First, catch your Guinea Pig

Last week I wandered into the Reception office of the Ferne Animal Sanctuary in Somerset, and offered my services as a volunteer. I had visions of playing with the pussies, walking the dogs, brushing a bunny or two… The lovely Laura, however, scanned my CV and said ‘Tours. School children, disabled groups, Old Folks’ homes. Only got one person to do them. You’re an ex-teacher. Tours are yours.’ Honesty clearly isn’t always the best policy on a CV. Thought I’d waved the little blighters good bye for ever, but no, not yet…
‘No pussies?’
‘No, we’ve got loads of cat socialisers. (I know- but it is a real job! — Now look here Felix, you can’t just scarf down all the biscuits. Share with Delilah. No Felix, don’t bite her on the leg. Bad boy. Now kiss it better… Joyce Grenfell lives)
I had one hour of ‘small animal training’ with Kathryn, which involved first, catching a rabbit and showing I could hold it correctly. No problem. The one I aimed for was huge and weighed over two stone- he couldn’t get away fast enough to avoid my groping hands if he’d wanted to. Lovely warm coat he’d make he had.
Then it was onto the Guinea Pigs. At the lift of the latch into their cosy shed they disappeared under several upturned baskets. ‘This should be easy,’ I muttered, turning over a basket to reveal at least eight Guineas with their heads tucked underneath their arms pretending I couldn’t see them. But as soon as I put a hand down they scattered like the last Rice Krispies in a bowl of chocolate milk. So I scrabbled about a bit. Practised lunging (good for the thighs) ‘Got one!’
‘Oh. That one’s not good to demonstrate with – it’s blind,’ said Kathryn. No wonder I could catch it. I caught another two blind ones. Didn’t get within a Guinea Pig’s wotsit of a young ‘un.
Ah well. Onto the ferrets. The ferrets were fast asleep wrapped in blankets. Easy. Kathryn tipped out the albino one (that doesn’t bite) and I grabbed his silky, half-asleep, shivery little body and held him close. What a delight. Battered ego raised its head just a little. Maybe I was getting the hang of this animal lark. Ferret fettler first class… (I know, step away from the alliteration box).
We looked at cows, at chickens, at ducks, at goats, at pigs, at horses, at birds, at dogs…but no pussies. They were torturing me for my insolence in expecting to see them straight away. I sighed.
Then, far too swiftly, induction was over. I signed to say I had received training, did Fire and safety stuff, and said goodbye to the staff. I took the tour notes and map home to swot. Lots of swotting.
Today was Tour Day 1. 100 ten year olds in groups of 25, for a 45 minute tour each. Had I lost my touch? Was I past it? (Jury’s still out on that one) Would it be terrible? Nah, it was great! Freezing cold, yes, bitter wind, yes, animals hiding in their sheds, yes. But I’d forgotten how enthusiastic the average ten-year old is- they ran around like monkeys, asked questions, laughed at my jokes (hey- I can re-use them!) Even the teachers smiled. Occasionally.
I really enjoyed my first day. It just goes to show that doing something for nothing is worthwhile. And I’m really looking forward to the next one in April.
Oh, and I did get to see the pussies. I’m in love with a stunning blue-eyed Bengal called Lucky. Reckon we could squeeze a little one in at home…

Now where am I?

I set my first novel in Exeter, a beautiful city about twenty five miles from where I live. It’s a city small enough to feel friendly but large enough to support a bit of low-life murderous scum. One friend read my novel when it was a draft ms, fighting its way through several more drafts towards being a proper, finished book. She enjoyed the parts where she could ‘see’ the city, and wanted to read more- to help her get an even better sense of the place. So I dutifully had a good look to see where I could add a bit of description without boring the reader to death. And I couldn’t find anywhere.
I think that, without meaning to, I’d stumbled across one of the main differences between commercial and literary fiction. In a literary novel I would have taken the time to bring the places in which I set my novel to life. I’d have helped the reader to experience the world through my eyes. Hilary Mantel does it superbly in the realm of historical fiction, as does Clive Sansom in his Shardlake novels. Wonderful writing, which often stretches to 150,000 words. That’s a big reader commitment. Think I need to stick to a faster, shorter read.
My book’s a crime thriller; the plot ruled. It had to. It had to be tight, well-planned, and, at least some of the time, plausible. The focus on twists, red herrings and false endings just didn’t leave space for the proper evocation of place. (If I wanted to come in under 85000 words, which I did).
Unless, of course (ulp), the writing itself just wasn’t good enough. Was I focussing on other stuff when I could have been crafting a well-turned setting? Probably. Now, I’m not picking on myself- it’s a major achievement for a first-time writer to complete a novel at all, and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. And I did get some of the places right.
But I’m now looking carefully at successful writers in my chosen genre to see how they do it. Rankin’s Edinburgh- I see through Rebus’s bloodshot eyes as he drives along the A9. MacBride’s cold, bitter Aberdeen in winter- I’m there, chilled to the bone, waiting for the body with Logan McCrae. Maybe I need to move to Scotland.
So, if they can do it….