So, Dawn, you are a regular contributor to CafeLit . How did you first find out about it?
I can’t actually remember how I first came across the CafeLit site but I assume it was as a result of having a story accepted by Bridge House Publishing for the anthology ‘Otherwhere and Elsewhen’, in 2012. I hadn’t been writing very long and had only had a few stories accepted for publication, all of which were sci-fi stories, so I was tremendously excited to have my story ‘Earthrights’ included in the anthology! I can only assume I was then included in an email list and I heard about CafeLit from that.
But, however I found the site, what immediately grabbed my attention was that most of the stories were written in exactly 100 words. The idea of writing a 100-worder story (I don’t remember ever hearing of them referred to as ‘drabbles’ at that time) intrigued me and I decided to see if I could write one. The first piece which was accepted was submitted in 2013 was called Three Little Words. It was about a woman expecting a proposal of marriage
Once I’d had one story accepted I was absolutely hooked and wrote several others and I was thrilled when Three Little Words was selected to be included in The Best of CafeLit 3 which was published in 2014. I planned to go to the book launch which took place on December 06 2014 in London but it coincided with the day the World War One play I’d written was being performed in Basildon and although I knew I had enough time to attend the afternoon launch and be back for the evening performance, I remember on the news that day, it was announced there was some disturbance on the railway. So, reluctantly, I decided I’d better not go to London and risk being trapped there and miss the play in the evening. But I’ve been to all the subsequent Bridge House book launches which are always held on the first Saturday in December and I have made many good friends. It was at one of those launches when Gill announced she intended to publish single-author collections of stories, so I rushed home to see what I could get together. I was so excited when Gill accepted my collection of stories and it was her first single-author anthology, Extraordinary which was published by Bridge House in 2017.
I’ve noticed that recently you have gone back to the very short form. Can you tell us more about that?
I usually get up early—before anyone else in my house and while I’m exercising, I listen to BBC Radio 4 and just recently, several thoughts have struck me—mostly prompted by the day’s news. It has been those ideas which prompted the few drabbles I’ve submitted this year. For example, there was a news story about lunch food boxes which were supplied to school children who would usually have free school meals, and how a mother had posted a photo on social media showing her child had received two carrots, two potatoes, a tin of baked beans and a small range of other food items. I worked in several schools before I retired and knowing how some children have to fend for themselves, I wondered how such children might cope with two carrots and two potatoes. That thought led me to my story which imagines a brother and sister with an unidentified item and how they deal with it. Although the drabble might appear slightly amusing, if you know what prompted the story, it’s rather poignant – Enquiring Minds.
Another sad story which was inspired by a news story was Home Schooling for All when it was reported some children have so few resources at home, they resort to using toilet paper as note paper during their home schooling. I know from working in schools that some children have very difficult backgrounds but having retired and no longer being exposed to the reality of some children’s lives, I was rather shocked by the report.
But it’s not just sad stories which were memorable. Fashion Critique was inspired by Tweet of the Day where someone talks about a particular bird and its song. I won’t spoil the story by explaining why!
I’m not sure why I find drabbles so compelling to write. Perhaps it’s the challenge of putting over an idea or telling a brief story in an exact number of words or perhaps I’m aware that too many words can dilute and distract from what I want to say. I know that when I have strong views about something or I have an emotional connection, I often write drabbles to express my thoughts. One example is A Lasting Impression which has been selected for inclusion in The Best of CafeLit 10. It was written a few weeks after my mum passed away last year. In fact, I have a collection of drabbles which I wrote shortly after I lost my mum and dad which I have never shown anyone. I don’t suppose I ever will.
But I have plans for a new series of short stories which I would like to submit, as soon as I can get them ready…
We’ve published two of your CafeLit serials. How did they come about?
The first serial which Chapeltown Books published was The Basilwade Chronicles which was
published in 2019. It started life as a short story written to present at one of the Basildon Writers’ Group meetings, where once a month, members read a short story or excerpt from a work in progress. Sometimes we set a writing prompt and one particular month, we were asked to write a story about a man who was socially inept and rather tactless.
