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.  😉

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My Top Ten Valentine’s Tips – for the Boys

angel-427480_1280As a long-time single with an admittedly cynical streak, I have no love for Valentine’s Day, nor Valentine’s Night, nor (because one solitary day just isn’t enough any more for the retailers and restaurateurs) the drawn-out torture of Valentine’s Week.

With its tsunami of slush and lovey-doviness; simpering songs, pitiful poems, oozingly creepy messages from Bunnikins to Big-Boy and more schmaltz than you can shake a dozen overpriced red roses at – the whole Valentine’s thing leaves me stony-cold.

But if you’re paired-off in any meaningful way, it’s tough. The Season of Lurve places a burden on people – especially the men – to deliver on excessive romantic expectations. You, sad souls, are deluded and doomed.

Yes, it’s true. When it comes to meeting outlandish romantic expectations, most men are on a hapless hiding to nothing, condemned to failure before they even start. Their card will be too flippant, not romantic enough or an all-too-obvious last-minute garage purchase; their flowers will be flaccid, their chocolates a cliché; the restaurant will be overcrowded and noisy and the romantic dinner for two a lukewarm letdown. As for any heat in the bedroom (a vain attempt to counteract the chill that will have descended during the day), with the mood so deflated by devotional disaster, only the most dauntless will be able to rise to the occasion.

So, with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek (you realised, right?), I offer a few notes of advice to those hapless guys out there who, despite the promise of almost certain failure, aren’t yet ready to give up before they start.

Here then, are my tips for the boys – how to make your girlfriend/wife/partner’s Valentine’s Day memorable for all the right reasons.

  1. Spend A LOT of money on flowers. Gentlemen, when it comes to florals, size matters. Flowers say, ‘I love you this much’. So get a very big and ostentatious display. Spend more than you imagined spending in your entire lifetime on flowers, in one go. Find the best bouquet of flowers you can afford and then borrow more money from your mates and get a bigger, better one.
  2. Deliver your bouquet in person, preferably to her place of work, so all her friends will see what a lucky, lucky lady she is, to own such a wonderful, thoughtful, generous man.
  3. Buy nothing from a garage or motorway service station. Don’t even think of it.
  4. Get a card. Do it. Get one.  Make it tasteful and arty or quirky, but never dirty. Make sure it says love on it somewhere, or prepare yourself for histrionics. Don’t make the mistake of thinking cards are silly. To women, they’re not in the least silly. They will be pored over; their sentiments will be analysed, and providing they make the grade in appropriate levels of taste and expressions of affection, they will be cherished forever in a shoebox under the bed.
  5. When you encounter a naughty underwear shop, walk on by, particularly if the window is dressed with shiny red and black satin. These vile shreds are for you, not her. They show how selfish and deviant you are and you don’t want this thought in her head on Valentine’s Day.
  6. Forget overpriced eating out; cook a meal for her. She won’t care how caustic or inedible the result, she will love you for the attempt. Make food you know she adores, even if you can’t stand it – in fact, particularly if you can’t stand it, as she will love you all the more for your sacrifice.
  7. Fill her car up with petrol/gasoline. It is the gift of all gifts. There’s nothing a woman hates more than when her hands reek of gasoline. It is within your purview to take this misery away.
  8. Unless the pair of you is already acclimatised to painting the town Fifty Shades of Grey, don’t go there for Valentine’s night. If you catch yourself wondering what she might look like in a studded patent leather basque, or whether she might enjoy being roped to the bedposts, or if Valentine’s night might be the appropriate moment to introduce whips and paddles to the bedroom, slap your own face hard and move your naughty little mind along. If you really want to go there, save it for another night; any night, just not this one. The ONLY acceptable play on Valentine’s night is romantic. Got it?
  9. Make it a movie night. Forget Fifty Shades of Grey and hide those movies away – you know the ones I mean. Acquire two or more of the following, plus a box of properly luxurious Belgian chocolates, for your shared pleasure and a guarantee of cuddles and more besides: Sleepless in Seattle, An Officer and A Gentleman, You’ve Got Mail, Brief Encounter, The Way We Were, An Affair to Remember, When Harry Met Sally, Ghost, The Bridges of Madison County, Before Sunrise, Brokeback Mountain, Gone With The Wind, Titanic, Notting Hill, Pretty Woman or Dirty Dancing. Have tissues on standby. No, not for that; for womantic weepiness.
  10. Give her something small which is loaded with meaning and memory. Guys, this one’s a winner and there’s another upside; this kind of gift usually costs little or nothing in cash money terms and it will balance out your investment in the flowers. It can be as small as a pebble from the beach you first kissed on, a fridge magnet from your first holiday together. Nest your tender, thoughtful objet in a box with tissue paper and tie it with a ribbon, then tell her the story of why you kept it. But… I can hear you thinking, how are you ever going to get hold of a sentimental giftie like that – because you’ll never have kept such a thing from its original magical moment. You know that, and I know that. But hey, don’t be troubled by this minor detail. There are pebbles in your garden and fridge magnets from the four corners of the globe on eBay. She’ll never know (because you won’t ever be dumb enough to tell her, will you?) and you won’t believe the cosmic effect your romantic gesture will have on your relationship.

