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.  😉

You said it! A first-quarter review of reviews

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxReviews are the life-blood of any novel. Readers… don’t ever underestimate the power you have at your fingertips, when you write a review.

15 weeks… 15 reviews… 76 stars

From the moment I clicked publish and saw my novel appear on Amazon on a real page, just like real books, where real people could click and really, actually buy it, I’ve been holding my breath. That’s what writers do, you see, as they wait to see what people make of their… baby.

But (so far…) whilst it’s been emotional, it’s been alright too.  In fact, it’s been pretty amazing.

It’s 15 weeks since Singled Out was published on Amazon (Kindle and paperback) and my first novel/baby has been fortunate in garnering a total of 15 reviews (so far…). That’s 11 reviews on Amazon.co.uk (four 4-star and seven 5-star) and five 5-star reviews on Amazon.com. Yes, that makes 16 in total, but I can’t double-count the review my big-hearted blogging buddy Dylan Hearn was kind enough to upload to both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Whilst sales of any self-published debut novel are inevitably modest – and Singled Out has, ah me, been no exception (so far…) – the kind words in those reviews have been exciting, heartening, and above all, humbling.

Presentation1So this 15/15 moment seems a good point to stop and thank everyone who has taken the time and trouble to read Singled Out – I hope you have all enjoyed it, and felt it rewarded you for those few hours of your time. And I want especially to thank those of you who then went on and uploaded your reviews to Amazon – and Goodreads.

Will you permit me to share some of the reviewers’ observations with you?

I know it feels suspiciously like self-promotion and, oh, it is. But no self-published author can survive without a little of this every now and again. So here, just in case you’re looking for your next read or something to take on your holidays, is a little reader feedback from those reviews on Amazon:

“From the first short chapter I was hooked! The story swings from gritty and tense to beautifully described locations that transported me right into the midst of a singles holiday…”

“With Brenda Bouverie the author has created a wonderful protagonist, very different from anybody I’ve read before. She’s a wonderful combination of the sensuous, with her love of food and drink; the steely, but with an underlying vulnerability that makes her a very special character indeed.”

“This is a scrumptious book for every sense! Mouth watering descriptions that evoke sights, smells and tastes so that you really feel you have been taken on holiday with everyone else to Turkey.”

“With well-drawn characters and a complex protagonist, this was a really enjoyable read that kept me guessing and gave me something to think about.”

“The writing in this debut novel is impressive with descriptions so rich, you’ll feel like you’re touring, sunbathing, and feasting on delicious meals in Turkey yourself. Mystery cloaks every page…”

“An impressive debut novel for fans of psychological suspense.”

“Excellently creepy.”

“Highly recommended.”

“An excellent blend of literary fiction and psychological thriller.”

“A definite page turner, I completed it in a couple of days.”

“I couldn’t put it down!! Gritty and compelling reading.”

“An enjoyable page turner. It’s got character, location, sex, drugs — but above all the writing is captivating.”

“Wonderful story from this author. Well-crafted, believable characters, great plot line, and a description of Turkey that makes you want to take your next vacation there.”

“Overall, I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys their thrillers to be a little dark and edgy, but with some warmth thrown in. Oh, and foodies. This is a great book for food lovers.”

“I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good mystery.”

“If you’re going on a beach holiday and you’re a lover of creepy, psychological thrillers, then this is the book for you.”

Are you still with me?

Okay, then it’s worth highlighting a few things people have said about the dark underbelly to this story, because it’s undeniably gritty, morally ambivalent and, for some, unsettling. In the interests of full disclosure:

“This is not, however, a book for the faint-hearted. The assault scenes in particular, while very well written, don’t pull any punches. But for me that’s as it should be. Horrible things should be portrayed as horrible. And it makes you all the more engaged in the search for who’s responsible.”

“But a caution to sensitive readers–the subject matter deals with sexual assault (that’s not a spoiler as the opening scene depicts this) and misogyny, sometimes in quite graphic detail. Normally I would shy away from material like that, but I felt comfortable in the author’s hands given the strong female lead who carries the novel, and the important message that’s unveiled.”

“Be warned ….there is a dark undertone to this story that can make one feel slightly uncomfortable (and it’s meant to), but the author deals with these scenes admirably, giving you enough to make you feel uneasy but not too much so that you want to stop reading – cleverly done.”

“I particularly enjoyed the ending – even when the ‘bad guy’ is discovered, there is still a dilemma to be faced. I’m not sure what I’d have done, put in Brenda’s place.”

