Oh, yes, yes, I know video teasers are supposed to come out before the book, but being conventional is so dull.
So, here it is, the brand new teaser for A Strange Companion. Let me know what you think!
A Strange Companion is available on:
Sometimes people ask me if the characters I write are based on real people. For the most part, the answer is no, at least not directly. The truth is that most characters have elements of people I’ve met, or heard about, or they say or do things that I’ve witnessed in real life. It’s impossible not to draw from experience. In fact, much fiction writing pulls incidents and emotions from real life and drops them into fictional scenarios. It’s the same way that actors draw on their own emotional experiences to give depth to the characters they portray.
That said, of all the characters in A Strange Companion, one is pulled from real life.
Owen was a later addition to Kat’s story. During one rewrite, I realized that, if Kat was really trying to move on after Gabe, she needed to have an enticing option to consider. And thus, Owen was born. Naturally, if Owen was going to be swoon-worthy, he had to be a scientist. I mean, brains over brawn every time, right? And so the floppy-haired, cake-baking chemist loped onto the page.
Years ago, I met a retired petrochemical engineer who had taken up baking and produced the most delicious cakes. This unlikely baker had become so proficient that his claim to fame, he was proud to tell me, was that a recipe correction he’d sent to a well-known culinary magazine had been printed in the following month’s edition. When I’d expressed my surprise that someone who’d spent a life working with toxic chemicals had turned his hand to fluffy cakes and confections, he handed me the line that would later shape Owen’s character: “Baking is pure chemistry.”
But Owen’s cake-baking isn’t the only thing borrowed from a real-life person. The original meeting between he and Kat, when they introduce themselves via charades and a rebus, is based on an another, more personal, interaction pulled from my life.
When I was in college I met “Owen.” Our friendship began with an exchange of information between my study room in the library and his dorm room window. It blossomed into a sweet and fun friendship, and would have undoubtedly developed into a romance had it not been for the appearance of a dashing suitor.
Sadly, brawn trumped brains on that occasion, and “Owen” was cast aside. (I know, don’t judge. I was young and foolish. What can I say?) Of course, the relationship with Mr. Gorgeous went nowhere. He turned out to be neither sweet or fun, and provided my first big lesson that yummy on the outside doesn’t automatically mean yummy on the inside. So, when Kat’s story called for the perfect antidote to her broken heart, I had to bring in “Owen.”
I sometimes imagine that the original Owen might one day read Kat’s story and recognize himself, and maybe even accept his cameo role as an apology for my appalling behavior. Sadly, experience has taught me that people rarely recognize themselves in books, and those who think they’re the models for characters seldom are.
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Mr. Fab and I just moved house. We had lived in our old house for thirteen years and it’s fair to say we had accumulated a lot of stuff. So, for the month before we moved, we set about the task of purging. Which meant I had to face…da–da–da–daaaah…the office.
Oh, good grief. You wouldn’t believe the amount of clutter I’d gathered there. I had receipts dating back to 2010, cross-stitch projects I started for my young nieces, who are now in their 20s, and a giant stuffed Nemo that my nephew’s girlfriend won at the county fair and then couldn’t fit in her suitcase. I had stationery, bags, gift wrap, colored paper, even the user’s manual for a car I don’t own anymore. I had no idea just how much junk I had been hoarding.
Once I’d pulled all of it out and tossed several bags of trash and recycling, I finally made it down to my box of abandoned manuscripts. Ugh, what a trip down memory lane that was.
I found a very early version of A Strange Companion, then titled Bond of Souls, in which Kat is a decade older and working as an auto mechanic in San Francisco. I know there are gems in there (Mary-Jo Lipinsky Meyers, one of my favorite characters) but the story takes a serious turn south around the middle and should never be read.
