Five Things to do with Today’s Extra Hour

2015-10-25 15.54.40

The clocks went back last night in the UK, treating us to an extra hour. But what to do? What to do with it? Here are a few ideas – not including having a lie-in – based on what this procrastinating writer has been getting up to today.

  1. Go for an early walk round the park, kick through the damp leaves and smell the morning dew. (I’m feeling virtuous, can’t you tell?). Say ‘hello’ to everyone you pass and draw no confidence-sapping conclusions from the fact that the only person to totally ignore you is the 30-something, tight-t-shirted hottie, preoccupied by his smartphone.
  2. Read a big chunk of book (radical for a writer, eh?). Finish one book, begin another. Chain-reading, with but the briefest interval to top up the coffee pot.
  3. Catch up with last night’s #Strictly and waste no energy feeling guilty that at the age of, oh, 50-mumble, the one you’ve got your eye on is the ex-boy-band member.
  4. Write a really, really serious blog post about a seriously personal subject and then realise you can’t possibly post it. Gah!
  5. Cook-up a big, blippy pot of autumn yumminess with mince and mushrooms and tomatoes and sweetcorn and a garlic-laden, gloopy gravy (countdown to consumption – 30 mins).

So what did you do with your extra hour?

Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Autumn is already turning into a fruitful time for me.

2015-10-02 17.13.07Autumn is my favourite time of year. I love the turn of the season, the explosion of colours and smells; I love that transitional blend of chill mornings and still warm, sunny afternoons. I love to see banks of blackberries ripening in the park. I love it when #Strictly starts up again on the telly.

One month into a(nother) healthy eating/exercise campaign and already a notable few pounds less lumbersome, a simple commitment to an early morning walk (weather permitting – I’m not yet a friend of Parkas and Pakamacs) has begun to embed itself into my routine, sending oxygen to all the parts that need waking up as the day begins.

In the park this morning
In the park on Sunday morning

So it is that for the last few weeks I’ve been feeling increasingly fruitful where I have for months been feeling, well, a bit… stale.

2015-09-10 21.24.42My fruitful phase got off to a good start in early September when I retreated with the folks of Circle of Missé in France, spending six intensive days working on the structure for Novel Number Two. It took me a little over 4 days to nail it – that’s what happens when you push everything else aside and make the story your priority. Wayne and Aaron at Circle of Missé know just how to create the perfect environment for writerly focus. In a sublime setting, and with the opportunity to socialise with other writers and enjoy amazing meals every evening, it’s somehow easier to dedicate yourself to the writing – or the thinking and planning of the writing – throughout the day.

I came home with a roadmap and some very positive feedback on my ideas. Now I’m back on my horse, and back to that bare-minimum 500-words-a-week commitment – the one that should see me in perpetual motion (ideally a great deal faster than 500 words a week) through my first draft.

2015-10-04 14.13.45

On Saturday night, autumn brought yet more writerly stimulus – courtesy of my local library service, who have organised a month long festival of literature, arts and music in my borough, called Culture Bite. That’s already amazing, when so many other library services are in decline. Even more amazing, no less than three exceptional new authors came to talk about their debut psychological novels. Clare Mackintosh, with her Sunday Times/Richard & Judy triumph, I Let You Go, which begins with a tragic accident; Rebecca Whitney with The Liar’s Chair, a dark tale of a toxic marriage; and Renee Knight with Disclaimer, about a woman who finds her own darkest secret within the pages of of a novel. These are the kind of books I love to read, and the kind of books I aspire to write. All three writers were so generous of their time, their enthusiasm and – when they learned I had written and self-published my first – their warm encouragement and support. Thank you – all of you – for a fabulous evening, and for sharing your insights and experiences so openly.

Did you realise, you’re living my dream?

Namedrop Central: Me and Mickey Spillane

imageSeeing his famous quote on Chris #TSRA’s blog, brought to mind the time I went to tea with Mickey Spillane.

Many writers will be familiar with the quote, attributed to prolific author of bestselling gritty detective stories, Mickey Spillane:

The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.

Thanks to Chris The Story Reading Ape’s blog for sharing this pertinent quote yesterday.

It reminded me of something else too – that I once met Mickey Spillane. It was back in May 1992, and not just in a book-signing queue either.  I was invited to tea at his home in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.

I was holidaying in the USA with an American friend. We were visiting with her parents, who lived at Pawleys Island, just a few miles up the coast from Murrels Inlet. It’s a small and close-knit community and they knew Mickey Spillane socially. Keen for their British guest to experience something beyond the undeniable beauty of the South Carolina coastline, they wondered if I’d be interested in meeting their local celebrity author, as he had extended an invitation for us to join him for afternoon tea.

