Chergui's Child by Jane Riddell Genre: Women's Psychological Fiction
Olivia has much to cope with. An embittered mother who puts her ambitions for her children before their own needs. A predatory professor who ends their affair when she becomes pregnant. Giving birth to twins in a Tangier hospital and believing neither has survived. Grief and loss overwhelm her and she abandons her studies. Then from her beloved aunt Dorothy, artistic, eccentric and mysteriously wealthy, she learns that one of the babies did survive and has been adopted. When her aunt dies she leaves Olivia a handsome legacy with the condition that it must be used to find and bring up the lost child. Olivia’s journey takes her from London to the south of France, with startling and painful revelations along the way.
‘Miss Bowden, I’m Charles Minto. Apologies for summoning you at such short notice and for keeping you waiting.’
I followed him into a large, sparsely furnished room, sat down and surveyed my surroundings, wondering if their soothing cream colours eased the stress of divorce, financial worries and problems with neighbours. Outside, the wind buffeted leafless trees and the sky showed no inkling of sunshine.
‘I am sorry about your aunt’s death,’ he said, smoothing back his white forelock. The glare from his specs reminded me of my former headmaster, but the lawyer’s aura was calmer.
‘I didn’t manage to talk to her. I was in St Albans when she had her stroke.’ ‘Your father told me. I contacted you to tell you about Dorothy’s will.’
How much more caring he sounded, using Dorothy’s name. ‘Her will?’
He nodded, studying me with sudden intensity as if I were a specimen in a lab. I wanted to parachute myself home, to work, anywhere.
‘She changed it the day before she had her stroke. You are the main beneficiary.’
My pulse raced. ‘But... this isn’t... What about William, what about my mother? Does she know? Will I have to tell her?’
His eyes softened. ‘Your aunt was adamant you have the money. She has provided well for William but the rest has been left to you. The figure is about £700,000.’
I imagined Mum’s outrage. £700,000!
‘There’s something else. Dorothy dictated a letter to you on the day before she died. This was when she changed her will.’
He handed me the envelope. ‘Take your time - the contents are... unusual.’
My heart clamoured for escape. I wanted Dorothy, not her money. I didn’t want to read a letter, I didn’t want to discuss finances. All I yearned for, in fact, was my cosy duvet and sleep.
After peering at my name on the envelope, I opened it and scanned the letter. Then I reread it, the letters dancing like pixies. When finally I glanced up, the green and maroon circles on the lawyer’s tie swirled. Struggling to breathe, I reached into my bag for my inhaler.
Mr Minto waited for a moment, then handed me a glass of water. ‘Drink this, please. You’re in shock.’
Jane Riddell is the author of novels: Daughters of the Lake, Chergui’s Child and Things We Choose to Hide. She has also written a novella in the form of a diary, penned by a Russian cat who comes to Edinburgh to learn about creative writing: The Bakhtin Chronicles: Academia. Inspired by her own editing process, she has published a short guide entitled Words’Worth: a fiction writer’s guide to serious editing.
Formerly Jane worked as a dietitian and health promoter for the NHS in the UK. But after three years living in the beautiful Rhône Alps area of France, she decided to devote her mental energy to writing.
Jane lives in Edinburgh and apart from an abiding love of chocolate (her only vice), her passions include travelling and photography. She regularly looks after animals – mainly cats – all over Europe, which inspires her writing and indulges her photography.
Jane Riddell is an Edinburgh based author of three novels, one humorous novella and an editing guide. I am delighted to be speaking to her about what she considers to be a good story.
Question: So, what makes a good story? So many things, starting off with the plot. This should be unpredictable yet plausible. The importance of plot can depend on the genre of the book. In an action story, obviously it is crucial. In a more character-led story, it can be less significant. Characterisation is also important.
Question: Tell me more about this. Good characters are believable, not stereotyped. Heroes and heroines should have flaws as in real life, everyone has negative personality traits. Villains should have redeeming qualities, for example, a vicious male character who always visits his widowed mother on Sundays because she finds weekends particularly difficult.
Question: What about dialogue? How important is this? And is it easy to write? For me, well-written dialogue is hugely important to my enjoying a book and I think the way dialogue is handled separates the more experienced writers from the beginning ones. Bad dialogue is easily written. Good dialogue requires more skill. Good dialogue adds pace and tension to a story, as well as conveying information about characters and existing undercurrents in relationships.
Question: I’ve heard people talk about On-the-Nose dialogue. Can you explain what this means? On the nose dialogue refers to conversation that says only what it means. There’s no hidden meaning behind the words because everything is spelled out. It lacks tension.
Example, Alison arrives home late to find that Pete is upset because he’s cooked a special meal. With On-the-Nose Dialogue, the conversation might go something like this: Pete: Where were you? Alison: I was shopping. Pete: Why? Alison: I realised I’d nothing smart to wear to your brother’s wedding. Pete? Why didn’t you let me know? I cooked a special meal. Alison: I wish you’d told me you were doing that. But you’re right, I should have texted. I’ll do that next time. This dialogue does nothing to intrigue the reader as everything is spelled out.
A more edgy version might read like this: Pete: Where were you? Alison: Why do you worry so much? Pete: I had a lovely meal ready. Now it’s ruined. Alison: If you had me on a lead, you'd still worry about where I was Pete: I read somewhere that couples are more likely to stray if they never check up on what the other one is doing. Alison: Getting all your information on Twitter, I suppose. This version suggests several things about the couple. Peter is insecure in the relationship. Alison is fed up with such insecurity. In her comment about Twitter, she shows that she looks down on him intellectually.
There are many other aspects about dialogue. Avoid overusing names. Use hesitation in sentences because no one speaks fluently the whole time, but at the same time avoid using words such as “erm” and “well” too much. Although in real life we use these words, when reading them they detract from the impact of the dialogue.
Question: So, a lot to learn about how to write good dialogue. What else do you think is important in good writing. Balance is essential, but a hard one to learn. A good sense of place helps the reader visualise a scene, but too many details can become dominating. The amount of explanation given is also important. You don’t want a reader to become confused but you don’t want to keep checking that he has understood by overdoing the explanation. The same is true with emotion. Overdoing it can irritate the reader. Underdoing it can convey a dispassionate character. There are subtle ways to convey emotion. An example that sticks in my mind is from a novel, Light on Snow, written by the late American writer Anita Shreve. In her book, she describes the excruciating grief of a newly widowed man in the following way: the daughter comes home from school to find her father sitting at the kitchen table, a cold cup of coffee beside him, exactly as she’d left him seven hours earlier. To me, this is far more affecting than had the author talked about the daughter hearing her father crying in his bedroom. In the writing itself, weave action, reflection and dialogue throughout the story, rather than what my mentor describes as “slab writing”, where you have a long chunk of action, then one of reflection etc. Using rich, descriptive language, including original metaphors/similes, adds freshness. This includes opting for strong verbs which don’t require adverbs to describe the action. Avoid overuse of adjectives. Eliminate unnecessary words. I’ve heard writers say that every word should be able to justify its space on the page which may sound overly harsh and certainly laborious to do. But I’ve tried this and it does work.
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