I was complaining the other day on Twitter about not having anything to write after finishing the two things I had been working on, and someone suggested writing a silly short story in a new genre, so here it is in all its silliness (disclaimer – there is no award-winning children’s book and I don’t know anyone called Leo):
The Little Museum By the Sea
‘I do have an idea,’ I said, trying not to sound defensive. ‘It’s called The Little Museum By the Sea.’
‘Ah, good, good,’ said my editor, Leo. But after a moment his eyes narrowed in suspicion as he added, ‘I hope it’s going to be a nice cosy chick-lit story this time. That’s what people need right now to take their minds off things.’
‘Um,’ I said. Perhaps I could pretend my wi-fi had crashed so that I wouldn’t be forced to answer his implied question. There had to be some advantage in those video meetings, after all. Then I re-considered and said, ‘I suppose I could do with working on something different for a while.’
‘Just make sure nobody gets crushed under a falling display case or poisoned by hazardous material,’ he muttered. ‘OK, well, I can see you’re keen to make a start, so I won’t keep you… See you later.’
‘Later!’ I said breezily, and cut the connection.
Nice and cosy. These would be my watchwords from now on.
I started a new document on my laptop and typed the title at the top of the page. I was going to enjoy working on something cosy and comfortable that didn’t freak me out, and wouldn’t frighten the wits out of my target audience, which I decided would consist of the members of a book group somewhere in the Home Counties. Or Edinburgh. Something that would be easy to sell. Something I could show my mother.
A couple of hours later I sat back, stretched and contemplated the story so far. I was pleased with the museum curator I had created. A very old man, so old he had almost shrivelled up. The only signs of life were his piercing blue eyes that gazed out of a very pale face, the skin almost translucent. Looking after the Little Museum By the Sea had been his life’s work, and now he was searching for someone to take his place so that he could find rest at last.
I frowned as I re-read it. Wasn’t there something a bit creepy about this old man? Some suggestion that he planned to lure some unsuspecting young person into the museum and trap them there until they in turn were old and shrivelled? Could it be that the Little Museum itself was capable of casting a spell on the people who cared for it, of creating some kind of force field that held them in place until they were too weak to break out even if they desperately wanted to?
I had a feeling this hadn’t been what my editor meant by ‘nice and cosy’.
I ran it past him during our next video call.
‘Isn’t there something a bit creepy about this old man?’ Leo enquired, raising his eyebrows in that way he had.
‘Not really,’ I lied. ‘He’s just a harmless old man who loves his museum.’
‘Loves it a bit too much, you mean,’ said my editor. ‘He’s obsessed with it – it’s eaten him up from the inside… This isn’t really the kind of thing I meant, Claire.’
‘I’ll try again,’ I promised.
I meant it, too. How hard could it be to write something soft and fluffy, nice and cosy, without any suggestion of the supernatural or hidden evil? Surely that must be easier than dredging up depraved characters from the dark depths of my mind.
The following day, I abandoned the old shrivelled up man – I couldn’t bring myself to delete what I had written. I might still be able to use the character in one of my darker pieces, if I didn’t become an overnight best-seller in the fluffy meringue stakes, that was. In which case I could be trapped into writing like that for ever. Hmm… trapped.
By the time I paused to make toast in mid-morning, the sea level outside the Little Museum had risen dramatically, and when I resumed work on the document later, a freak wave unexpectedly engulfed the place, causing the staff to take refuge on the roof. I couldn’t decide whether they would be trapped there for hours, almost losing all hope before being rescued by a passing member of the local lifeboat crew who raised his eyebrows at them in implied censure, or whether the whole building would vanish under the sea, staff and all, only to be re-discovered decades or even centuries later, once the sea had receded again. As the waters around the Little Museum rose ever higher, I thought I knew the answer to that one.
Leo was shaking his head before I had even finished describing my latest draft.
‘Whether you rescue them or not,’ he said, ‘there’s nothing very cosy about being cold and wet, and waiting in the dark for help that never comes, is there? And why did you let the dog get washed away? Nobody wants the dog to die, not even in the most violent disaster movie.’
‘I’d better try again,’ I told him wearily.
I left it a couple of days this time before starting again.
This next attempt was certainly different from either of the previous ones. It started well, with an older woman who owned the Little Museum By the Sea but had a fall and persuaded her granddaughter to come and help her out. The granddaughter naturally attracted a following of young men. You might almost say she lured them into the place…
‘So the two women dismember them in the basement?’ said my editor in a tone of horrified resignation. ‘In what way is this a nice cosy read?’
‘I couldn’t help it!’ I wailed. ‘The story just ran away with me.’
‘Every time, Claire,’ he said, raising his eyebrows at me again. ‘Look, if you really feel you’re not suited to this genre, why not try something completely different?’
That was how I came to write my award-winning children’s book, The Little Museum By the Sea. Mind you, most of the reviewers picked up on its resemblance to some of the Brothers Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
Breaking our household rule that we should only discuss work via a video link and never when we were in the same room, I read a selection of reviews to Leo one evening after we had put the kids to bed.
‘I was right, all the same,’ he said, annoyingly smug as ever. ‘All you needed to do was to try a different genre.’
I refrained from commenting on the fact that he had told me the tale was too grim for children and that I would be shooting myself in the foot by publishing it. We had to preserve domestic harmony somehow, after all.