Now, I wasn’t a writer at the time. I’ve always loved books and reading, but if I’d had the slightest inkling of where my passion would lie some 20 years later, it’s fair to say I would have made a great deal more of the encounter than I did.

My hosts had been kind enough to source a couple of his books for our visit, but there wasn’t time for me to read them. Nevertheless, whilst I betrayed a staggering ignorance of his considerable body of work, Mickey Spillane graciously signed them for me. I recall him writing something like, “To a real doll…” although I’m ashamed to admit both paperbacks have since vanished from my bookshelves, probably during one home move or another.   I expect he wrote that kind of thing on the inside covers of a lot of books, but it made me blush nonetheless.

Mickey Spillane, author of stories featuring more violence and sex and a higher body count than was typical of novels of the time (he wrote from 1947 until his death in 2006) could not have been more kind and generous towards us, his guests. We enjoyed tea on the lawn at his beautiful home and he showed us around his gardens. We talked of the impact that Hurricane Hugo had had on the region just two or three years earlier. He posed with us for photographs, but these too have dissolved away.

Looking him up on Google this afternoon, I particularly liked another of his quotes, answering those who criticised the high sex/violence content in his stories:

Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar… If the public likes you, you’re good.

In these modern, changed times, when most of us can only dream of making a living from our stories, we should celebrate authors like Mickey Spillane, who lived our dream, and lived it well.

First Annual #BloggersBash – This Introvert Gets a ‘Reality’ Check

underground-534617_1280What do you get when you put two dozen introverts round a table in Pizza Express in the heart of London?  A surprisingly good time, that’s what.

I’m a rebellious introvert. You know the sort; we like to believe we’re more… um… extrovert… than we are. We’re proud of being self-contained and comfortable in our own company, but we don’t like people thinking that this makes us antisocial. So it was that when the First Annual #BloggersBash was announced a few weeks ago, I signed up enthusiastically. I wanted to be part of it, and I especially looked forward to meeting up with one or two bloggers with whom I’ve struck up a friendship over the months.

But whilst I look forward to events like this – parties, socials, gatherings of one kind or another (and I properly looked forward to this one too), when the day comes, I always inexplicably find myself wondering why I ever signed up in the first place. ‘Just get up, get washed and dressed and Get On That Train,’ my inner extrovert (is there such a thing?) ordered me. ‘Whatever resistance you’re feeling now, you know you’re going to enjoy it once you get there.’  It’s true, I DO enjoy things like this once I get there. It’s just that when it comes to the day, it always seems easier not to go.  It’s not a confidence thing; it’s not a shyness thing either. I’m not a shy person and I can hold my own in company, business or social. I do find it tiring, but not in a bad way, just in an introvert’s way.

So I got myself up, washed, dressed and off to the station. My mood lifted as a through-train arrived within a couple of minutes and it remained blissfully un-crowded for the whole journey. Decanted from the Tube at Kings Cross, I should have gone straight to the British Library. Instead, my protesting introvert reasserted itself, so I stopped to fortify its poor disconcerted soul with a Costa Coffee, Arabica, two shots. Twenty minutes later, I was ready.

And guess what? It was a super day. From the moment I wandered into the plaza at the British Library (the giant man on the loo/statue of Sir Isaac Newton) is a great landmark) and was eyeballed by BlondeWriteMore Lucy, to a last cheery hug from Suffolk Scribblings Dylan, I enjoyed every amiable, sociable moment.  The lemon drizzle cake (thanks TanGental Geoffle and sorry I’m not big on rhubarb!), the photos (looking forward to seeing how those turned out), the courtesy with which our big group was treated at Pizza Express, the Awards (well done the winners!), the conversations, positivity and friendship, and the general, warm conviviality of the whole thing.

It was fun meeting fellow bloggers ‘in the real world’ – ones I already knew and ones I didn’t – and getting to know other blogs will be an enjoyable follow-through. Sacha and her co-opted team did a terrific job of logistics and it all ran like clockwork. An afternoon filled with conversation, laughter and waves of cheering and whooping too. Amazing, when you consider most of us are unreconstructed introverts, happy to engage from the other side of our respective screens and devices but generally subdued in company.

My afternoon had an unexpected ‘extra slice’ too, with an on-spec call from a friend who lives in Manchester, who was in London with a spare afternoon and hopeful of meeting up. Turns out he was but 5 minutes down the road from our #BloggersBash, which was by then winding up. Cue a stroll up the Caledonian Road and a top-up of caffeine and conversation in a quirky café piled high with books and magazines and boasting old cinema seats for chairs and packing crates in place of tables.  Shabby chic, or just plain shabby – I’m not sure, but it was perfectly pleasant.

