The limits of capacity: post-Covid and writing chronic illness

A fluffy black and white cat on a blanket on a sofa
The view from the sofa

On Easter Monday I reread A Spoke In The Wheel. ASITW, as I shall refer to it henceforth, was my second novel, which dealt with the coming to terms of a disgraced cyclist and a disabled cycling fan. Easter Monday was day 18 of my convalescence, if we’re counting from the first day I tested negative for Covid, and was, like many of the previous 25 days, spent mostly lying on the sofa.

While my main reason for rereading was being in a mood for more cycling after watching both Paris-Roubaix races in the afternoon of Easter Day, and also to see if there was any mileage in a spin-off story for the B couple, it was quite an interesting experience. This is, if not the most ill I’ve been in years, certainly the longest duration of illness I’ve had, and I couldn’t help looking out to see what I’d got wrong.

Of course I’d done my homework at the time, getting two ME sufferers of my acquaintance to check and double-check for errors and faux pas, but this is as close as I’d want to get to experiencing chronic illness for myself. I’m very thankful indeed that I do seem to be getting steadily better. I’m noticing tangible improvements from week to week, if not necessarily from day to day. On Monday I went into the office for the first time since the middle of March. Yesterday I had to have a lie-down as soon as I’d shut down my laptop. Tomorrow I’ll try riding my bike to the station.

So what did I find? Actually, not all that much that spoke directly to my comparatively short experience of illness. The whole point of ASITW was that it was talking about long-term conditions. I was writing about two people who spent most of their lives at the limits of their physical capacity, who were intimately familiar with that territory. It’s new ground for me. Anything I might have added from my current experience would be part of a prequel, or, just about conceivably, a flashback.

My limits are changing all the time. Not, perhaps, so fast as I’d like, certainly not so fast as the Protestant work ethic thinks they should be, but they’re changing. I know about as much about chronic illness from a month of post-Covid as the person who does a one-night fundraising sleepout knows about what it’s like to live on the streets. Which is to say, not much at all. If I were writing ASITW now I’d still need my specialist editors. Maybe even more so than I did before, lest I think I know it all now. (A little learning is a dangerous thing…)

And the other thing is that it came from the point of view of someone who had been disabled and now wasn’t, with all the assumptions that implies. Ben’s experience of disability is far in the past even if his experience of not being able to do everything he wants to do is very recent. He was always going to start out as a clueless git, and being a clueless git is, I would argue, not something that one needs personal experience to write. (I have often been clueless. I have tried not to be a git.) If I’d had this month of fatigue when I was writing ASITW I wouldn’t really have had anywhere to put it. Or, if I had, it would have been a very different book. And, you know, rereading the one I actually wrote, I’m pretty happy with the way it ended up.

Some links

Autistic on Wheels – Katherine’s advice and comments were immensely helpful to me when I was writing ASITW. She’s doing important advocacy work.

The rise of sensitivity readers – an article from Independent.ie quoting the formidable Susan Lanigan

A Spoke in the Wheel

Emerging from the fog

Half-open tulip streaked red and yellow

I think I’m getting better. I cycled up the hill to the post office this lunchtime. Granted, I also had to have a nap at the end of the working day, but it’s still encouraging. What’s particularly encouraging is the fact that both the bike ride and the nap left me feeling more cheerful. And optimistic.

I’ve been having ideas. I’ve been thinking how remiss it is of spy thriller writers who set their books in 1960s Paris to fail to include a Paris bus. That might be another one for the Book Bus stories. I’ve been thinking what a lovely meet-cute I gave my B couple in A Spoke In The Wheel and wondering if I might write a spin-off. That’s another two ideas to add to ‘something inspired by Saints Felicity and Perpetua’ and ‘something in Victorian Stancester’ for the sapphical-historical anthology I was talking about last time. (I added up all the existing stories that could go in there, by the way. 25,000 words, so I’d want to write at least as much again.)

Ideas are great, but they’re only the beginning. Where I’m having difficulty is developing them into something that’s sturdy enough to support a narrative. That’s the kind of thing that I’d usually work out with myself over the course of a walk, and I haven’t been up to walking. Usually I’d be saying to myself, So, this spy, why is he on this bus? Is he meeting someone? Going somewhere? Half an hour into a walk, I’d have an answer, and with the answer I’d have a plot. But that circuit just isn’t running at the moment.

