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Get to Know My Story in 5 Easy Steps

The whys and the whats behind my Book of Unwritten Rules contribution: Get to Know Your Husband in 5 Easy Steps.

*** Contains spoilers **

  1. It contains two opposing unwritten rules.

I didn’t realise this until I wrote the ending. At first, I was focusing on the importance of implicit trust in a relationship, the JENGA-block that once removed, topples all.

But my protagonist had other ideas.

She went against my unwritten ‘rule’ and followed my written ones instead, coming out with her tail between her legs. She spied on her husband. She second-guessed him. She stalked him. She was proven wrong time and time again.

But when her husband’s thoughts finally came to light, it was me who was proven wrong. My character learned things she wished didn’t about him. She pushed and pushed for the truth until their marriage crumbled anyway. And when the smoke cleared, she showed me there was a second unwritten rule to the story all along, somewhere hidden amongst the dust: trust your instincts.

2. It’s written in the second person.

The Marmite of all narrative styles. I had my first stab at this at uni with my short story, The Bystander, about a victim of domestic violence torn between passivity and wanting to escape. I knew it seemed try-hard and pretentious, but it felt right for the duality of the character. And thank God only a third of the class hated it.

I left the second person alone for a while after uni. Packed my bags and went off into the wilderness of lone writing. And then it seemed fitting to fish it out again for Get to Know Your Husband.

Of course, addressing an anonymous ‘you’ fits the didactic thread of the story. But there’s more to it. Everyone in a relationship at some point encounters at least a splinter of doubt in its solidity, or can relate to suspicion in some way. I wanted to make it okay to recognize the ugly in yourself. The mistrust. The angst. The parts of you you wish you could control – and the parts you shouldn’t change at all.

And my protagonist – she’s dual again. She’s the ‘I’ who wants to know the secrets of her husband and herself. The ‘you’ giving herself reassurance and simultaneous goading.

The second person narrative makes a story detached and wholly internal at the same time. An unsure seesaw. And that’s precisely the tone I hope I got across.

3. It has a didactic 5-part structure.

This was my first attempt at writing a story with such clear segments. I thought it would help with the structure, but actually it was harder to try to create five mini stories within one – each its own slice of pace, arch and movement that needed to contribute to the whole cake.

I knew from the start I wanted to parody a fifties’ women’s article – ‘Be the Perfect Housewife’, ‘How to Fold a Napkin and Keep Your Man,’ but it needed a little update. Something that would capture the anxieties of today. The world has shrunk and opportunities have grown – we’re always being encouraged to follow our hearts, and to sniff the greener grass trimmed neatly all over Facebook. For infidelity and suspicion, the world’s a meadow.

It’s easier than ever to keep up the pretense of happiness online and harder to maintain it in reality. I think in many ways, technology fails relationships, unpicking threads in the life you think is enough for you and your partner, but might not be behind the veil of a screen.

Ultimately, the didactic five-part structure was a nice way to play around with pace, building it up and knocking it back down. Plus, it was fun to be so bossy.

4. It’s inspired by a fear of my own mind.

I’m not married. Or paranoid. But I’m definitely aware of how scary the mind can be if you let it run away from you.

I’m a self-labelled ‘nattercan’. A worry-head. An anxious Annie. I’ve always filled my time alone with distractions; writing, reading, warbling along with my iPod, because I’ve always been afraid of the thoughts my mind can conjure. Catastrophising. Personalising. I have a special gift of seeing the very worst in a situation, taking a pleasant Sunday stroll and churning out a potential horror story.

But throughout my twenties I’ve been learning to trust myself more. I’ve taken on Mindfulness and yoga and CBT and all the other clichés of a person looking to ‘find herself’. And I’ve learned that my mind’s not all that bad at all. It’s actually pretty creative. And it’s fun to notice my thoughts rather than suppress them and see where I end up.

I chose a married and anxious woman as my main character because she’s everything I could so easily be – and everything I don’t think I will be anymore.

5. The ending is bizarre.

Ah, the surreal and unresolved ending. Another giant dollop of Marmite in my story.

I didn’t plan for the literal ending to become figurative. Or the figurative to become literal, however you see it… I’m confusing myself.

I just wanted my character to finally get her wish: to know exactly what her husband was lusting after, what ate away at his dreams while she fretted beside him. Maybe they had an honest conversation where he exposed his dirty colours. Maybe she poked and poked until he spilled out lies just to shut her up. Maybe she really did find evidence she couldn’t unknow.

Or maybe, just maybe, she was driven insane by her own relentless paranoia.