“Pick it as a good read, but don’t be surprised if it also challenges and makes you think twice.”

There, now you’ve got the full picture.

In case it’s piqued your curiosity, you can find out more about Singled Out on this website here, and throughout my blog.  And of course, Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites:

Blog posts coming soon(ish)…

  • Making a start on Novel Number Two – I need your help!
  • Marketing Muse: Promoting your book as holiday read.
  • Happy Endings: Should every story be tied up with a ribbon?

On a summer reading list – and an unfortunate omission

Bookshop chain Waterstones (no apostrophe these days, harrumph) has announced its Book Club Summer Reads this week. The list is varied and for avid readers, promises a luscious literary experience across the coming months.

Unfortunately, my debut novel, Singled Out, has – I can only presume, in some hideous accidental oversight – been omitted from this list of good and great summer reads of 2015.

I can’t begin to understand how this ghastly blunder could possibly have happened. I am dumbstruck. I can but apologise, because this incomprehensible failure means that instead of a simple ‘click to buy’ from a colourful e-mail landing in your inbox, you’re going to have to embark on a hunt for Singled Out, trailing through the Amazon, all by yourself.

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxIf you’re into sinister tales taking place in delicious settings, your search for Singled Out will reward you with a gripping read. It’s a gritty psychological story about one woman’s struggle to overcome her demons and snare a dangerous stalker. It all takes place on a summer holiday for singles in Turkey, where strangers come together and nobody is quite who they seem.

Yes, you read that right. Summer… summer holiday. Hey, you guys at Waterstones…. summer holiday! Wouldn’t this alone qualify for a place on your Book Club Summer Reads list? Wouldn’t it? No?

Oh.

I know. It’s hardly selling in its thousands. It won’t make you book-business guys rich – at least, not overnight. But what about when the bidding war breaks out over those options on a movie or a TV mini-series – when world-renowned production companies are fighting over the rights and A-listers are begging for a role? Maybe then? What was that you said? Cloud-cuckoo land? Oh, don’t be mean, guys. Don’t hit me when I’m down.

Fair enough, I can’t deny it; demand has been, well, modest. The truth? Singled Out has yet to attain three figures in the Sales column – but it’s close, it is. Sort of. Close-ish. But just think what a place on that Book Club Summer Reads list would have done for it. And I’m not just saying this out of blatant self-interest either. I think I could safely argue that, with a little display ingenuity, there’s a profit to be had for any bookshop from my modest literary endeavours. What about those magic tables – the ones that everyone, but everyone, makes for when they come through the doors? Imagine for a moment, how appealing that sultry sunset on the cover of Singled Out would look on one of those tables by the entrance – the one that says ‘Hot New Authors’ or better still ‘Sizzling Summer Holiday Reads’ perhaps. Imagine all the book-buying money-spending hands that would reach out for it.

Yes, that would work.

But hey, the list is written, the emails are out and it’s too late for all that business. So all I can do is grumple away under my breath and shake my metaphorical fist at the Book Club selectors. It gets it off my chest a bit at least.

So, friends, followers and readers – an apology: I’m sorry you’ll have to go a-hunting for Singled Out. I’m sorry you won’t ever find it at Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, or even your quirky little independent bookstore. I’m sorry it’s only on Amazon and that – for the time being at least – you’ll have to go further than Amazon’s Top 100 lists to track it down. But if you look, you’ll find it. It’s there for your Kindle (a perfect medium, if ever there was one, to take with you on your… holidays), and for the traditionalists amongst us, it’s there in paperback too.

As for the Waterstones Book Club recommendations, I cannot tell a lie. Notwithstanding that single sloppy omission, it’s a great selection. If you’re an avid reader like me, it’s worth a look – and it’s worth a few of your pennies/cents (only the ones you’ve got left after you’ve picked up Singled Out though).

Meantime, I hope you’ll forgive my shameless opportunism. When I got that Waterstones Book Club email this morning, I just couldn’t resist it.

Just one more thing… of course… Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites:

Singled Out – A ‘Look Inside’

Singled Out was released yesterday on Amazon on Kindle e-book and in paperback. In case you haven’t made it to your local neighbourhood Amazon store yet, I thought you might like a taster, here on the blog.

Here’s the back-cover promotional:

SINGLED OUT by JULIE LAWFORD

“EVERYONE BRINGS BAGGAGE ON A SINGLES HOLIDAY”

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxBrenda Bouverie has come on a singles holiday to Turkey to escape. Intent on indulgence, she’s looking for sun, sea and … distraction from a past she would give anything to change.