And ideas aren’t even necessarily terribly useful, since there’s at least one school of thought that says that I’d be best off returning to the Romeo and Juliet thing. And I will do that, just as soon as I’ve finished this blog post. But my goodness, it’s nice to have something going on in my head.

I remember that this time last year I was talking about reading St Augustine over Easter. I’m not sure that I’d have managed it even without taking into account a complicated and tiring, though ultimately very enjoyable, family event. The best-laid schemes and all that… But even so, it is spring, and the tulips are out, and so is the apple blossom, and today I saw two goldfinches at the bird feeder, and I have ideas.

2022: the year that got away?

A tub of tulips, one about to open in a deep pink colour, frosted with raindrops
It must be April. The tulips are flowering.

In twelve days, it will be Easter. I’m not quite sure how. This year has slipped past without my really noticing.

I noticed Candlemas, because that was the day of Pa’s funeral. I noticed Ash Wednesday, because we had a friend staying and she reminded us about pancakes. I noticed Lady Day (the first day of the year, in old money, and maybe this is a good year to claim that do-over), but I was in no position to do anything about it because I was flat out on the sofa with Covid. And now here we are in April, and this Sunday will be Palm Sunday, and the Sunday after that will be Easter.

2022 has felt rather as if I’m bobbing around on a raft on the ocean, and every time I get myself and my raft the right way up another huge wave has crashed down and swamped me again and all I can do is hang on.

That sounds gloomy, and, oddly enough, I’m not feeling all that gloomy. Not tonight, anyway. I’m reasonably confident that the shore’s over there somewhere and, so long as I keep hold of the rope I’ll wash up on dry land eventually. But the first three months of this year have disappeared in death administration, and fortnightly dashes to the Isle of Wight, and Covid, and I assume I must have been doing my day job in between times.

What I haven’t been doing much of is writing. Or at least I think I haven’t. I never write much on the Isle of Wight. It’s like another dimension. The train journeys have worked their usual magic, it’s true, but I’m way behind on typing up the longhand from those train journeys. I’m very aware that I’ve been neglecting this blog. And the last two weeks have been (wait for it) a write-off. All I managed to write when I had Covid was a report on the event at which I caught Covid.

And I was feeling gloomy about this on Sunday evening.

I had high hopes for this year. I was aiming to get an anthology of short stories out in time for Ventnor Fringe and the Ruritanian novel done for Christmas. Those would have been entirely reasonable goals, if this had turned out to be a usual year. As things are, not only have I lost three months, but those projects have got all tangled up with grief. Technically, they need ruthlessness. Emotionally, they need gentleness. The Book Bus will be at Ventnor Fringe, and I’ll be there too, but there’s no way I’m going to get those little stories finished off and tidied up for July, not when they’ve been joined by hundreds of other stories that perhaps aren’t mine to tell. And really I was writing the Ruritanian thing for myself and for Pa, and at the moment I can’t quite bring myself write Buchanesque chase scenes with trams when I know he won’t read them.

So I’m regrouping. The Ruritanian novel is reclaiming its ‘frivolous side project’ status, and I’ll work on it for fun, when it becomes fun again. The book bus stories will happen one of these years, but it won’t be this year. I’m shifting my focus to the 1920s Romeo and Juliet thing. That’s a little annoying in that I have 26,000 words on that, compared to 58,000 on the Ruritanian thing, but it’s going to be quite a lot easier in that it’s character-driven (very much my strength) as opposed to plot-driven (very much not).

This leaves me with the question of what I publish in 2022. Of course, nothing is an option. But I’ve been publishing a book every even-numbered year since 2016 now, and there’s part of me that’s reluctant to spoil the pattern. One possible answer is an anthology of short stories – not the book bus stories (well, maybe I’ll borrow one of them), but a selection of vaguely sapphic vaguely historical things. Things like Stronger Than Death, which appeared in an anthology by a publisher that has since stopped trading, and The Sisters’ House, which was written for a very specific call for submissions and wasn’t selected, and Prima Donna, for which the rights returned to me ages ago, and The Secret of the Glacier, which has never been published at all. I’d quite like to pull them all together, and write a few more stories to round the collection out. I should be able to manage that over the next eight months. Although, now I come to look at my calendar for May and June and July and August, it might be more of a challenge than you’d think…

The Seller of Dreams: a tale for our times

Once upon a time there was a woman who sold dreams for children. Do not mistake me here. She did not sell dreams to children – children, after all, do not usually have much money to spare – but she sold them for the children. She sold them to the parents.

‘Your daughter could be great,’ she would say. That one, she gave away for free.

