If in doubt, add an aunt

Children in Ireland write a lot of stories. This is one of the things I learned on the Wildest Dreams tour. Nobody, this time, wanted to know what my favourite colour was, or whether I have bodyguards (they’re taking tea with the chauffeur, by the way). Instead, many of them wanted to know how to end a story if you’re stuck, or how to get beyond through the middle ‘when you get to that bit when you’re bored with the plot’.

Oh, I know, I know … I gave them many serious answers, based on personal experience, about keeping going regardless, falling in love with your characters, not underestimating your readers and including a twist. Sarah and Judi suggested practical things like giving your character a problem to solve. None of us suggested what the teachers wanted to hear, as it turned out, which is ‘Don’t end with “And it all turned out to be a dream.”‘ But don’t. Everyone else in your class is doing it. It’s boring, strangely predictable and leaves the reader feeling cheated of a proper solution to the puzzle you’ve created. They did in in Dallas in about 1984 (in which a whole series turned out to have been a dream – mucho annoying). It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now.

But, as Carrie Bradshaw says, it got me thinking. How do authors get over these obstacles? Do they even experience them, or is it just me? Then, thanks to David Maybury (from Dublin – many good things come from Dublin) I came across this interview with Eva Ibbotson, just before  she died last week.

“When I get stuck in a book now, I usually try putting an aunt in,” says Eva Ibbotson, matter-of-factly. “I find it difficult to write a book without aunts. With The Ogre I had to put in three aunts, if I remember rightly.”

I had actually seriously considered this as a problem-solver for book 4. So glad I’m not alone. So glad, in fact, that I’m in such exalted company. A few months ago I was visiting a school in Cheltenham and a couple of girls told me that their favourite author (apart from me – go YOU girls, I LOVE you) was Eva Ibbotson. Actually, they may have mentioned she was slightly more favourite. And that their favourite book of hers was Journey to the River Sea.

Reader, I got that book out of the library pronto – already loving Eva’s glorious prose – and it’s  magical. The characters are gorgeous. The story is thrilling. The South American jungle setting is unforgettable. It’s up there as one of those works I aspire to one day, when I get serious.

In the interview with Michelle Pauli for The Guardian, Eva said she was hugely influenced by The Secret Garden, among other books, when she was growing up. A woman after my own heart. She died at 85, having approved the proofs for her latest book.

I have a great Aunt Eva who is still going strong at 91 (she mowed the lawn just before we visited her this summer and kept us entertained for hours with family stories). She makes 85 seem not such a great age, but it’s not a bad one for a working writer. I’d love to think that among my final moments I’ll be telling an eager interviewer from The Guardian about my plotting secrets after 4 decades of happy writing. And that they will include aunts, and plenty of them.


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