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Things A Bright Girl Can Do – Sally Nicholls (published February 2018)
Sally Nicholls began her career in YA fiction with a novel about living with terminal cancer. The emphasis for eleven-year-old Sam was on the living, not the dying. Sam loved lists and facts but found adults shrank from sharing them with him about the subject he had the most right to understand: his own life. From English mythology to bullying, adoption and death, Nicholls’ subjects continue to reveal how adults can fear and fight against what they don’t take the trouble to understand. The misconception that Young Adult fiction or Children’s Fiction cuts emotional corners isn’t worth dwelling on, but the publication on 1 February 2018 of Things A Bright Girl Can Do is a particular opportunity for gratitude and joy that we are living in age where lesbian eroticism underpins a YA novel about the Suffragette movement and the First World War.
Evelyn, May and Nell are three young women living at a time when growing up means fighting the German army, the English politicians, their families and eventually themselves for freedom on every level. As always, Nicholls shows sweetly, concisely, with a kind and bittersweet (yet never bitter) irony, exactly how unpleasant and unjust the world can be. She also makes you laugh, nod and learn. According to the reviews, this book is about three women in love, and that is absolutely true. But my favourite thing about her portrayal of love is the unromanticism. For Evelyn, whatever else Teddy may be – her fiancé, a soldier, an invalid, a husband – he was her best friend first.
Nicholls also handles the realisation that shouldn’t be a surprise yet always is: that getting what you want does not make everything else alright; in this case, that women getting the vote still means living with the everyday injustices you can’t fix; that you can’t always make the world the easier, kinder place you wish it could be for all those you love.
Friendship forms our identities in so much greater quantity than love affairs, yet can get overlooked as driving forces. My best friend when I started primary school was Katy. Apparently, the moment Katy knew she wanted to be friends with me was when our form teacher, Mrs Wilmott, told us we were about to do Maths. I said, “Oh no, not Maths!” and burst into tears. And Katy just knew.
I don’t remember the Maths incident. I do remember the sparkly rainbow wig Katy wore when she came to my house, the white moon and star drawings on her bedroom ceiling, the seagull puppet that you pulled a string on and watched it flap its wings. I remember her brown cuckoo clock and the magic of it striking on the hour. I remember how mind-blowingly exciting it was to be in a house where everything in the kitchen was safe to eat (my family was kosher, her family was vegetarian). I remember watching Labyrinth and The Neverending Story for the first time and being fascinated and terrified, not simply by what was happening in the film but by the creeping realisation that fiction was real and powerful in its own way. I remember playing Hide and Seek and hiding in the tiny the cupboard under my family’s stairs and my mum shutting the door; the sound of my fists and tears and how big a thing it all was for thirty seconds. I remember making pizza (my mum did most of it really) and wearing printer-paper chef’s hats (all our own work). I remember the words to the song Katy and I wrote about polystyrene (but I don’t remember my times tables).
Katy and I lost touch for several years before we found each other again over Facebook. In that time, we had both turned into five-foot ex-copywriters. We’re living in different cities now, both working on our first novels, both love horror and David Bowie. We both live in vegan households, with angry-looking cats.
Romantic relationships are one thing, but there are quieter influences with just as much mileage for fiction. That’s my earliest, but there are many others I could plot with a similar list of specific memories that informed my personality, choices and future.
February writing tip inspired by this month’s author, Sally Nicholls:
Plot a Friendship
The power dynamics, memories, passions and assumptions that underpin friendships are wonderful writing territory. Every friendship in your story is a window, so there are views in two directions: insight into the soul of the character (who they are) and out into the world (who they could or want to be).
Pick a character. Your main character who you know well, or the oddly memorable stranger you saw on the bus the other day and haven’t written anything about at all yet.
Build a Character:
- Who is the friend your main character takes advice from?
- Which friend do they like but somehow look down on?
- Which friend makes them feel most like the self they want to be?
- Which friend reminds them of the past?
- Which friend do they need more than they like?
- Who do they wish they were closer to?
- Who do they wish would go away?
Structure a Plot:
- Write the scene they met for the first time.
- Write the scene where they argue for what is not the first time. What’s it about? Does it matter? Will they even remember it happened?
- Write what they’d normally do together.
- Write the most important thing they go through together.
A plot is the ladder-rungs, or spinal column of your story. A friendship underpins all kinds of new plots. Take one friendship, fill it out, and you’ll have any number of new offshoots for stories from the one you thought you were working on.
Example from this month’s author:
This one’s just been published, so no spoilers, bUT the example I’d pick above all others is when Evelyn prays to the God she didn’t believe in for the old friend she doesn’t know if she loves. In doing so, she learns more about the self she’s fighting for than at any other time in her story.
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