‘Your daughter could be the greatest.’ And, to do her justice, it was true. She did not bother with those who had not the matter within themselves to make a return on their parents’ investment.

She rarely said much more than that. Not at first, anyway. She had no need. Everyone knew that, of all the dreams of all the sellers of dreams, hers were by far the most likely to come true.

‘There will be a cost,’ she said, each time.

‘We will pay,’ the parents would say.

She would name the price, and again the parents would say, ‘We will pay.’ Most of them said so, at any rate. As for the others – well, their children are not our concern, and whether that was good for them or whether it was ill is not my concern. My business is to tell you how it went with those who pursued the purchase of a dream. After all, you aren’t interested in the others, are you?

And I realise now that I have barely told you the substance of the dreams that this woman sold. They were common enough, in that many wanted them. They were rare indeed, in that few could fulfil them. They looked different – to some they seemed like fame, to others, skill, to others, victory, to still others, beauty, and so forth; to one the dream would seem a golden crown to be placed upon her head; to another, a wreath of laurel leaves – but what I mean to say is that all were the same dream, for this was the only dream the woman sold, and all who came to her knew what they were buying. That was why they were happy to pay what she asked.

‘There will be a cost,’ she said, each time.

‘We will pay,’ the parents said.

‘There will be a cost to your child, too.’

They would all look at the child, and see her wide-eyed and dazzled by the golden dream they hung before her. ‘She will pay.’

Perhaps the parents should have asked what that cost would be. Perhaps then they would have heard: her youth. Or, her health. Or, her freedom. Her happiness. Her future. Or her soul. Perhaps some of them did ask. Perhaps some of them thought it better not to know. I can’t say. At any rate, many of them bought that dream.

And many of them were satisfied with the bargain. The dream they had bought for their daughter was golden indeed; given time, it was very clear that she would be great, that she could be the greatest. I heard once that there were some who paid the price and regretted it, but if you were to ask the woman about them you would find that she did not recognise their names, and nor would you recognise their names, and so we must conclude that they are of no concern to us.

Where were we? Ah, yes. The child whose parents bought a dream for her, a golden, gleaming dream; a dream for which they paid with money and for which she paid with her health and her youth, her future and her freedom and her happiness. And, perhaps, her soul. A golden, gleaming dream, a circlet that rested heavily on her head, with the weightiness of skill and beauty, victory and fame. A dream of greatness.

And it was hers. Do not mistake me. It belonged to her, truly, for – this is a fairy tale, so shall we say, a year and a day? Very well. For a year and a day, she was the greatest, and in her golden dream-crown she ruled over all, and all praised her skill and her artistry, her beauty and her fame. And then –

What?

And then? Nobody wants to know what happened next. Are you sure? Well, if you must. When a year and a day had passed, she woke, and she found that her golden circlet had changed into a wreath of dead brown leaves that crumbled into dust when she touched them, and her limbs were racked with pain, and her bones were the bones of an old woman, and no one remembered her name.

And with agony coursing through her with every step, she went to the city that she had ruled and she saw that another girl was the greatest, another girl wore her crown, another girl had bought and had claimed the dream.

Her parents were furious. ‘The woman tricked us!’ they yelled, and they stamped off to complain, their daughter limping behind them. She would have wept, but she had learned that there was no use in weeping.

She did not weep, but the woman smiled. ‘Why are you surprised?’ she asked. ‘Surely you know that a dream only lasts as long as you sleep.’

The parents ranted and fumed. But the woman turned away. She had no time for them. She had another dream to sell.

The End

A crown embroidered in gold and red thread on a black background

More on the question of sport, and whether it’s worth it all? Try A Spoke In The Wheel:

The first thing I saw was the wheelchair.

The first thing she saw was the doper.

Find out more

Lost and found

Two books, 'Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland', 'Floral Patterns of India', and a white ceramic coaster with a gold letter K, on a padded envelope with 'KAFJ BIRTHDAY 26 JUL 21' written on it in red ballpoint pen

Every time I spoke to Pa over the last few months of his life, he said to me, ‘I still haven’t found your birthday present’. Found, that is, in the room that he used as half study, half bedroom, half model railway layout, and indeed, good luck finding anything in there. He’d given me a hideous charity shop coaster as a sort of joke present on the day itself, but my actual present was lost.

I assumed we’d never find it. Or, rather, I assumed we’d find it and we wouldn’t know. That it would be loose among his own things, indistinguishable from them.