So that’s it – take the advice of this hoary old cynic and a pathway to romantic bliss awaits. Possibly.

And… Happy V… V… oh, I can’t say it. But if you’re into it, have a magnificently slushy time.  😉

25 perks and privileges of living alone

Musketeers1As someone who has not been in a shared living arrangement for a good many years, let me say, there are certain things you never stop appreciating about living alone:

  • Finding, when you return at the end of the day, that the house is exactly as you left it when you went out.
  • Finding, when you look in your purse, that there’s the exact same amount of money in it that you expected there to be.
  • Reading all the sections of the Sunday paper in the order you want to read them.
  • Chatting on the phone to your friends for hours. And hours.
  • No one ever asking ‘what’s for dinner?’
  • No one ever asking ‘where’s the [insert any domestic/personal item here]?’
  • Never having to make a hot beverage unless you’re thirsty
  • Enjoying TV’s guilty pleasures (I’m a Celebrity, Strictly, The Voice, Musketeers etc) without the backdrop of honking, snorting laughter.
  • Enjoying TV’s guiltier pleasures (anything starring Colin Farrell, Daniel Craig, Jason Statham, Tom Hardy or Idris Elba…) without having to massage a bruised ego afterwards.
  • Two whole double wardrobes to yourself. Plus the one in the spare room.
  • A laundry basket you’re not afraid to put your hands into.
  • Never finding a mix of clean and dirty crockery in the dishwasher.
  • The threadbare old rags you can get away with wearing all day long (so long as you’re not due on a Skype with a client).
  • The minging old bitzas you can get away with wearing in bed.
  • Flumpy dressing gowns and fluffy slippers.
  • Never unexpectedly running out of toilet tissue because it took six whole rolls to clean up that old engine/toolbox/lawnmower.
  • No dubious sticky residues in the kitchen.
  • No even more dubious sticky residues in the bathroom.
  • All exciting packages delivered by the postman being yours to enjoy without guilt; none requiring to be secreted away, only to be revealed as ‘this old thing’ in a few weeks’ time.
  • Perfectly satisfying meals comprising a selection of fridge pickings followed by an ice lolly.
  • Perfectly satisfying meals comprising stuff spread upon toast
  • Scented candles, anywhere and everywhere you damn well like.
  • THAT drawer. Ladies – you know what I’m talking about.
  • Lakeland’s idiot-proof spider catcher. At £9.99 it’s cheaper and much less trouble than owning a boyfriend or a husband purely for his spider-catching prowess.
  • And… Total, absolute and unassailable control of the TV remote.

Do you have any favourites that I’ve missed?

I’ve been away. Did you miss me?

Never before this trip – a transatlantic crossing for a holiday in Florida – has my need to restore order and control in my life been more pronounced.

2015-01-17 21.09.59I went on holiday to stay with a relative in Fort Myers, Florida. I’ve had a wonderful time and, but for the actual travel experience, it’s been great to rest, relax and take stock before my first novel, Singled Out, goes live on Amazon on 1st February.

I enjoyed balmy sunshine, my cousin’s warm hospitality, a bit of tourism, a little wildlife and nature, a whole lot of meal experiences (that’s American for going out to dinner) and an almost criminal dose of retail therapy. Except for the combined efforts of British Airways, US Airways, US Customs and Border Protection and Philadelphia International Airport, it would have been wonderful. As it was, the transit element of my trip was, as they say, emotional.

I won’t bore you with the details, most of which are going in a stinging missive to BA later this week. Suffice to say a ridiculously optimistic itinerary courtesy of the BA on-line booking system, a missed connection, an ignorant goon in a BA uniform, a three hour queue for immigration, a deserted Philadelphia International airport absent of any useful signage, an unscheduled overnight stay, more buck-passing than I’ve ever before seen and several layers of systems failure and customer service ineptitude, served to drive my stress levels – both outbound and homebound – into the stratosphere. British Airways, henceforth, you are dead to me.

