.  No electronic thingy in the bus shelter showing when the next one was due.  You just waited and waited – and then three would come along all at once.

All that is a very long winded way of saying that I haven’t posted to my blog for several weeks and now I’m posting twice in one week.  I could tell you it’s because I’ve been poorly, but you don’t want to know that and I’ve waffled on quite enough.

So the reason for this, the second post of the week is the fact that issue 216 of Writers’ Forum is out this week and in my Ideas Store column, I said (among other things)….”and you can read the whole story on my blog.”  But, of course, it wasn’t there.

So apologies if you went to my blog hoping to find it.  But it’s here now.  (Although chances are, you have voted with your feet and decided not to bother, in which case I am talking to myself again.) 

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One of my earliest entries

In my column I was writing about notebooks and how I’ve kept one, on and off, for the last 15 years.  My first notebook was an old A4 hardback that I’d liberated from the day job but once I’d filled that, (it took my four years) I started using Moleskine notebooks because I was earning some money from my writing by then and could afford the luxury.

When I was writing short stories, I needed a steady influx of ideas to keep the stories coming.  (Wendy Clarke, who also started her writing career as a short story writer, touches on this in my interview with her). 

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Very often, I would use a prompt, many of which came from Judy Reeves’ A Writers Book of Days.  I hope you can see from the illustration how well used my copy is.  One of these days I am going to add up all the stories that I’ve sold as a result of this book!

But the story I feature in this month’s Ideas Store, The Kindness of Strangers, does not come from a prompt but from my Fiction Square.  In Judy’s book, there is a prompt for every day of the year and I’d already used that day’s prompt in a previous year and had sold a story as a result of it.  So I didn’t want to use that again as I couldn’t get the original story out of my mind.  Instead, I used the Fiction Square from my column.

If you’re not familiar with the magazine, there is a 5 x 6 grid printed each month, showing 6 characters, traits, conflicts, locations and objects.  The idea is you roll a dice to find all the ingredients of your next story. On this particular day my dice rolls came up with:

Character 1. a sullen child

Character 2. an heroic climber

Conflict: Dispossessed

Location: charity shop

Object: a book.

IMG_1639I began writing in my notebook: Ok, I see a boy. Sullen, defensive.  He’s shoplifting.  Been dared to do so by so-called mates.  But, like everything else he tries, he’s not very good at it. He’s Billie-No-Mates.

Caught in the act by the climber, Rob.  (Something more valuable than a book) Rob is broken.  On crutches? Certainly doesn’t climb any more.  Why?  An accident.  What’s he doing in a charity shop?  Helping someone – his mother? No, he’s a customer. He’s a hero because he got a party of children to safety.  Doesn’t feel like it because one of them died. 

Since the accident, he’s been numb.  Blames himself even though the enquiry exonerated him. Praised him for his courage. He’s walked away from everyone who cares about him. Drifting from one dead end job to another. One dead end town to the next.  Sleeping rough. Shopping in charity shops for warm clothes. 

My notes went on for another two pages and at the end of it I had almost outlined  a complete story. I’d like to tell you it always worked like that but, sadly, that is not the case.  In fact, at one time I thought it had the makings of a serial.  Which it may well do one day.  Who knows?

So, as promised, here is the final version of that story, which was published in the UK magazine, My Weekly and has had subsequent overseas sales as well. 

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

As shoplifters went, the kid wasn’t even very good. Drawing attention to himself with each furtive glance. The idiot might as well be wearing a striped jumper, black mask and carrying a bag marked ‘swag’ over his shoulder.

Mac took a jumper off the hanger. It was a horrible mustard yellow, hand knitted thing, which was probably why it ended up in a charity shop. Not that he gave a toss what it looked like. The people he mixed with didn’t set too much store on sartorial elegance any more than he did. It was warm. It was cheap. Job done.

 He turned to take it to the till. The kid was still by the CDs. Probably just browsing after all. Whatever. None of his business.

The kid’s head suddenly shot up as three lads of about the same age as him came up to the window. One signalled him to hurry up. Mac watched as the boy slipped the CD into his pocket and hurried out to his giggling mates. He saw him show them what he’d got, heard the shrieks of derisive laughter. He saw, too, the kid’s head go down, shoulders hunched, as he shoved the CD back in his pocket.

Mac shrugged. No need to get involved. He’d be moving on tomorrow. To another dead end job in another dead end town. But at least this time accommodation of a sort went with the job. That would be good. The nights were getting too cold to spend many more on the streets and the pain in his leg was getting worse, the colder it got. Sleeping rough was not one of his better ideas.