But on this singles holiday no one is quite who they seem. First impressions are unreliable and when the sun goes down, danger lies in wait. As someone targets the unwary group of strangers, one guest is alone in sensing the threat.

But who would get involved, when getting involved only ever leads to trouble?

And here are the first couple of pages:

SATURDAY

1

HE STANDS OVER her, fastening his jeans. Then he scans 360-degrees, checking for any disturbance – evidence of his presence. Like so many hotel rooms these days, it’s a paean to minimalist urban chic; all feature walls and faux walnut veneer. You could be anywhere from New York to Bangkok.

He notices an indentation on the bed between her parted thighs – where his knees have depressed the waffle throw. He tugs first one side then the other, smoothing and flattening.

It was a bonus, finding a lone female in the hotel bar a few hours earlier; an American, an advertising executive en route home to Boston. She was pencil-thin, pale flesh sucking her bones like a famine victim. But she was classy – expensive tailoring, silk shirt – quality underneath too. It was always gratifying to uncover La Perla or Agent Provocateur, Rigby & Peller on the older ones. Like an extra reward for having chosen well.

Nobody saw them beneath the amber glowing downlights, tucked into a corner booth, backs to the room as he summoned round after round before settling the tab in cash. Nobody noticed when he slid her key card into his pocket and guided her to the lifts, moments before she couldn’t stand up any more; so finely judged these days, assured and precise.

Good job he’d pocketed a little of what he needed before he left home, just in case. He tells himself if it hadn’t been put to use he’d have flushed it before the flight. Truth is, once it was there burning a hole in his groin, he’d have found someone – anyone.

The first time on the spur-of-the-moment, he’d taken a photograph; a souvenir. It set a pattern, one he won’t break – can’t break. He points his camera at the woman and clicks off a couple of shots before drawing her legs together. A tight smile laces his features as he rearranges her clothes, rolling her on to her side; the recovery position, they call it. But she looks like she’s sleeping and she won’t remember a thing when she wakes. She’ll probably miss her flight but by then he’ll be long gone.

The bedside clock glows 02:00. He pulls the door shut behind him and slips down the back stairs and out of a side exit, collar high, head down against the CCTV. Moments later, jacket slung over one shoulder, he strides through the front entrance; a nod to the night porter, a few words about how hard it is to sleep in hotels and in minutes he’s back in his own room with time to rest before his wake-up call.

* * * * * *

You can read on a little via Amazon’s Kindle ‘Look Inside’ feature. If you’re intrigued to continue after that, guess what, the whole story – every single word – is available at the click of a buy button on your choice of Kindle or old-fashioned paper.

If you click, I hope very much that you enjoy the read and I’d love it if you would come back and let me know what you thought.

Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites:

Precision detail in a novel – not just any place, but this place

I’ve been asked to share how I capture a sense of place in my novel. For example, what research do I do, how do I take notes, are photographs involved, and so on. So here goes…

SINGLED OUT is set on a singles holiday on Turkey’s beautiful Lycian Coast. I’ve visited this area many times over the last 20 years and I love its striking landscape and laid-back, exotic atmosphere. Whilst my story is essentially a dark psychological one, I wanted the sense of place to be very strong; my intention is for the reader to feel as if they’re on the holiday with my characters.

This writer's notepad - illegible scrawl from Turkey, May 2013
This writer’s notepad: illegible scrawl, Turkey, May 2013

Last year after a gap of 6 years I returned to Turkey specifically to gather that sensory detail for my novel. Memories fade over the years, especially the minuscule details of sight, sound and smell which are essential to anchoring the setting or a scene in a novel precisely and bringing it to life for readers. I wanted to fill a notepad with images and sensory detail to inject into my story. I got more than I could possibly have expected from the experience, as I first wrote about in my post It Makes Sense:

I realised as I filled its pages, how inert ones memories of a place can become. It’s easy enough to pick up an old photograph and see what a raggedy coastline looks like, or a market, or an ancient ruin. But when you’re there, you smell the pine and the citrus, the sweat and cigarettes; you see the gnarly knuckles and the stained aprons; you hear the wail of the muezzin’s prayer and watch the sun radiate from the golden dome of a mosque; you feel the sting of perspiration as it trickles into your eye and savour sweet green peppers and succulent tomatoes under a canopy of twisted vines. Oh, I could go on… and on…

I don’t want you imagining my story is awash with descriptive detail at the expense of plot and character. But there are one or two places where I’ve gone to town a bit on the setting, using my photographs and notes to develop a strong sense of place. Of course these may all go, if and when a real editor gets to work on the draft. But for the time being, I’m getting away with it.