All in all and exceptionally enjoyable day, and all the more surprising that it all took place in Central London which, as regular readers of this blog will know, is not my favourite place to be.

To all who came, it was a great pleasure to meet you and celebrate some top writerly bloggers. Blonde Lucy… thanks for the lovely boost you gave me about my guest post. And Dylan… It was a real joy and privilege to meet you in person at last. And I can’t wait to get stuck into that next Beta read!

It’s been… emotional

Contemplating dumping your old PC for a shiny new Mac? Read on, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

On Sunday, two weeks ago, I Tweeted that I was about to embark on a PC to Mac migration. I’d made the decision to mothball my five year old Dell PC and seven year old HP laptop in favour of a pair of sleek, shiny and undeniably sexy (for technology, for technology) beasts – an iMac desktop and a MacBook Air laptop. Yes, I’d finally bought the ‘once-you-go-Mac-you-won’t-go-back’ hype.

Here’s that Tweet in all its glorious prescience:

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 19.41.33

This weekend I finally reached the point where I was prepared to put my old PC in a cupboard.  The process of moving from PC to Mac, including fixing everything that broke, recovering almost everything that disappeared, re-entering the things which disappeared but didn’t reappear, setting up new accounts, new synchronisations and a new email host, identifying and working around a plethora of ‘undocumented features’, listening to a succession of helpdesk representatives of variable skill levels and variable capacity for effective communication (including one  from Audible who actually fought on-screen in a shared session with me to do something I’d requested he stop doing), and peeling myself off the ceiling more than a few times… has taken the better part of 13 days.

I lost sleep. More than one night I found myself awake at 3am, scrawling notes on the thoughts I’d had in the dark on how I might backtrack, recover lost ground or retrieve lost files. I lost credibility with clients whose work became delayed and who I had to ask to re-send things they’d already sent me. It cost me, financially (not nearly as much as it could have, truth to say, thanks to a kind, understanding, generous and capable IT Consultant, who I wish to goodness I’d made the acquaintance of before I clicked the buttons which dispatched 14 years of work, documents, emails and photographs to hell in a handcart).

But this whole shambles has cost me most of all in peace of mind. My calm, orderly and professionally competent world has been in upheaval for two weeks. All the fundamental technical things I’ve taken for granted for years were thrown up in the air. And they’ve only just begun to come down again.

So in lieu of a proper post for the last two weeks, I present to you my seven sincerely serious caveat emptors of PC to Mac migration – just in case you’re contemplating taking this unholy step yourself.

  1. It would be prudent, before you begin, to find out if you’re up to this challenge. A full psychological assessment by a recognised professional would not be an indulgence too far. For any mental feebleness or emotional fragility will be exposed and then rubbed raw by the passage from Microsoftland to Appleville. Even most resolute and well-balanced mind can expect be shredded by the experience.
  2. When they tell you it’s easy to migrate from a PC to a Mac, do not believe them. Whoever they are, however significant they are in your life, however honest and trustworthy they have always proved themselves to be… they’re lying to you now.
  3. When they say, don’t worry, you can easily do it all yourself, they’re deceiving you. You will need professional help. Really. Unless you’re an actual Apple Technical Consultant… You. Will. Need. Help.
  4. If you make the mistake of engaging in debate at this point, they will tell you there’s a nifty little tool in the Apple toolbox, called Migration Assistant, that will do it all for you. Do not be fooled. Hidden beneath the apparent guilelessness of the Migration Assistant’s evil smiley faces is a whole crock full of trouble.
  5. However much it looks like Microsoft and Apple are playing nicely these days, this is but a façade. Office 365 on Mac has holes and delivers a few nasty little surprises. It’s nearly there, but not quite. If you have POP3 email accounts, Outlook will not be your friend. If you have archives of emails, old calendars or task lists with dozens of important items scheduled, anticipate some degree of carnage.
  6. Back up everything before you start. That’s just good housekeeping, but with this kind of adventure, it’s insanity to bypass this step.
  7. The best piece of advice though? Don’t do anything at all. Step away from that sexy white box. Just make the call. Get an Apple Technical Consultant on-board… before you break the seal.

I think I’ll be glad I did this – eventually. But for now, my overriding emotion is one of relief, that I got there in the end.  Normal service will be resumed.

Turkey: Setting matters, right?

Are you off to Turkey for your summer holiday this year? Then you’re in for a treat.  With the holiday season fast upon us, I thought I’d explain why I set my novel in Turkey, and share a few of my impressions of this amazing, exotic country.