The girl at the till looked ridiculously young to be alone in charge of a shop. No wonder the kids were stealing off her. Mind you, if she kept the more valuable items, like that little egg cup he was pretty sure was silver,  nearer the till, that would be a start. 

“I’m so glad someone’s bought this,” she smiled as she folded the jumper. “My gran knitted it for my brother and he refuses to wear it.”

“Lucky for him he can afford to be choosy,” Mac growled – and instantly regretted it. It came across as whingey, and self pitying and he was neither. 

“Oh Lord, I’m so sorry.” A flush stained the girl’s pale cheeks. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“You didn’t,” he said tersely. Why didn’t she just bag the thing and let him go? He didn’t come in here to get her life history. Didn’t want to know about knitting grannies. Certainly didn’t want to think about his own, who didn’t knit. But worried. Even though he was thirty two next birthday, she still worried about him. Probably a little less now he’d given up climbing.

“I don’t usually work in the shop,” the girl was saying. “I’m happier looking after the animals. But the rescue centre needs the money desperately and when we had the chance of this empty shop for a few months, we jumped at it. But I’m not very good at it, as you can probably tell. Take these biscuits, for example. There were eight of them but now there are only six and I know I haven’t sold any. Look, I’m going to have a cup of tea and a biscuit while they’re still here. Would you like one? I made them, so it’s ok.” 

“No thanks.” Mac grabbed the bag and headed for the door. What? Did she think he was a bloody charity case? Or, maybe she thought he was the one who’d been nicking her precious biscuits? He might look a down and out. He might shop in charity shops. But that didn’t mean –

He stopped. He was angry. Hell, yes, he was angry. It was the first time he’d felt anything, except an icy numbness, since The Accident. Correction. Since the day after, when Mrs Pearce had screamed at him, called him a murderer. Said she hoped the knowledge that he’d killed her daughter would haunt him for the rest of his life. Well, she wasn’t wrong there.

He’d coped by training himself to feel nothing. No pleasure. No joy at the sight of a sunrise, no warmth in the company of friends, nor even the comfort of a soft bed. It was, he reckoned, a price worth paying. To be where no one knew him. Or tried to make him feel better by saying the accident wasn’t his fault. That he’d done all he could. 

When he knew, just as Mrs Pearce did, that he hadn’t.

Why then, had he got so angry, because a young woman with a big soft eyes and a sweet smile had offered him kindness? Was it because she’d seen him as an object of pity? Someone who couldn’t even afford the price of a cup of tea and a biscuit? Who relied on the kindness of strangers?

Much better save her pity for the downtrodden donkeys and abandoned dogs.

As he reached the door, he was surprised to see the young shoplifter approaching and stood back to let him in. Then, on an impulse, he turned and followed him back into the shop. Outside, the others were urging the kid on. Obviously, the CD was not to their taste and they’d sent him back for bigger fry.

The kid reached into his pocket, took out the CD and put it back on the shelf. Mac watched as he edged up to the shelf where the silver egg cup was. Saw the furtive look as he picked it up, the relief when he saw the girl was busy on the other side of the shop.

Without realising he was going to do it, Mac walked across, put his hand over the boy’s stick thin wrist. Waited until the hand opened and the boy let the egg cup go. He looked up at Mac, his eyes wide with fear.

“Look, I’m sorry, mate,” Mac said loudly. “It’s no good asking me about volunteering. You should ask the lady over there. It’s her shop. I’m sure she can do with some extra help. Isn’t that right?” he said as the smiley girl came across to them. “Who knows? She may even offer you a cup of tea and a biscuit while she tells you all about the rescue centre.”

She looked surprised. Saw, too, the egg cup, upside down on the shelf. He could see she understood what had happened here. Would she call the Police? Up to her. It was stupid of him to have got involved anyway. It was just there was something about the kid. He’d seen it many times before. 

Back in the day, before The Accident, he’d worked with kids just like him. Not bad kids, most of them. They came to the Outdoor Pursuits Centre where he’d worked, full of bluster and bravado when they first got there. Scared witless at their first sight of a mountain close up. Trying desperately not to show it. Hell, but he used to get such a kick out of the ones who ‘got it’, the ones who scraped their knuckles, cramped their legs muscles, forced themselves so far out of their comfort zones they’d never be the same again. The ones who stood with him on the top of the mountain, their eyes full of awe, their faces full of wonder.

This boy wasn’t a bad kid. Just had some bad mates. Not that Mac gave a toss what happened to him, of course. 

“Here,” the girl gave the boy a beaming smile and handed him a leaflet. “It’s really good of you to enquire about volunteering. We run the rescue centre on a shoestring, you know, and need all the help we can get. Why don’t you read that and, if you’re still interested, come up to the centre, meet the animals and we’ll talk about it?”