I don’t know what the ending is. But I’m not sure I mind. Perhaps it bothers you, but that’s okay too. I’d rather it got under your skin in one way or another…

Follow Emily on Twitter: @e_simpo


Confession time: a big old written rule book gave me the germ of an idea for my story, Little Judas.

Carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. Fornication. An offence against chastity. You guessed it, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Sweet fornication, judged a grave sin by that stout religious spinster, lips pursed under a hair-sprouting melanomal mole, arms crossed on a bosom of shelf-like proportions.

From that starting point came a story of falling dominoes, a linked chain of events mostly transgressing one or more of the Catechism’s principles. I use mostly because the wearing of a wig, which features large in my tale, is neither a principle nor a transgression as far as I can tell. But abusive relationships, adultery and divorce are.

At the heart of this misery could only be a child narrator. Tiny tubster Veronica Maloney. The Catechism describes children as a ‘gift’. While her mother and father may have forgotten to say thank you, I was grateful to write her. And all is not lost for Ronnie by the end of the story. There’s hope in that Snoopy pyjama case.

Shropshire, Superstition and Mary Webb – The Inspiration behind The Barley Child

I’d been thinking about setting a story in Shropshire for some time. For a writer of historical fiction, its rich past, carved into the largely unchanged rural landscape is a gift and with such long history comes all those unwritten rules associated with the oral traditions of local folklore and superstition.

Growing up in the area, I’d always been aware of a landscape so overwhelming we’ve had to invent stories to make ourselves feel better about it; stories that tame it and explain its power, and help us understand it.

Take Gwendol, the giant, for instance who created the whale-backed hill known as the Wrekin. One day, he set out with a shovel full of mud to dam the river Severn at Shrewsbury, knowing it would flood the land and kill the local inhabitants. On the way, he was met by a poor cobbler carrying a sack of shoes for repair. Knowing what the giant was planning to do, the cobbler convinced him it was a very long walk to Shrewsbury. To prove it, he opened his sack and showed the giant all the shoes he’d worn out, travelling there and back. Abandoning his plan, the giant dropped the soil from his spade where he stood, creating the largest part of the Wrekin, then scraped the mud off his boot to make the smaller mound.

It’s worth knowing when you consider this that the river Severn floods nearly every year in Shrewsbury. It always has, even before the threat of global warming and it probably always will.

At six years old, I saw no reason not to believe this story. Years later, it came as a surprise to learn the Wrekin isn’t simply a pile of mud dropped from a shovel, but composed of volcanic rocks and is a product of volcanism, although contrary to yet another popular belief,  it was never a volcano. Naturally, this is a far less interesting story because there’s no mention of giants.

It doesn’t stop there. Even the prominent rocks and stones that stand on the Wrekin itself have taken on names and superstitions, creating customs of their own. If a pair of lovers can climb together through the cleft in the rocky outcrop known as the needle’s eye, they’ll enjoy a trouble-free marriage.

In such an ancient landscape there’s always a story; a stone is never just a stone, it is the route to a happy marriage, the spine of a sleeping monster or a chair to seat the devil. A veil of mist is not simply a result of the excessive damp that plagues the county, but a subterfuge created by a mystical force to cover something more sinister.

As a child living not far from Wenlock Edge, I was drawn to the writing of Mary Webb (1881 -1927) who was born nearby and set all her novels in the area. Although unfashionable today and often parodied, most famously by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm, she was a nature writer and poet of such power she was at one time likened to Emily Bronte. If you can forgive her outdated style, you’ll find the dominance of the landscape on the lives of her characters is in a similar spirit to Thomas Hardy.

All writers are magpies, picking up shiny pieces here and there as we go, feathering our creative nests with everything that touches our imaginations or our hearts, which is probably why so much of Mary Webb’s mysticism appears in the emotional world of my own story, The Barley Child.

I’m reminded of her writing every time I look at those blue Shropshire hills, or walk along the ancient escarpment of Wenlock Edge, or stand at midday each Boxing day on the iron bridge that spans the Severn at Ironbridge, watching the Morris men, listening to the local bawdy songs I remember from the school playground. Songs I imagine Mary Webb would also have known.

If you’ve read Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, you’ll be familiar with the notion of a barley child, and the seven whistlers circling the sky, reminding you there’ll be a tragedy, just in case you hoped the story would have a happy end. And if I tell you I’d forgotten these details when I wrote The Barley Child and only rediscovered them recently, re-reading Precious Bane for the first time in thirty years, I wouldn’t expect you to believe me.

But you only have to look at the Shropshire landscape and imagine the people from the past, their bodies and spirits broken by their efforts to work the land, to guess the grim inevitability of their stories. Whatever was going to happen to Mary Webb’s characters or to mine, it was always in the hands of fate.