The chaos of being in transit behind me, I got home on Friday morning and my need to reassert control on my environment kicked in. I unpacked, put away, sorted washing, tidied up, re-set heating, water and lights, showered, made-up (though I would be alone all day), did my hair (though I would be alone all day) and made a to-do list. When I caught myself aligning in two neat piles the few scraps of paper which were destined for my desk-based attention the next day, I realised the extent to which I was reclaiming my peace-of-mind.

I had a seriously good time on holiday, but being away from home is weirdly unsettling to me. I love my home environment. I spend quite a bit of time here, as I work from home too. The unsettlement which comes over me when I travel makes me feel a bit silly – I am a grown-up after all. It doesn’t keep me from travelling, but I know how I am, and I dread the feelings of disempowerment and disorientation. Lining things up on my desk, leaving the exact right amount of space between the items drying on hangers in my bathroom, making the decorative cushions on my bed stand up just-so and all the other ticks are a rebalancing act. I was at it all day yesterday and by this morning, after a healthy 9-hour sleep, I was back in my box.

Ten things you should never eat on a first date

oysters-220955_1280 - narrowOrdering any of these foods on a first date is, in my humble opinion, a relationship-limiting move. Doh.

  1. Corn on the cob – no one looks luscious with their face smeared in melted butter. No one.
  2. French Onion soup – the one with the giant indigestible cheesy crouton floater. To say nothing of the gastrointestinal impact of the alliums.
  3. Snails in garlic butter – you might love them (as I do) but for some, the yuk-factor of these gummy little garden critters is insurmountable.
  4. Oysters – yes, really; they’re seriously overburdened with sexual innuendo and have no role to play on a respectable first date.
  5. Spaghetti Bolognaise – or indeed any flicky tomato-based spaghetti dish. It’s just not cool when your shirt looks like it’s been raining tomato sauce.
  6. Anything requiring chopsticks – unless you’re confident you can deploy them dexterously and without making a total ass of yourself.
  7. Anything wrapped in puff pastry – watching as you choke on stray flakes of dry pastry will smother your date’s libido.
  8. ‘Blue’ steak – order this only when you’re certain your partner is also a vampire.
  9. Sweetbreads – some people are inexplicably squeamish about animal glands. Most mistakenly believe them to be testicles. The potential yuk-factor rating amongst the untutored is up in the stratosphere – we’re in ‘I’m a Celebrity’ territory here.
  10. And last, but not least… Spare Ribs – they come with A BIB. Enough said.

The Fat Bird – an atypical protagonist

Fat BirdI needed a strong central female character for Singled Out; a woman in her early to mid-forties, perceptive, bold and shrewd. When it came to physical appearance and with one eye on Hollywood (see how optimistic I can be!) I could have gone for an Angelina Jolie, a Julia Roberts or a Gillian Anderson type – lithe, slender, unsettlingly striking.

But I’ve gone for a fat bird. Yes, my protagonist – early to mid-forties, perceptive, bold and shrewd – is unapologetically overweight.

But let’s be clear, this isn’t your stereotypical one-dimensional fat bird. You know the cliché; the friendless, clumsy lump, drifting round in a cloud of body odour, stuck in a dull job and spending her evenings in front of the TV stuffing her face with donuts and chocolate whilst fantasising about an imaginary boyfriend. If she’s in a novel or a TV series, she’s the one that’ll get murdered, her corpse lying undiscovered in a secluded attic flat for months until her bodily fluids seep through the floorboards and attract attention. Or she’s the deranged axe wielding perpetrator, desperate for affection and driven to heinous crimes by her loveless, empty life. So far, I’m afraid, so very predictable.

That’s not my girl. Not even a little bit.

In the great tradition of novice writers I’m writing what I know – at least in part – because I’m overweight too. I’m a lifelong yo-yo dieter who has spun into middle-age at the wrong end of the string. Depending on your perspective, I’m fat, plump, obese, tubby, lardy, big, broad-beamed, heavy, chubby, chunky, stout, podgy, ample, fleshy, well-rounded, plus-size, large, buxom, curvaceous, womanly, cuddly, curvy, rubenesque, bountiful, abundant, voluptuous and any number of other flattering and not-so flattering descriptors.