The boy mumbled something barely audible and scuttled out of the shop.

“Thank you, Mac” the girl said quietly. “You handled that really well.”

He spun round, his mouth dry. “You know me?” he whispered, rubbing his hand through his straggling beard, his long lank hair.

“I do now. You are Rob McKinley, aren’t you? I wasn’t sure when you first came in. But my brother – the one who hasn’t the wit to recognise a good jumper when he sees one – he has a poster of you on his wall. Climbing’s his passion. You’re one of his heroes.”

Hero? He was no bloody hero. He was the guy who hadn’t been able to stop a young girl fooling around on a mountain. Hadn’t insisted she stayed with the group and not forge on ahead. Hadn’t been able to get down to her quick enough. Hadn’t been able to stop his own out of control tumble down the treacherous scree covered slope as he tried to reach her, his leg snapping like a twig during the fall. Hadn’t been able to move her, nor force her to hang on to life as they’d waited for the rescue party. 

Had cradled her lifeless body, long after she’d gone. 

“I was so sorry to hear about your accident,” the girl said softly. “Sorry, too, about the girl. It wasn’t −”

Mac’s hands were shaking as he wrenched open the shop door. Time to move on. Fast. Before she had chance to tell him that the accident wasn’t his fault, that he was – what had they said at the enquiry that had exonerated him? – a hero. 

So he did what all ‘heroes’ do when they come up against something they can’t handle. He ran – as fast as his wreck of a leg would carry him.

………..

“Thank you,” Mac said as the man dropped money into the bowl. He felt a cold nose touch the back of his hand and reached to fondle the dog’s head. Archie was never far from his side.

“Well, how are we doing?” Beth asked.

“The money’s rolling in,” Mac said. “It’s typical of Tom to turn his leaving do into a fund raising bash, isn’t it?”

“He’s a great kid, isn’t he? And he’s going to be a great vet, too.”

“He’s got a long, hard slog ahead, though. Getting into vet school’s one thing. Staying there’s another.”

“He’ll be fine, Mac. Don’t be such a pessimist.”

He pulled her towards him and kissed the top of her head. “You always see the best in everyone. And I love you for it.”

He loved her for a whole load of other things as well and there wasn’t a day went by that he wasn’t thankful for the way she’d run after him that day. Taken him back to the shop, made him sit and listen and eat those damn awful biscuits she’d made.

“Of course I see the best in people,” she said. “And you don’t, I suppose? That day in the shop, you could have had Tom arrested for shoplifting.”

“And so could you. You knew as well as I did he wasn’t in the shop to volunteer.”

“Yet look where volunteering’s taken him,” she said. “I knew, from the first moment he turned up at the rescue centre that he was as nuts about animals as I am.”

“Nuts being the right word.” Mac ducked quickly. Beth could pack a hefty punch, a result, she claimed, of standing up for herself against her bully of a brother.  The same guy who was now Mac’s best friend, climbing partner and soon to be best man at their wedding.

“Well, get on with it,” Beth said. “There’s a load of people heading this way who haven’t bought raffle tickets yet. You’re slipping.”

Mac smiled as he watched her hurry away to talk yet more people into sponsoring donkeys or adopting ducks. 

Beth could never resist a stray. She treated the frightened, the abused and abandoned with the same quiet patience she’d dealt with him. Gently, but firmly, she’d chased away his demons and dragged him back to life. 

A life which, amazingly, she wanted to share. Along with four donkeys, a foul mouthed parrot and goodness knows how many dogs, cats, chickens and ducks.

 THE END

Where does novelist Wendy Clarke get her ideas from?

I’m thrilled to welcome to my blog this week the hugely talented novelist, Wendy Clarke.  Like me, Wendy started her writing career writing short stories for women’s magazines and I’ve followed her transition from short story writer to novelist with admiration.

Wendy’s debut novel, What She Saw, was published earlier this year by Bookouture and this was swiftly followed by We Were Sisters which was published in August.  She is currently working on her third novel.

Me.

Hi Wendy and thank you for agreeing to answer my questions.  I’ll start with the one every writer is said to dread.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Wendy

Wendy Clarke-41 (2)Having had over three hundred stories published in women’s magazines, the question ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ is one I’m asked a lot. I usually say that my ideas come from everywhere: something I’ve overheard, a headline in a newspaper, a memory or maybe it’s an idea that’s just blossomed in my head while walking the dog.