I tried to think of a situation which might be considered a social minefield which my character could mishandle, and I came up with speed-dating. The name Derek Carruthers popped into my head (apologies to anyone with that name!) as being perfect for my man and I made a start. Not surprisingly, by the end of the story, Derek doesn’t leave with anyone’s contact details However, he does meet a woman – Mary Wilson, who is as disenchanted with him, as he is with her. (A Question of Timing).
I liked Derek and Mary so much, I decided I’d write another story involving them, to read out at the following meeting of the writers’ group. At the end of that story, a new character was introduced, Florrie Fanshawe, who I included in a third story.
Each month after that, I took one or more people from the previous story and wrote them into a new tale. As well as tactless Derek Carruthers, there were characters such as the selfish vicar with a penchant for pickled onions, the ostentatious clairvoyant with mesmerising eyes, the would-be entrepreneur with an unhealthy inclination to bear a grudge and the couple in the retirement home who traumatised the young cleaner because they were often found in the broom cupboard together.
Each month, after I’d read a story out at the Basildon Writers’ Group meeting, I submitted it to the CaféLit website, and I was thrilled that each one was accepted by Gill. She suggested publishing them as a book, so I decided I needed a way to conclude all the stories and thought I’d write a final chapter where two of the characters, Sidney Jugg and Betty Bentwhistle get married. In that way, I could bring most of the people who’d appeared in the book back for the ceremony in a grand finale. So, I started to write. I then realised that it was much too long for one chapter and eventually, I divided it into three chapters – The Hen Night, The Stag Do and The Perfect Wedding.
I submitted the final three chapters, which were published on the CaféLit site and to my delight, Gill said Chapeltown would publish the manuscript as a Kindle book and paperback.
Because each chapter is a stand-alone story, which has its own title, I hadn’t considered a title for a book. Gill suggested The Basilwade Chronicles, since the tales were set in the fictitious town of Basilwade.
The book is also now available as an audiobook, read by John Guest.
The Macaroon Chronicles came about in a similar way, in that the first story was written from a writing prompt for my writing group. The prompt was a list of unrelated objects from which I had to select five and to incorporate them into a story. I chose a Hawaiian shirt, a ballpoint pen, a pair of fisherman’s waders, a billboard and an electric guitar—items which aren’t usually associated together! They seemed to lend themselves to a zany, surreal story.
I then needed to create some characters and coincidentally, I’d been watching a video of legendary ski jumper, Eddie the Eagle Edwards and the name appealed to me, which is how Eddie, the Bald Eagle (who’s really a chicken) was hatched! I hadn’t considered writing a story with animals in it but once I had Eddie, the other animals made themselves known!
Once I had the first story, The Three Wise Monkeys written, I decided to find out what happened to the characters next and how they managed to escape from the Custard River. So, although each story in ‘Macaroon’ stands on its own, I didn’t take a character from a story and write them their own story, as I had in The Basilwade Chronicles, I simply carried on with the adventures of Eddie and his friends.
Eventually, I brought all the ‘Macaroon’ characters to an island resort where I thought I could leave them without too much mayhem! And who knows, I may revisit them one day and find out what they’ve been up to!
What sort of a response have you had to those?
I’ve had some wonderful reviews for both books.
For The Macaroon Chronicles, I think the one thing which comes over to me is that readers may have no idea what sort of book they’re about to embark on and are ultimately very surprised! This comment from a review from Whispering Stories blog is typical, “If you are after a book that is a light-hearted, easy, quick read but nothing like you will ever have read before then I can suggest you read this one.”
And this comment from an Amazon reviewer “This book is a joyous romp through absurdity, where the characters are all animals, the scenery is mostly edible and the events propel the action at breakneck speed. And that alone makes it a feast of a read in these depressing days…”
‘Romp’ is a word which several people have chosen to describe the book!
Likewise, for The Basilwade Chronicles, here’s a typical Amazon review, “I've had this on my kindle for a while, and was too busy to read it; but it's been worth the wait. Once I started, I couldn't put it down; it's laugh out loud in places, and I think it would make a very successful sitcom. Brilliant.”
Tell us about the covers!
When I was considering the cover for The Basilwade Chronicles, I couldn’t think of anything which would illustrate the stories. After all, Basilwade is a fictitious town with no outstanding features except the people, so rather than anything to do with the town, I began to think about some of the characters as cartoons, such as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books or Tom Sharpe’s Wilt Series.