But there it was: a padded envelope, with my initials and the date of my birthday. I cried a bit. Inside: a book of birds, and a book of stickers. Yes. Something I’d like, but something that might have been his own.

We found all sorts of things. There was another envelope, a much older one. Inside was a scarf. The writing on the envelope told us that the scarf was made by my great-grandmother for my grandfather, and it was in remarkably good condition one hundred and twenty years later. Other things were not so well documented. In the same box as the scarf we found several lovely early twentieth century Christmas cards, with no clue as to who sent them, or to whom. Somebody must have kept them for some reason, but I shouldn’t think we’ll ever know now.

We fill our homes with things – because we like them, because somebody important gave them to us, because we don’t get round to getting rid of them. We know what the reasons are; the people who come after us probably won’t, unless we tell them. I can see myself hanging onto that padded envelope; if so, I can see my children, if I have any, chucking it. And we will both be right.

Every item in a house is there for a reason. Some of those reasons are not particularly good ones.

‘Every word on that page is there for a reason,’ my A-level English teacher told me. It was quite possibly the most significant thing I learned at school. Every word represents a choice. Saying it this way, not any of the other ways one might have said it. Keeping it there when you come to reread. Deciding that it needed to be said in the first place.

Pa was an expansive, digressive, eclectic writer. He wrote about all sorts of things, though the nominal subject was usually mass transit. Most of his readers were quite happy to come along for the ride. And I think that his reason for most of the words, like most of the items, was, quite simply, that he liked them.

Here’s something that’s in my house for a reason, a birthday present I most definitely knew about. This was what Pa made me for my fifth birthday. It says so on the back.

A large wooden dolls' house in a cluttered room

Daily Decoration: cumulative icicles

The top portion of a Christmas tree, hung with decorations made from beads threaded on wire and representing icicles

There’s nothing particularly special about these icicles. There are six of them. They always go around the top branches of the tree: their length fills in the gap and they pick up the lights and sparkle pleasingly. They’re made from plastic beads threaded on wire, and they were yet another charity shop find in the penniless Guildford days. The beginning of the collection, if you like. That’s rather appropriate, given the way real icicles form: a drop freezing, another drop running over it and freezing onto it, over and over until it’s an elegant spike. It’s rather appropriate given the way that these were obviously made: a bead after a bead after a bead.

2021 was very much a year to be got through one day at a time. While 2020 is, in my head, a timeless, expansive, almost gentle, stretch of enforced freedom, 2021 seemed to call for gritted teeth and the continual effort of putting one foot in front of the other in front of the other in front of the other…

Early on in the year, someone I follow on the internet mentioned that they were aiming to add one sentence to their work in progress every day. I liked the sound of this. As mentioned elsewhere, I have more than one work in progress, and I thought this seemed like a good way of keeping faith with all of them. It has been. I’ve written short stories, fanfic, an essay, one sentence at a time. I’ve written twenty-six thousand words of one novel. I can’t remember the starting wordcount on the other one, but I do know it’s longer than it was. One sentence, one sentence, one sentence. Maybe two if they seem to come as a pair. Maybe more. Even when I didn’t know what I was doing at all, there’s been something to add. A line of description. A line of dialogue. After a while the thing gathers enough momentum to unspool itself into whole paragraphs, chapters, and I can sit down with it for a couple of hours and finish it off. Or else it runs down again, and once again I add another sentence. Just one today. Just one more tomorrow. Open the document. Add a sentence. Save the document. Close the document.

I decided that I wanted to read more poetry. I have loads of poetry books but the imagined sunny afternoons with a glass of white wine and an hour to dip in didn’t materialise nearly often enough. I started to work my way along the bookcase. The next book along. One poem. Tomorrow, the book after that. Today, Amy Clampitt. Yesterday, Kate Spencer. Tomorrow, Omar Khayyam (translated by Edward Fitzgerald) and the day after, Mary Oliver.

Last year one of my brothers gave me a book called My Year In Small Drawings. I can’t really draw but with a space that’s maybe two inches by three inches it doesn’t really matter. Yesterday I drew a man using a laptop from a stock photo. Today I will draw a picture of a picture. I still can’t really draw but that stops being important.

Duolingo. I can tell you that the boy is eating an apple in Polish, Italian, Spanish, French, and German. (Il ragazzo mangia una mela.) I can tell the cat that she is a cat. (She might not know. It’s best to be sure. Jestesz kotem.) Well, I had an A level in French already (le chat mange une pomme) so that doesn’t really count, but as far as the rest of them go I’m building on, at most, a couple of terms of formal learning plus a couple of months in the country in question. Well, there’s a pandemic on, but I can sort out my verb endings while I make my coffee (le chat ne mange pas des pommes; le chat préfère la nourriture sèche).