The iconic Celcus Library at Ephesus
The iconic Celcus Library at Ephesus

Regular readers of this blog will know that Singled Out is set on a singles holiday on Turkey’s Lycian coastline. It’s a place to which I’ve returned many times over the years for my summer holidays. Having decided to set the tale on a singles holiday, the location options for which I could capitalise on my own experiences narrowed: The Greek islands Crete or Kalymnos, or the Turkish coastline. All have the climate, the heritage and the beaches. But Turkey had the edge for me, with its exotic blend of east and west, mystical and commercial. Turkey has an elemental essence that’s hard to describe. It won my heart the very first time I visited.

A haunting sunrise at Kekova - recognise the pic from anywhere?
A haunting sunrise at Kekova – recognise the pic from anywhere?

I remember a friend first going to Turkey for a summer holiday in the mid 1980’s and commenting that it was beautiful but raw; that the power went off all the time and you couldn’t get hot water for more than an hour or so a day. As for air conditioning – no hotel possessed such a luxury! In those days, Turkey was still experimenting with the holiday tourist trade and to be fair, the holiday companies were treading carefully too.

But with enterprise and commercial endeavour in their DNA, the Turkish people recognised and grasped an opportunity and set about developing their spectacular Mediterranean and Aegean coastlines into holiday destinations with added natural and historic value. Late to the party, they noted the mistakes that had been made along the Spanish coastline, today overwhelmed with tower block hotels and stripped of much of its original beauty. Laws were passed limiting hotels to four storeys high – a masterful decision which doubtless had as much to do with the fact the holiday coastline is a region accustomed to mild earthquakes, as it had with aesthetics. Good governance ensured growth was gradual and not at the expense of natural beauty and heritage, and infrastructure kept pace.

Turkish Gulet - 1995
Gulet holiday, 1995 (me, third from left – won’t see 35 again)

My first visit to Turkey was in 1994, on a two-centre singles holiday. I spent a week in what was then the small town of Kuşadasi, and a week in a more rural area. Two hotels; the first, Villa Konak – still operating in a Kuşadasi backstreet (bigger than it was) – originally a coaching inn; the other a more traditional villa style hotel bedecked with purple bougainvillea set around a welcoming swimming pool. Today Kuşadasi is a sizable and thriving town. It boasts a walled Byzantine castle and its port is large enough to cope with frequent visits from cruise ships. Just a few miles from Ephesus, it’s the perfect place for the day visitors to dock, nip on a coach to one of the most spectacular ancient sites in the world, pick up a leather jacket in the market, sample some apple tea and be back on-board in time for dinner. That’s one way to do it, I guess.

Like other larger towns – Bodrum and Marmaris for example – Kuşadasi has warmly embraced the youth holiday culture based around all-night clubs and bars. That’s ok if you like that sort of thing, but it’s turned Kusadasi into the sort of place I personally, as a moochy 50-something looking for peace and tranquillity, wouldn’t look to stay in today. But that’s not to decry the town, which, like the other bigger destinations, has carved its own profitable path with its eyes wide open.

How could you not love this?
How could you not love a place like this?

After that, I stuck to smaller towns and villages, of which there are still very many lovely ones, along the craggy Lycian coastline. I remember places, but not years: Torba and Türkbükü on the Bodrum Peninsula; the exquisite Bordubet – technically by Marmaris but in truth, in the blissful middle of nowhere at all; Hisarönü above Ölüdeniz (when it was still a quirky hillside village); and a favourite, to which I returned more than once – the pretty town of Turunç, close (but not too close) by Marmaris. In 2013 after a break of several years, I went again to Turkey to gather photos and sensory impressions for Singled Out, and I stayed in a hotel on Şövalye, a tiny harbour island with no cars, a few hundred yards off Fethiye by ferry boat.

Turkish Gulet, on its way out for the day
Turkish Gulet chugging off for a day at sea

But if you really want to get away from everything, you need to clamber aboard a gulet. Just as I described them in my story, these are twin or three-masted wooden sailing boats which serve anything from a half-dozen to 20 or so guests on day trips or, as I preferred, week-long get-away-from-it-all journeys around the craggy coastline. In truth, they run on engines for much of the time, but will put up the sails when the wind justifies it. In a week’s trip, there’s a single overnight stay in port somewhere, so the gulet can re-stock. Otherwise fresh food is prepared on-board or on the beach, or occasionally in hideaway locantas. You won’t need shoes or anything very much, except an appreciation of the beauty of an ancient coastline, a sky full of stars, the gentle slapping of water against hull and the bliss of having nothing to do and nowhere to go. Occasionally during the day, there will be other gulets around, but the week-long cruise affords the crew enough time to get away from the day boats, and when they do, it is paradise.