Apparently, novice writers are wont to base a main character on themselves. But I’m sorry to disappoint you; whilst I wouldn’t mind being my female protagonist, and whilst she and I share one or two other characteristics, I’m really not her. I understand the physicality and the occasional self-confidence issues of someone who carries extra pounds and I thought it would add a non-stereotypical dimension to my character – and that’s more or less where it ends. I’d love to have her boldness, and her hair, come to that. But she has frailties and failings that…  Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? Anyway, they are frailties and failings I like to think I don’t possess. I have others, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.

When it comes to my abundant, warm yet troubled female lead, I’ve played it deliberately vague on the question of size. That’s because what’s fat to one, is curvaceous to another, what’s blubbery and revolting to one is alluring and magnificent to another. My readers get little – actually nothing – in the way of specifics. No height-to-weight ratio, no Body Mass Index, no speak-your-weight scales, no dress size – nothing… um… concrete.

Aspects of her physicality reveal themselves here and there but the biggest (sorry) clues the reader will get are from the other characters, who respond to her according to their own perspectives, prejudices – and desires. She could be a size 16 or a size 26 for all the reader knows, and I imagine each reader will see her differently.

As to how I see her – I’m not telling. If you encounter this woman within the pages of my debut novel, you’ll need to imagine her yourself; and the persona you conjure up will be informed by your own perceptions and preconceptions, alongside all the other clues to her character, spirit and style.

I just hope I’ve done a good job of bringing her to life.

A Singular Sort of Holiday

Turkish Gulet Singled OutSingles Holidays are a surreal experience, and I ought to know; I’ve been on one or two – actually around a dozen. Most of the vacations I took between the ages of 35 and 45 were singles holidays, either alone or with a female friend – a fellow singleton.  If you’re… um… single, singles holidays are a good way to get away for a bit of sun and relaxation, when co-ordinating diaries and budgets with friends has become too complicated.  My favourite destination was Turkey, where small coastal towns and villages and wooden twin-masted gulets can’t be beaten for warm hospitality, dependable sunshine and great food.

Whilst the atmosphere can be stilted at times, singles holidays are generally sociable and good-natured affairs where you can join in and make friends or slip away by yourself if you please, accountable to nobody but yourself.  Most such holidays are hosted or otherwise corralled, to encourage some mingling, usually around food and drink – which isn’t unreasonable when you consider that most people have come away on a singles holiday to be with other people. Otherwise you’d go away on your own, wouldn’t you?

But here’s how it can turn out: You’ll spend one or two weeks with between twenty and thirty strangers.  Some will be easy-going and friendly, some tiresome and irritating; still more will be decent but dull; and there will always be an oddball or two, unique personalities, not necessarily in a good way.  Invariably women will outnumber men by around 2:1, which isn’t great – if you’re a woman.  The faces of this motley crew will fill your photographs but dissolve from your memory.  Months later, you’ll struggle to recall the names of more than one or two.

It’s not all bad though.  I would never have travelled to Turkey on my own, yet over several singles holidays I developed a deep affection for its exotic, laid-back charms.  I met one of my now closest friends on a singles jaunt too.  And I’ve even entertained one or two holiday flings – which burned hot under the summer sun and fizzled to nothing once the chill of the English autumn got into their bones.  That’s the nature of holiday flings though, isn’t it?

When I first contemplated writing a novel, I took myself away on an Arvon Foundation writing course. Write what you know, the tutors said, and it seemed like practical advice. But most of what I could claim any familiarity with seemed dull and uninteresting.  With my imagination stirred by four years of creative writing, I would not say this today, but that’s how it appeared to me at the time.

One thing stood out – those singles holidays.  Most people I asked were fascinated by the singles holiday concept, the environment, the behaviours, the… potential.  Some saw it as adventurous or exotic, others as sad and desperate.  Many felt those people willing to embrace such an experience were either brave… or bonkers.  I’m not quite sure where they thought I fitted into that summation and I didn’t want to ask.

For a writer, a singles holiday is a self-contained scenario, like a locked room in some ways; one location, more or less – a sumptuous one at that; and an uncomplicated timescale.  For a novice like me, that’s encouragingly manageable. Plus I understood the scenario, the mentalities and motivations. Then you need characters, and that’s where it gets properly interesting; because you can dispatch a potent cocktail of personalities away on a fictional singles holiday.

Once I got to recalling my memories and formulating my characters and story, I found the singles holiday setting was fertile ground for fictional misadventure.  Now Singled Out is ready to be sent off on its own adventure – to agents, publishers and who knows where – I’m excited by the story that has evolved from that first germ of an idea. I only hope others will be too.