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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I’m writing this post from the carriage of a train, gliding up the east coast of England. I’m on my way to meet my oldest and dearest friend, Jill.
Jill and I like to tell people that we’ve known one another so long, we can’t remember not being friends. We were born three months apart, grew up two streets away from one another, and our parents even knew one another before we were born. Aside from my immediate relatives, I’ve known Jill longer than anyone else.
Jill and I were besties in high school and stayed friends when we both went off to college. We both married and got busy. I moved to California and she moved to Scotland, but we saw one another when we could. It wasn’t unusual for three or five years to pass between our times together.
Then, a few years ago Jill asked if she could come to California to visit. I was thrilled. It turned out she had lost a good friend to cancer. Her friend had died way too young, leaving behind a husband, toddler son, and many heartbroken people who loved her. Her passing made Jill re-evaluate the importance of her own relationships. She realized how important it was to make an effort to spend time with the people she cared about. Luckily for me, I was one of them.
Since then, we’ve seen one another at least once a year. She’s made the 6,000-mile trip to see me three or four times now. One time we met halfway in New York City, and another time I flew to Las Vegas to meet her when she was there for a few days. Whenever I go back to the U.K. to visit family, I make plans to see Jill. It takes considerable effort for us to get together. Aside from the trans-Atlantic flight, it’s four hours by train, even longer by car, to get from my mum’s house to Jill’s. We often end up meeting at a midway point, which is why I’m now on an early morning express train bound for Newcastle.
We’ll get to spend about seven hours together today. We both like to eat, so we’ll undoubtedly start off with coffee and a sweet treat. We’ll wander the city, maybe walk the river or pop into a museum. We’ll have a long lunch in a nice restaurant, undoubtedly including a glass of wine. And then, if history repeats itself, we’ll undertake a little retail therapy and she will talk me into buying a pair of shoes I don’t need but will end up loving.
More important than all that, though, we will talk. We will catch up on one another’s lives. We’ll help each other through whatever issues we’re dealing with. We’ll talk about our families, politics, health, and topics we might be too embarrassed or uncomfortable to talk about with others.
And we’ll laugh. Oh, boy, will we laugh. Because of our long history, we’ll finish one another’s sentences and catch ourselves singing theme tunes from childhood TV shows. She will tell an inappropriate joke and I’ll pretend to be offended, but I’ll be unable to stop myself from giggling. When she laughs, her whole face folds into itself, and that makes me laugh even more.
When it’s time for us to say goodbye, we will cling to one another like it could be the last time, and we will cry like a couple of sillies. We’ll board our trains, southbound for me and northbound for her, and before we’ve even pulled out of the station, we’ll text to say we miss one another. I’ll feel a funny combination of both joy and loss.
Over the years, I’ve learned many valuable life lessons and tidbits of advice from my friend. But most of all, she has taught me the value, in this crazy busy world of ours, not just to take time, but to make time, to see the people that we value, the people we truly love.
Between the train fare, the lunch, and the unnecessary shoes, I will be considerably poorer by the end of today. But I will unbelievably richer for the time spent with my friend.
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.
Over the past couple of weeks, the threat of tragedy has set many people on edge. First Harvey swept into Texas, then Irma battered the Caribbean and headed for Florida. Meanwhile, Jose and Katia built, bringing more uncertainty of what they would become or where they would go.
People in the direct path of the storm faced the very real possibility of tragedy. They stood to lose their homes, livelihoods, pets, and even their lives. Many were called upon to tap into reserves of strength and courage to get through a situation for which they had little time to prepare.
Meanwhile, many of us outside the danger zone could only watch and wait. Although I didn’t have anyone close to me directly affected by the storms, my social media feeds were full of posts from friends who did have loved ones in danger. Lots of people were afraid of what might happen, but felt powerless to do anything about it. That kind of stress can have a huge emotional toll.
I thought a lot about the effects of powerlessness while writing The Smallest Thing. On the pages of the main story, Em finds herself stuck in the middle of an unimaginable tragedy that she is completely unprepared to handle. She does what any of us would do, which is to figure out how to survive. She doesn’t always make the best choices, especially at first. She has no role models or experience to call upon, but she does what she has to, and then she does what she needs to do. She finds her inner strength and a side of herself she never knew existed. And while she thinks she is powerless, she finds ways to take action.
Meanwhile, in the fictional world beyond the book, Em’s mother and little sister Alice experience the powerlessness that many of us felt last week as Hurricane Irma barreled towards our loved ones. Although their story isn’t told in the book, I’ve imagined them watching helplessly as Em and her father fought for survival.
I imagined that Em’s mother, like many us last week, would carry enormous guilt that she had gone to visit her sister and so had avoided being swept up in the quarantine. She’d feel helpless because there would be nothing she could do to protect her loved ones. She’d be terrified and probably frustrated that she didn’t know, at every second of the day, what was happening to them. She’d have moments of fury when others judged her actions or those of her loved ones, without full knowledge of the situation (hello, social media haters) and perhaps relief when one kind person asked how her family was doing and how she was holding up.
In fiction, and in our real-world tragedies, the stories of the supporting characters aren’t generally the ones that keep us riveted. But if you were a supporting character in the recent news headlines, you know, like Em’s mother, that you have your own story, too.