Pine forested peninsulas, shady inlets, peaceful coves, rocky outcrops, hidden beaches – this is the stuff of the Turkey I love. I know, I haven’t even scratched the surface – I’m ashamed to admit I’ve not yet visited Istanbul or travelled further east than Fethiye. Mea culpa. I’m a boutique hotel girl, not a backpacker.

The Great Theatre, Ephesus
The Great Theatre, Ephesus

But I can’t end this post without reference to the country’s ancient history. The coastline is crammed with evidence of Turkey’s commercial and religious heritage and the ebb and flow of empires, but I want specifically to raise a flag for Ephesus. I know it’s a tourist money-spinner. In the twenty years between my first and second visits, I noticed the explosion of ‘retail opportunities’ around the entrances. But even that’s not a criticism. The little avenue of shops is hardly overwhelming – and useful if you’ve forgotten your water, sunglasses or sunhat, all essentials when rambling about the ruins. I walked Ephesus and took hundreds of photos to jog my memory for writing the chapter in Singled Out where my characters visit this remarkable site. It’s sensitively preserved – there is much to see, most of it right up-close-and-personal. In its Roman heyday, Ephesus was a thriving port, though the landscape has since shifted, putting some 5 miles between the ruins and the sea. There are amphitheatres (yes, two), avenues to wander, carvings and mosaics to admire and the magnificent Celsus Library. If you can bear a few hours away from the beach, this, of all of Turkey’s magnificent man-made and natural sights, is right at the top of the list of places you need to see.

The Ephesus retail experience
The Ephesus retail experience

A word now, on something that makes any visit to Turkey particularly special; it’s the hospitality. Whether hotelier, restaurateur, bar owner, shopkeeper, carpet-seller, or gulet captain – you will enjoy warmth, friendly hospitality and service of the highest order. The Turks who work the tourist coastline understand the business they’re in. Make no mistake, there’ll be hard-selling and up-selling aplenty, but it will be executed in such a cordial and charming manner, you’ll hardly realise it’s happening! It’s all part of the experience and the pleasure.

And one last thing… of course I would say this, wouldn’t I? If you should happen to be visiting Turkey this year for your holidays, why not take a copy of Singled Out to the beach with you.  😉

Farewell to a Summer of Foxes

I’ve had a wonderful time this summer, watching foxes relax in my garden. But now it’s over.

2014-07-27 10.54.56My flowerbeds bore witness to my garden visitors long before I first saw them. Shrubs starting out on their summer growth flattened; my neat bark overlay was mysteriously pushed off the flowerbed and scattered. At first I assumed an army of local cats were doing what cats need to do – but I was happily wrong.

A trio of reynards have been relaxing in my recreation space for weeks now. At first I photographed them whenever I saw them. I amassed a huge file of iPad/iPhone snaps before I acknowledged their appearance was not rare but commonplace. I looked out for them every day, and – apart from a few days when I had some heavy-duty cutting and pruning done by a local gardening firm – I saw them several times a day. I began to take my vulpine visitors for granted.

They saw me too. They would watch me, watching them. They were happy with my presence, but only as long as there was a door or window between us. They would stand me watching from an open window upstairs – far enough away not to be a threat – but would only tolerate a closed window downstairs. The slightest twitch of my fingers on the door handle would put them to flight. So I kept an eye out for them. I made sure not to open my windows too noisily; I refrained from emptying anything into my dustbin whilst they were around. It was just too lovely to see these beautiful, delicate wild creatures enjoying my space.

2014-06-12 10.46.57But last week, they disappeared.  At first I had no idea why; but I was chatting to my neighbour at the weekend and it turns out that as delighted as I was to welcome my feral friends, so my neighbour was dismayed. The foxes accessed my garden via her own – and where mine had become their sleeping zone, my neighbour’s garden was, yes, you guessed it, their toilet. To be fair, I wouldn’t have been that thrilled either.

My neighbour has apparently blocked all access to her garden and in barricading her fences, has deprived my foxes of their now trusted rest area. I understand why she’s done it, but I’m sad at the thought that I won’t see my foxes again – at least, not until they can figure a way around or under the barricades.

Meantime, I do have a host of photos and for those animal lovers amongst you, I thought I’d share a few of my favourites, and a few seconds of video too, as a Farewell to Summer. Enjoy…

2014-05-06 14.16.492014-05-13 09.45.092014-05-16 17.54.302014-07-27 17.34.45