My partner knows a coroner. I never saw that coming. (Notes from a debut YA author.)

Yah!  I have a two-book deal with Hodder!  I have signed on the dotted line for my first young adult novel as well as another stand alone one to follow.   I am actually being paid money for this.  Yay, again!  Last Man Standing, will be published in March 2016, Indigo Donut, (title may change…) in March 2017. This is good news.

Actually, it’s amazingly excellent news.  Such good news that it  made our local paper, as well as The Voice newspaper, the website of a prolific local blogger and our local freebie. I was even interviewed on Colourful Radio, sitting in the corner of a north London park, on a bench between the goats and the deer, on my way to work.

And I have wanted to be a writer since.  Just since.

So, how did this deal come about?  I researched the young adult market – that is, loitered with intent in Charing Cross Road Foyles and scanned my daughter’s shelves.  She’s into manga.  Not helpful.  I also started planning a crime novel set in 1940s Port of Pain, a society still facing up to the impact of the second world war, colonial rule and a programme of de-slumming and emigration.  If you’ve seen Errol John’s play ‘Moon On A Rainbow Shawl’, you know what I mean.  A setting ripe for drama and random poisoning.

I took my collection of ideas to an Arvon crime-writing course, tutored by Dreda Say Mitchell and Frances Fyfield.  About halfway through the week, we were given an exercise to help us hide information – a sentence that had to be embedded within a paragraph or so.  The rest of the group had to guess the sentence.  I was presented with ‘He woke up dreaming of yellow’.  So – what was on my mind?

The obvious.  Mustard.

A few weeks earlier, my daughter and I had used the day of a teachers’ strike to check out Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.  Everything was so pricey that after a couple of rides – her, not me, I’m a coward – we only had money left for one hot dog to share. So – what if?  What if two young people are at a fairground? It’s their first date and the boy is a bit uncertain.  He hates mustard but he’s going to eat that hot dog the girl’s just bought him because it’s a sign.  She’s claiming him.  The date’s going well and then what’s the very worst thing that can happen?  After I wrote that, I just carried on writing.

There was no plan.  Characters emerged from a murky subconscious and vicarious wish fulfillment.  The mother I’d like to be, the 15-year-old I wish I’d been, the big brother I wanted, were all there on the page.  And what was at the core?  The press release mentions gangs, drugs and guns, but that wasn’t what really interested me.  I wanted my protagonist, Marlon, to be a lovely young man, a bit quiet, a bit geeky and with an enduring love for vinyl records.  I was fascinated by what would tip a boy like that over.  Why would Marlon Sunday, who can name every Earth, Wind and Fire album in order, risk destroying his family and his future?

First draft done, after a thorough critique from my writing group, priceless mentoring and the complete removal of a subplot, I was getting there. The book had always been like a jigsaw, but now I had the right number of pieces.  I had to keep trying until the picture looked right.

Caroline Sheldon, my agent, sent it to a number of publishers. My first meeting with Hodder was in an office with a wonderful view and premium biscuits.  I fell in love and eventually it was requited.

So what have I learnt from this so far?

1. My partner knows a coroner.  I honestly never saw that coming.

2. Local newspapers really like good news. So –

3. It’s good to have a couple of decent hi res pics to send off.  My hair is its own lifeform.  In the photos you will see it trying to escape.

4. I somehow have to balance shameless and modest self-publicity.  Haven’t quite worked out that one yet.  However, promotion is vital.

5. The joy of getting to the 300th edit.  There will be more polishing, but I feel that we’re nearly there.  (Aren’t we?  Say ‘yes’!)

6. How pleased and encouraging my friends are!

7. I have a full time job, a teenage daughter, a needy cat and a heavy clad allotment.  I should learn to multitask.

I’ll (try and) keep you posted about book cover selection, promotion and all those new experiences as as we edge towards publication. Px

‘The Lonely Londoners’ – Radio 4 Book at Bedtime

‘The Lonely Londoners’ – Radio 4 Book at Bedtime

Don Warrington is definitely doing justice to Sam Selvon’s book!  Sir Galahad, Tante and the journalist, Brixton…  Yes, it was a struggle for families coming from the Caribbean, but this book is very funny and Don Warrington’s accents and voices brings out the humour.

And with a spot of Lord Kitch bookending it too.  Great!

        My grandfather, Paul Lawrence – the start of the Lawrence line

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This is my grandfather, Paul Lawrence – the start of the Lawrence line as I know it.  There were generations of Lawrences before, but I know so little about them.  I was born in Brighton, England, brought up in Sussex by my mother.  Her parents, seven sisters and three brothers lived in Trinidad and for many years, the family stories and intrigues rarely made it to my ears.  As I look at this picture now, what so i see?  A bit of me.  Alot of my mum.  And – grief – are those my daughter’s eyes?

My grandfather died when I was six.  The first time my mother returned to Trinidad after coming to England in the mid-60s was to go to his funeral, taking me with her.  It was a time when banks were reluctant to lend money to women, so a black, single mother, underpaid nurse was hardly going to tick their boxes.  My mum borrowed money somehow; I borrowed summer clothes from my best friend – and we were off.

Forty years or so, I still hold strong memories.  There’s the scary stuff – the enormous flying cockroaches and their plump, shuffling larvae.  There was the long drop latrines – which I’ve heard are making a comeback at festivals. (Seriously?) I refused to use one until my mother described a colostomy in graphic, buttock-clenching detail; that was apparently my fate unless I let it all go.  (Why let that nursing training waste, huh?)

I also remember the plane door opening after an eternally long flight and the hot, scented air.  And the moment I threw open my grandma’s door on to the rush of morning green.  Massive mango trees, banana trees, sugar cane, palms, avocado, a forest of fruit I’d never seen before.  Add in one mangy cockerel and chicks that bobbed away on spindly legs when I chased them – oh, yes.

The strongest memory, though, is meeting my grandfather.  He was in his coffin, in my grandma’s front room. Apparently, I wasn’t phased.  My mum says I thought he looked like a nice man.

That was a recurring theme – he was a nice man.  I know only fragments of his life, but my mum and her siblings talk of him with great affection.  I believe he was one of nine children and his father disappeared.  There is a story that my great-grandfather and his brother may have rowed a boat down a south American river.  There is also a story that drugs were involved with great-grandfather Lawrence’s disappearance.  Of course, I wish those stories are true.  I’m a writer.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve been shown the land we used to own but got lost in family feuds.  In the Palm House at Kew Gardens, my 80-year-old Aunty over for her visit to the UK pointed out the ‘red fig’ tree.  My grandfather used it to pound flour when rations were tight during the Second World War.  I think now how he lived through two world wars, Trinidad independence, the migration of many people from the Caribbean to the UK and US.  I wonder if his life became easier or harder.  Unlike many in the Caribbean, other than my mother, his family wasn’t scattered between lands.  Three of my aunties still live on the land where his house was.  No relatives of mine were on the SS Windrush and only one followed afterwards.

My Aunty sent this photograph for me and I am grateful.  As a second generation black British woman, I have sometimes felt caught between two cultures.  I am not a Trini, no matter how many Kitch lyrics I can quote.  Growing up in the UK, there are many times I have not felt I’m the right kind of British.  But I am lucky.  I know my heritage.  And it is many of those stories passed down to me  that now inspire me to write.