Ephesus

My characters take a trip to Ephesus, so I did too. I’d last been there 20 years ago and I imagined that whilst two thousand year old ruins are two thousand year old ruins, the tourist business of Ephesus and its surroundings must have changed over the years – and I was right.

I was fortunate to have a guide all to myself for the day and I explained to her the main purpose of my visit. I was able to wander at will, ask endless questions and take dozens of photographs. Knowing why I was there, she didn’t question that I photographed odd things; the stalls outside the entrance, the entrance barriers, other groups of tourists, odd rocks and stones, cats and trees, pavements and signposts, as well as those breathtaking ancient ruins.

Stalls at the entrance to Ephesus
Stalls at the entrance to Ephesus
The only shade there is at Ephesus
The only shade at Ephesus
Warm bodies and a cloudless sky at Ephesus
Warm bodies and a cloudless sky at Ephesus

I couldn’t easily take notes as we walked around the site, but I caught up as soon as we stopped for lunch; a combination of my guide’s historical knowledge, my sense of the place and how I’d felt as I walked its streets.  You think you’ll remember these things, but let me tell you, you won’t.  Notepads are a vital tool – however illegible (as mine often are), their pages will take you right back to a precise place or moment, months or even years later.

But I had to keep reminding myself, SINGLED OUT is a novel not a travel book. An earlier draft contained far too much historical detail from that Ephesus trip and much of it has since come out. It’s enough to have done the research and deployed elements of detail where they’re needed to enrich; but there’s no need to show off how much you know.

So you can see how it worked for me, here’s a paragraph from that fictional trip to Ephesus:

Around them tour guides spoke in English, French, German, Swedish and Japanese to visitors unbalanced by loaded backpacks, while others brandished sticks to aid their movement or umbrellas to shield them from the sun. They stopped randomly and without warning for photographs. At every point where Fatima drew the group close, James and Veronica listened with rapt attention – and Brenda rummaged in her bag for water, a fan, a facial spritz or a wad of tissues. All the while, the heat came at them not only from above, but from beneath their feet and all around. It rose in waves from the flagstone avenues and radiated off the columns and walls. Brenda was slow-roasting in the Ephesus noonday oven.

Market Day

Two of my characters browse a local market together one day. I’d gone to markets in Turkey before and had some lovely old photographs (from the days before digital). Then I went to the market in Fethiye on my trip last year, armed with my trusty notepad – and my eyes and nose. Here’s an excerpt which uses my recollections and notes from all those Turkish markets combined.

The area where the weekly market took place lay behind the shopping street and away from the beach. It would be generous to call it a marketplace, since for six days a week this area of gravel and clay lay fallow; carved here and there by tyre tracks from the few trucks that needed somewhere to turn around before speeding away.

On the seventh day, it teemed with life from before dawn until late afternoon. Farmers came from the villages and hamlets in the hills, their pick-ups laden with fresh produce of all shapes and mis-shapes, a riot of colour and a testament to the industry and enterprise out of sight of the tourist coastline. Traders moved from town to town, market day to market day, bringing truckloads of goods to sell; t-shirts and trousers, bags and belts, pashminas and pendants, sandals and sunhats all manufactured in anonymous factories far away from the coast or most likely in China. Packets of candy, nuts and aromatic spices sat alongside jars of glistening local honey and blocks of cheese; everything was available to buy from dusty trestle tables and rails, all under cover of flapping white awnings – giving the impression the whole market was a trading ship about to set sail.

The two women passed an enjoyable couple of hours wandering the length and breadth of the market. They flirted with the crusty, moustachioed farmers behind their piles of wooden boxes laden with curly runner beans, torpedo aubergines, red and white onions, peppers and courgettes, oranges, lemons, strawberries and giant watermelons; they breathed in the aromas of citronella and cinnamon, fruit teas and fresh herbs, beaten leather, crushed straw, workaday sweat and cigarettes; they bartered with stall-holders over beaded necklaces, embroidered purses and gaudily embellished flip-flops; they cooed over a pile of crates crammed with baby chicks, their fluffy down every shade from creamy gold-top through honey roast to dark chocolate brown, and they sympathised with a brace of rabbits whose fate was obvious and more immediate. Brenda stocked up on candied fruits and sugared almonds and Siobhan found a fake henna kit she couldn’t live without. Then, with carrier bags brimming with tourist trinkets, they made for the line of beachfront bars and the yellow awning, for lunch.