David O’Neill, A fellow member of the Basildon Writers’ Group has a book called The Oui Trip which has a scantily-clad couple running towards the reader, with strategically placed towel and inflatable shark, being pursued by other characters. Dave told me the artist was a friend and he gave me the contact details for Neill C Woods. I contacted Neill to see if he’d be willing to design a cover which had the same madcap frenetic activity as Dave’s book but without the sauciness which I didn’t think typified the ‘Basilwade’ book. Neill read all the stories and came back with his ideas which I loved. He’d obviously made notes about many of the characters as he read, and then reproduced them in a zany image showing the wedding of Betty Bentwhistle and Sydney Jugg. Once you’ve read the stories, it’s possible to work out each of the characters he’s painted.
When The Macaroon Chronicles was nearing completion, I asked Neill if he’d be able to design a cover for that book too, and he agreed. I think it must have been a harder task to draw such a strange collection of animals but he did a brilliant job. I wondered how he’d deal with a bald chicken but he dressed him in a Father Christmas outfit (from The Year’s Most Popular Christmas Toy)!
How do you choose your drink for your CafeLit stories?
If a drink is described in the story, I use that, so, for example, the drink for Nearly Death by Chocolate was, not surprisingly, hot chocolate and the drink in No Saints at All Saints’ was brandy because Mrs McSquirtle, the vicar’s lazy housekeeper, was partial to ‘medicinal brandy’.
Sometimes, the mood of the story suggests a drink, such as champagne for The Perfect Wedding or a bitter drink like Campari for Sydney Jugg’s Book of Grievances or even a Bloody Mary for To Be A Queen where the queen in question, is beheaded.
Do you regularly read CafeLit?
Yes, although I don’t manage to read it every day. It really depends how busy I am writing. But I tend to catch up and read several at once.
Several of your stories are in some of The Best of CafeLit volumes. How did you react to that? Does this motivate you to try to get things on the e-zine? You’ve also been involved in selecting stories e.g. you chose some for The Best of CafeLit 10 . How did you approach the task?
The Best of CafeLit 3 was the first book had a story in which was published in 2014 and I have had one or more stories selected each year, except number 4. I obviously wasn’t trying hard enough that year! But all the other years, I’ve been thrilled to have at least one story included and yes, it does encourage me to submit stories to be published throughout the year. After all, there’s little chance I’ll have a story selected for The Best of CafeLit book, if I haven’t submitted any throughout the year.
I’ve also been involved in selecting other people’s stories to be included and I’m not sure what I look for—except I know when I find it! I like a good twist at the end and often I like to be amused but I suppose it must depend on my mood because sometimes I like a poignant or sad story.
What encouragement can you offer for people who would like to be published in CafeLit?
Read the stories which have been published to get an idea of what is likely to be accepted. Also, at the side of each story is the image of the Magnetism book which is a collection of short stories from authors whose stories regularly appear on the CafeLit site. If you click on the link to the Magnetism book, it takes you to a page where you can sign up for regular emails from Gill so you can keep up with the latest from CafeLit. And when you sign up, you get a free copy of the Magnetism book which will give you an idea of the sort of stories which Gill accepts.
Check out the submission guidelines here and once you have a story you think might be suitable, it’s really easy to submit via Duosuma—click on the button on the submission page and follow the instructions.
But definitely, have a go! And if your piece isn’t accepted, try again.
And for anyone offering a serial?
If you have a series of short stories such as either of the ‘Chronicle’ books, contact Gill and ask if she would be interested. If she gives you the go-ahead, then submit the first story via Duosuma and after it’s published on the CafeLit site, continue sending the stories in, two to three weeks apart until they’ve all been published. Don’t forget to add a link to the previous story or stories so that if people are interested in reading them, they don’t need to search. If you check out the bottom of the final story in The Macaroon Chronicles, for example, you’ll see I have links to all the previous stories North, South, East and Best, so if someone was new to CafeLit and enjoyed the story, they could catch up on the others.
But definitely, have a go!
Grab your copies of the two serials here:
Read the CafeLit magazine here
Submit to CafeLit here
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