That was in the days before I wrote novels. Before I needed a story plot that would entertain a reader for eighty thousand words and could be interwoven with subplots. It also had to be an idea strong enough to support a cast of several characters rather than the two or three needed for my short stories. Strangely, the idea for my debut psychological thriller, What She Saw, didn’t come to me in any of the ways I’ve mentioned above. It was the setting that came first rather than the plot, and this is how it happened.

My husband and I love walking and we love beautiful scenery, which is what first attracted us to the Lake District – especially the area around Ambleside which has become a favourite. It was while staying in a small miner’s cottage in the village of Chapel Stile and looking out at the fells from the living room window, that I had my lightbulb moment. As I watched the clouds move across the peaks, darkening the once-green slopes, it came to me that this was the perfect scenery for building suspense. The agent I had at the time had suggested I write a psychological thriller and slowly the ideas started to come. Who might be looking out at those everchanging fells? Were they worried… or maybe afraid? What if it was a mother and daughter who stood at a window in a miner’s cottage just this like one and what if they both had secrets?

As I thought about some of the places we’d visited – the pub at the end of a long walk near an old clapper bridge, the cairn where we’d sat and watched the sun go down, the disused slate quarry with its pool of dark water – more bits of the puzzle began to fall into place. Even the little village supermarket has its mention in the novel. It’s the place where my protagonist, Leona, first thinks she sees Ria – the woman who once ruined her life. It’s where she realises this beautiful place where she’s always felt safe, might not be after all.

My second psychological thriller, We Were Sisters, was published in August. This time the idea came to me while walking in a meadow at the base of the downs behind the village where I live. It reminded me of a children’s book I’d read as a child called Marianne Dreams, about a girl who was confined to bed with an illness. Out of boredom, she would draw pictures with a pencil belonging to her grandmother, then at night would dream about the lonely house she’d drawn… the one that stood in the middle of an expanse of waving grass. It might have been a children’s book, but it was the first to give me goose bumps.

As the wind started to blow, whipping the seed heads against my legs, I knew the meadow of rippling grass I was walking through could play a part in my next thriller. And when my path through the meadow led me to a disused rifle range, its brick walls covered in graffiti, that possibility became a certainty.

So, this is my advice. If you’re stuck for ideas, get your coat on, take a walk and have your senses on high alert. It worked for me!

The Books’ Blurbs

What She Saw (a standalone psychological thriller)

20190201_072004481_iOSHow far would you go to keep your daughter safe?

Everyone knows Leona would do anything for her daughter, Beth: she moved to Church Langdon to send Beth to the best school, built a business to support them and found the perfect little cottage to call home. They hike together, shop together, share their hopes and fears. It’s the relationship every mother dreams of.

But Leona never talks about why they moved to the Lake District.

She’s never told Beth anything about her father.

She says Beth should never speak to strangers. She says Beth doesn’t need friends.

She’s only trying to protect her daughter.

When Leona answers the phone one morning, her heart stops as she hears a voice from her past.

She’s given her daughter everything, but now she must tell her the truth. And once it’s out, can she keep her little girl safe?

We Were Sisters. (a standalone psychological thriller)

We-Were-Sisters-KindleI turn to where I left my baby in his pushchair and pull up short. With a racing heart, I look around wildly, fear gripping my stomach. I only looked away for a moment. The pushchair and my baby are gone.

Kelly is taking her twin daughters to their first day of school, ushering them into the classroom, her heart breaking to think they might not need her anymore, when she turns around and sees her newborn baby is gone.

As a desperate search ensues, baby Noah is quickly found – parked in front of a different classroom. But when Kelly reaches forward to comfort him, she finds something tucked in the side of his blanket. A locket that belonged to her sister Freya. A locket Kelly hasn’t seen since the day Freya died.

And then Kelly’s perfectly-ordered life begins to unravel…

Me

Thank you, Wendy.  I can’t wait to read We Were Sisters.  I absolutely loved What She Saw.  It was set in a part of the Lake District I know and love, so that was an additional bonus.  My next question was going to be ‘what inspires you most?  Characters? Settings? Books you’ve read?’ But I guess you’re already answered that!

Wendy

Definitely the setting – the characters and plot ideas come after.

Me.

So, how did your writing journey start?  Have you always written?  What was your first published piece?

Wendy

I’d love to say I’m one of those writers who was born with a pen in their hand, but it wouldn’t be true. In fact, I took up writing quite late in life. Despite loving creative writing at school, it had never occurred to me that I might one day make it my career.

It was eight years ago, just after the February half term holidays, when my life changed. I remember it as though it was yesterday. I had just been told that the small primary school in Hove, where I taught English, was closing and all the staff were to be made redundant. I felt numb but it didn’t really sink in until the following Monday when, instead of going into class to teach, I remained at home contemplating an uncertain future.

