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.
I’m finally settling in to work on a new book. I’m about a third of the way into a messy first draft, which is usually where things start getting wooly and a book can go off-track. I’m about ready to get the story “up on my wall.”
I’m a visual person and I need to “see” the story. That’s really hard to do when it’s laid out sentence after sentence in a document, or even sketched out in outline form. So I like to create a story board.
I stick up a long sheet of brown paper, mark off a storyline and plot out my story with post-it notes. Then I map out certain landmarks I know I’ll need to hit in the story. These might be moments when my main character discovers something about herself or confronts another character, or where something major happens that changes the course of the story. I figure out roughly where they might happen and stick them up on the board. This way, as I keep writing forward, I have a landmark in the story that I know I’m writing towards. Even if I meander a bit, I know I’ll get there eventually.
As things get more complicated in the story, I tap into my inner super-nerd and go color coordinated. By using different color notes for different characters and subplots, I can make sure that characters don’t disappear for chapters at a time and that minor storylines don’t fizzle out. Using moveable sticky notes makes room for surprises that come up. I can also move scenes around to keep the pace of the story moving.
Here’s the storyboard I built for The Smallest Thing.
As you can see, I also use the board to collect all my scraps of inspiration. This one has pictures of the settings and characters, images that inspire the mood and themes of the story, a layout of Bubble City, and a very important timeline that I needed to keep consistent. Any time I feel the story going awry, I can check my board to see where I’m going wrong.
As I head towards the middle of the new book, I’ll be putting up a brand new story board sheet and adding my color-coded post-its. I’ll let you know how it all goes.
It’s no secret that A Strange Companion took me a long time to write. I’m talking ten years, maybe longer.
The idea first came to me during a conversation over pancakes. A friend and I were talking about reincarnation and wondering what it would be like if souls found one another over and over in every lifetime. You know, your typical breakfast chit-chat.
I mapped out a complex tale of twisted fates and unexplained connections, and, to be honest, it was a load of rubbish. David Mitchell did a much better job of that story in Cloud Atlas. Plus, that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to write a more personal story of one person’s experience with reuniting with the soul of a loved one. So, bit by bit, draft by draft, the story of A Strange Companion began to form.
The trouble was, my ability didn’t match my vision, and I could never quite get the story just how I wanted it. So I’d abandon the project for a while and work on something new. Sooner or later, the idea would wriggle its way back into my mind and I’d take another pass at the book, each time inching it a little closer to the book I wanted it to be. But I’d always end up disappointed, and eventually, I stuffed the manuscript under the bed and accepted that the story was destined to remain abandoned.
But, not long after I finished writing The Smallest Thing, the story started niggling me again. And this time, I knew how to write it. I knew what I wanted to say and I knew exactly how the story should unfold. So, I dusted off the manuscript and this time I finished it.
If you’ve read the book, you’ll see that the finished story is a far cry from my original idea, thank goodness, but that’s the way it goes. Stories take on a life of their own and they won’t leave you alone until you’ve done them justice.
To hear more about the idea that wouldn’t go away and the twists and turns of the creative process, check out my interview with Melissa Dinwiddie on her Live Creative Now! podcast.
Get your mitts on a signed copy of A Strange Companion on Goodreads this week. I’m giving away a copy to one lucky winner.