Teaching myself the piano. A twenty minute timer, and Michael Aaron’s Adult Piano Method. I have yet to master Home On The Range, but I’m getting there faster than I would if I were doing nothing.

Filling in my diary. I use an ordinary engagement diary, A5, week to view, and it’s part scrapbook, part commonplace book, part record of days. That way I can look back and see when was the last time I gathered the compost and when was the last time my right eye did its funny loss of vision thing and when it was I started reading the book I’ve just finished. And I can write down the quotation I want to remember, and I can stick in the pretty oddment that would otherwise be floating around my desk forever.

It hasn’t been every day. Of course it hasn’t. At present everything to the right of middle C is blocked off by the Christmas tree. Some days I’m too tired to write. Some days it is raining and I do not wish to go out to draw strangers using their phones. Some days I forget to read a poem. The diary tends to get updated all at once in front of whatever’s on Eurosport on a Saturday afternoon. It doesn’t matter. If I miss a day, if I miss a week, a month – no guilt. Any day is a good day to do it again.

A poem.

A phrase.

A drawing.

A sentence.

A drop.

Daily Decoration: blue velvet star

Christmas tree decoration in the shape of a five-pointed star, made from blue velvet and embroidered with beads and copper thread

I thought I’d carry this series on until Epiphany. I’m sure I can think of something to say about five more items.

Today’s ornament is this blue velvet star. This came from Oxfam – new. It’s rather fine, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. I love this sort of rich decoration, the sumptuousness of it, particularly at this time of year. I like it in the same sort of way that I like cherry vodka and dark chocolate and going to the theatre and the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna. I wouldn’t want very much of it, and I wouldn’t want it all the time, but once in a while it’s marvellous.

In November, alerted by David at Licence To Queer, I went to see the Noël Coward: Art and Style exhibition at the Guildhall in London. It was excellent – wonderful clothes, fascinating detail about the theatre – but really, my main takeaway was the following:

it is perfectly possible to be a wildly successful polymath while spending most of one’s life in a dressing gown

There was at least one of his dressing gowns on display, as well as some modern ones inspired by Coward’s style. And – which was perhaps equally inspiring – a picture of him sitting up in bed, working, in what looked like a very fancy apartment but was actually a room in the boarding house his mother ran.

This is very much about image, of course, the swan gliding across the surface of the water while paddling furiously underneath. All the dressing gowns in the world can’t replace hard work and talent. (Though I should say that for the next two weeks I intend to read and watch and listen rather than write.) But at the same time, you don’t need to be miserable while doing that hard work. You don’t need to have wall to wall luxury. But if you’re wearing a nice dressing gown, you’re taking your luxury with you.

We interrupt this blog series to bring you a small Christmassy treat

Christmas tree decoration representing a shooting star

There’s a little Stancester snippet in the IReadIndies A Very Sapphic Christmas anthology. If you were wondering how things went between Speak Its Name and The Real World, this fills in a little bit of the gap. It also addresses the perennial question: why do we do Christingles, anyway? It’s one of nineteen stories and excerpts by authors from the IReadIndies collective, and you can download the whole thing here.

I’ll also be making it available to newsletter subscribers as a standalone in the new year (read: when I’ve had a chance to find a nice photo to make a cover). If you’re not already subscribing to my newsletter, you can sign up here.

Meanwhile, the books themselves are both in the Smashwords End of Year sale. Speak Its Name is free and The Real World is half price. Find them here.

I’ll be back later with today’s decoration, whatever that ends up being. In the meantime – enjoy!

Daily Decoration: Christmas card bauble

Bauble covered in overlapping cardboard scales in shades of gold, deep blue and pale pink

I made this bauble. That is, I punched out hundreds of little leaf shapes from the previous year’s Christmas cards and pinned them onto a polystyrene ball and stuck an eyepin into the top of the ball and threaded string through the eyepin.

There is surely enough polystyrene in the world already. The punch is not what it once was. And three Christmas cards saved from the bin isn’t really going to make much of a difference.

Meanwhile, if I were going to pay myself minimum wage for making this it would be well into double digits of pounds.

It’s a failure in pretty much every dimension – except for one. It is pretty. No, two. I enjoyed doing it.