I found My Mother’s Eyes, a story about a girl who discovers the woman who raised her was her grandmother and sets out to find her birth mother. Meh. I found a screenplay attempt that was so terrible the only bit worth salvaging was the character of Mr. Scroggins, the cat who charmed his way into Kat’s mother’s heart in A Strange Companion. I also found Thicker Than Water, a story based on a vivid dream I had of two sisters tied by a hidden secret. Great concept, but also flawed. This, at least, had sufficient potential to be dusted off and re-examined. In fact, it’s the story I’m rewriting for this year’s National Novel Writing Month. (You can follow along with my progress through my daily Instagram posts.)
Most published authors, when pressed, will admit to several abandoned novels squirreled away in drawers and under beds or in the back of stuffed closets. For most writers, it takes time for ability to catch up with the vision, and the truth is, some novels just aren’t ready to debut.
I discarded much of the paper I found in my office, packing and moving only selected versions of completed books, and a copy of each of the unfinished ones. Even though there are hours and hours invested in those novels, they belong in the back of my new closet, where perhaps my literary heirs will discover and publish them against my will, and I will quietly turn in my grave.
In A Strange Companion, a lot of peculiar things happen around Kat. Another character in another story might have chalked up all these signs as coincidence, and then maybe I’d be writing a romance novel about a girl who falls for a guy who bakes a wicked chocolate hazelnut marble cake (*see below for more about this). But that’s not this story. This story is full of strange coincidences that may or may not prove that Gabe is back.
A while back, I wrote a post about some of the weird things that happen when you’re dealing with grief. If you’ve ever lost someone you love, you’ll know that nothing is beyond the realm of possibility as you try to come to terms with someone being gone.
There’s always a danger of crossing a line in fiction and making coincidences unbelievable. I mean really, what are the odds of Mai calling Kat by the pet name Gabe gave her, or having a birthmark in the exact same spot as his? But while I was editing the book, I got a sign of my own that weird coincidences happen in real life, not just in fiction.
On my office wall, I have Plot Planner, a long sheet of brown paper where I keep track of my novel and its various storylines. I like to gather pictures as I write, images of how I see the characters and some of the settings. It helps to get the story clear in my head.
I found the perfect picture of Mai, cut it out, and stuck it on my story board. It wasn’t until weeks later that I took a close look at the picture and realized that the dress the little girl is wearing is made from identical fabric to my living room curtains!
* Owen’s chocolate hazelnut marble cake was a big hit with Kat and it was an equally big hit with Mr. Fab when I tried it out on him. If you’d like to get the recipe to make your own, plus recipes for five other dishes mention in A Strange Companion (including Kat’s mother’s prawn cocktail and Jon’s blackberry lavender scones) I’ll send you a free recipe book (plus a collection of short stories) when you sign up for my newsletter.
It’s hard to believe that 20 years have gone by since the death of Princess Diana. It’s one of those moments that I remember exactly where I was when the news broke. I was in the kitchen at the restaurant where I worked as a server when the host came running in to share the news that she was dead. I remember thinking he’d lost his mind, as there was no way someone so young, vibrant, and such a huge part of popular culture at that point could be gone. But she was.
In an interview earlier this year, Prince Harry opened up about dealing with—or rather not dealing with—his grief after his mother’s death.
“My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help?” he told The Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon in the first episode of her new Mad World mental health podcast.
Prince Harry was only 12 when his mother was killed in the infamous car accident in Paris. As I listened to his very frank interview about how he suppressed his grief and refused to seek help, even as it affected his personal and professional life, I couldn’t help but think about Kat and how her inability to work through with her grief affected her decisions.
During some early readings of the manuscript for A Strange Companion, a couple of people asked me why it had taken Kat so long to deal with the deaths of Gabe and her father. Hearing Prince Harry talk about ignoring his grief for almost 20 years reminded me once again that grief is a long and messy process that is different for each of us. It takes as long as it takes. That said, ignoring grief doesn’t make it go away.
“Once you start talking about it,” the prince says in his interview, “you realize that actually, you’re part of quite a big club.”
It’s this idea of speaking out that is behind the Heads Together charity the prince had founded, alongside his brother William and sister-in-law Kate, to help raise awareness and break the stigma surrounding mental health issues.