As luck would have it, my brother had just completed an online creative writing course which he thought I might enjoy. With nothing better to do, I took his advice and enrolled. I hadn’t expected to enjoy it so much, and when it ended, I felt bereft. That was when I knew I’d caught the writing bug. 

It was my course tutor who suggested I try writing stories for one of the women’s magazines. Missing the challenge of writing, I decided to give it a go. At first, I had the expected rejections, but I didn’t let it put me off. I carried on writing and submitting and my patience paid off when, three months later, I had a letter from the People’s Friend saying they liked one of my stories. Hurray!

Me

And what are you future plans?

Wendy

A few years ago, my writing changed direction again. With the magazine market for short stories shrinking, I turned my thoughts to writing a novel. My first attempt was a romantic mystery which bagged me an agent, but what they really wanted me to write was a suspense.

Did I think I could do it? My degree was in psychology and I’d always had an interest in how the human mind can affect behaviour, so I decided it might be interesting to explore a darker side to my writing. 

A year later, I’d written What She Saw, a psychological thriller set in the Lake District. It didn’t work out with the agent, but last year I was thrilled when my novel won first prize in a competition and was picked up by digital publisher Bookouture. My second thriller, We Were Sisters was published in August and I’m about to start writing my third.

Me

Tell me some things we might not know about you.

Wendy

1. I try to embrace the days when I find I can’t write

There could be all manner of reasons why this could be: I’m feeling under the weather, it’s sunny and I want to be in the garden, I’ve promised to go to the garden centre with my mum, I’m stuck on the particular piece I’m working on… or I just simply don’t feel like it. In the early days, I used to feel really guilty if I wasn’t spending my free time writing and would make myself sit at my computer. I am much kinder to myself now. Unless I have a deadline, if the words won’t flow and there’s something I’d rather be doing, then I do it. I can guarantee my writing will be all the better for it.

2. I am a good loser and a bad winner

As a child, I was always a good person with whom to play games. Unlike other children, if I lost, I would never sulk, and I’d be the first to congratulate the winner. It didn’t change when I became an adult. When writing for magazines, it was par for the course to have stories rejected but when this happened, I’d get over it and write and submit something else. It was the same when I moved on to writing novels and started submitting to agents. When an email arrived with those hated words, I’m sorry but we didn’t feel passionately enough… I’d take it on the chin and make sure I had somewhere else to send it. But, unfortunately, being a good loser comes at a price… I am a terrible winner. If I have good news, I’m compelled to share it with someone straight away – I just can’t help myself! I post it on social media and tell all my friends. When I’ve had a story published in a magazine, I’ve even been known to tell the newsagent as I’m paying for it. Yes, I really am that annoying!

3. I’m constantly surprised and delighted by life

That’s because I have this thing where I’m convinced life puts an assault course of hazards in my way before I can reach any goal. I constantly overthink things and am always working out worst case scenarios. For example, if I’m planning a trip to London, my thought process will go like this: What if I miss the train? What if there’s a rail strike? What if I can’t get a seat? What if my ticket won’t let me through the barrier? What if I get lost? I tell you, it’s exhausting! The upside of having these anxieties is that when things are easier or better than I imagine (as they invariably are) and I find that nothing is as bad as my imagination paints it to be, I am constantly delighted by life.

Me.

Wow! Wendy, you are an inspiration.  And your books (like your short stories) are fabulous.  No wonder they are flying off the shelves as we speak.

I wish you the very best of luck with them.  You deserve it.

Social Media Links, blog, website etc.

The all important buy link.

What She Saw Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/What-She-Saw-psychological-heart-pounding-ebook/dp/B07N8YGN5B

We were Sisters Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/We-Were-Sisters-absolutely-psychological-ebook/dp/B07RSB413T

Website: http://www.wendyclarke.uk/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WendyClarkeAuthor/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/wendyclarke99

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wendyclarke99/

Author Bio

Wendy Clarke started her career writing short fiction and serials for national women’s magazines. After having over three hundred short stories published, she progressed to writing novels. With a degree in psychology, and intrigued with how the human mind can affect behaviour, it was inevitable that she would eventually want to explore her darker side.

What She Saw is her debut psychological thriller, published by Bookouture. Her second, We Were Sisters, came out in August 2019.

In her previous life, Wendy has published three collections of short stories and has been a short story judge for the Chiltern Writers Group, Nottingham Writers Group and The Society of Women Writers and journalists.

Wendy lives with her husband and step-dog in Sussex and when not writing is usually dancing, singing or watching any programme that involves food!