I think there’s something worth finding in the pleasure of making something, or growing something, or writing something. This year I’ve been writing to please myself. Nothing worthy. Nothing that’s going to make my fortune. Just what I want to write, because I want to write it. Maybe I’ll say more about that another day. And maybe I won’t.

The third dimension: when a book comes to life

A cardboard cut-out character from a toy theatre in front of a backdrop from same

I love the moment when it turns out that the book I’m working on is, in fact, going to turn out to be a book.

The first time this happened to me was with Speak Its Name. That was my first book and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had the backdrop (student politics) and I had the characters (students) moving in front of it, occasionally affected by it, but never affecting it. It was flat. Boring.

Then I realised that what I needed to do was to get my most political character involved in the politics.

It sounds so simple. Perhaps it was. All I can say is, it took me a very long time to realise, and it changed the whole book for the better. It turned it from two dimensions into three, like inflating a bouncy castle, or sewing a pair of trousers together. It wasn’t just that my characters were now joined to the background at the point where one of them decided to involve the Students’ Union. It joined all sorts of other bits together, and it made the whole thing neater, more coherent. More interesting. It made the whole book work.

A Spoke in the Wheel and The Real World were, so far as I can remember, better behaved. Oh, getting The Real World nailed down was rather like wrestling an octopus that was also Tam Lin, but it always felt like something, well, real, if I could only get a handle on it. And with A Spoke In The Wheel both characters and plot landed more or less fully formed, bar a giant hole in the middle that I had to work out how to fill.

This time it happened at about the 50,000 word mark. No, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, but I decided to take advantage of the general #AmWriting mood to make some progress on the Ruritanian thing. This is the project that I’ve been working on, off and on, for the last three years if not more. It seems to prefer being a side project. It modestly shuffled out of the way to let me concentrate on The Real World. It refused to be written at all earlier this year, and only started cooperating when I got swept off my feet by the historical thing. Nine months further on – nine months in which I’ve been trying to add a sentence to each project each day – it’s suddenly taking itself seriously.

Now this, being a Ruritanian thing, requires plot. It requires plot on a level that I’ve never contemplated before. There are double-crosses and Chekhov’s guns and timetables. The action of the last book happens over the course of a year. The action of this book takes place over the course of five days. I discovered the other day that I had my main character drinking five coffees between midnight on Saturday and Sunday lunchtime. I’m counting the espresso martini here, but still.

Of course, that’s easily fixable. I’ve already turned one of those coffees into a slice of cake. The real challenge has been getting the characters to do the things that are needed for the plot to happen in ways that make sense for them. Because if the characters don’t work, then the plot doesn’t work.

When I’m stuck on a book, one thing that helps me is writing down why I’m stuck. Sometimes I like to make an occasion of this. This time, I was just on the train. (Not that taking the train isn’t an exciting novelty these days.) I wrote down the things I needed to invent or research. Then I wrote down the thing that was bothering me, the thing I knew I’d have to fix sooner or later:

George shouldn’t be involving his untrained relations and he knows that.

Or, as paraphrased for Twitter,

Bringing Milly back makes George looks like a callous dimwit.

And yet Milly has to come back (she’s the narrator!) and George has to be both decent and competent. That’s the whole point of his being in this book at all.

So I kept writing.

He doesn’t have a choice with Amelia. But he needs a damn good reason for Milly to come back… There’s got to be more to it than ‘it might come in useful’.

I went down a couple of dead ends. Something that Amelia tells George that Milly doesn’t know about? Something that brings in a couple of other characters? My brain was working faster than I could write, so it wasn’t coming out as great prose.

Milly is the only person who has seen several key players by sight, so it makes sense to keep her on the spot. But that’s what’s putting her in danger. Sending her home is for her own safety.

I kept writing. Half a page later, it hit me.

Hang on. What if they do get Milly to share – and then don’t act on that? Yes. Milly spills the beans and thinks it’s all cleared up. George arrives, wants to find out more. Milly is the obvious candidate to find out more.

Bingo.

That adjusts the stakes just enough to make everyone’s actions plausible. It makes sense for Milly to come back. It makes sense for George to let her.

A (really encouraging) bonus: I now have a much better idea of at least one of the villains. And the [plot goes here] bit in the antepenultimate (there’s a good word) chapter.

Of course it’s going to demand a whole lot more changes – because most of the 54,000 words I had down were written on the assumption that Milly didn’t share – but I don’t care about that. It makes the whole thing work.

I love that moment.