The Gulet Trip

Turkish Gulet - a fine sight, even without its sails
Turkish Gulet

My characters take an overnight trip on one of Turkey’s ubiquitous gulets. I’ve spent weeks at a time on gulets before – it’s a blissful experience, to bob about on the ocean for a few days with no shoes on and nothing to do but sunbathe and read books. This time I took a day trip to refresh my memories of the sights, sounds and odours. I took photographs of the coastline and odd corners of the boat. I noted the way the motion affected my balance, the sounds of the boat and the water, the smells coming up from the sea – and the kitchen; I registered what the sunlight did to the chrome, the woodwork and the sails. Here’s a snapshot of my impressions which made it into the story:

The deck-hands unrolled the jib over the bow and the sail on the second mast and high above them squally gusts took hold. The trio of sails ballooned with the strengthening wind of open water; they fought and whipped about, tugging at their fastenings, lifting and plunging the boat forward, cutting into the water and venting fine salty spray into the air and across the deck. The restaurant on the beach became a speck against a panorama of grey-green scrub and rocky slopes, the bay zoomed away into the distance. The industrial grinding of the diesel engine was replaced by a sublime, organic symphony; a blustery flapping of sails, the steady swish-swash of waves, the metallic pounding of the rigging and the cawing of a seabird. Breathless and eyes wide, Henry lay on his back staring up towards the tip of the mast and beyond into the cloudless sky. Surely life couldn’t get better than this.

Most of the detail from my scruffy notepads made it into the story one way or another – a few words here, a sentence there – which is mostly all you need. It’s only when you want to anchor the reader more specifically in a given place or moment, that it’s perhaps permissible to layer the detail a little more. But that’s just my feeling, and, as a novice and yet-to-be-published writer, I may find my layers of sights, sounds and smells are pared down in the final edit. So please don’t take my word for it that this is the right approach. It’s just the thing I did – whether it adds substance to my story, or gets in the way of the plot, someone with more experience than I may yet be the judge of this.

From ChickLit to True Grit

Where did your writing begin? What type of story did you set out to write? Is that what emerged, or did you, as I did, end up somewhere completely different?

CactusI first fell into the grip of my fiction writing habit in 2010, a few months after my 50th birthday.  When I went on an Arvon Foundation writing course, I hadn’t a single word of fiction to my name, aside from a handful of playful Coffee Break Stories which I had penned for a client as part of their marketing.  I had an idea I might try something a little more adventurous.  I wanted to stretch myself, test my creativity and find out if I had an imagination.

I’d booked on the spur of the moment and I arrived with an unblemished notepad, a sharp pencil and an open mind. I thought the course (tellingly titled Starting to Write) might at least give me something to think about, or even (the clue’s in the name, I guess) help get me started. I had absolutely no idea what I would write about.

One of the tutors, the poet and writer Catherine Smith offered me some help in choosing my debut project.  I told her I felt drawn to writing light, humorous fiction, an escape from the serious business of copywriting.  We set off down the ‘write what you know’ road – it’s as good a place as any to begin, I guess.  During our conversations it dawned on me there was one thing about which I knew quite a bit, which offered the potential for light and humorous writing.

In my 30’s and 40’s, I’d been on a number of singles holidays to the Greek Islands and Turkey.  As I wrote in my post ‘A Singular Sort of Holiday’ I thought this might be fertile ground for an amusing, chick-litty angle – a wry commentary on the sort of people who go on singles holidays (ahem… myself included); the comic potential for mishap and misunderstanding, the awkwardness of strangers thrown together; that sort of thing. Think, Bridget Jones takes a Vacation, and you’d be on the sort of lines I contemplated.

The seed planted and back home again, I began to write.  First a couple of fluffyish short stories, and then the first few pages of what would become Singled Out.  I ploughed forward with little idea of what I was doing.  I was like one of those people who sets off for a mooch around the Outback with a half litre of water and no sunhat – no compass either.  Eventually around 40,000 words in, I realised I had blundered into nowhere-land.

The key problem, I discovered, was that it wasn’t enough to write in a light-hearted way about a collection of characters, even if some of them were curious or quirky.  Something had to happen.  Yes, that’s quite a breakthrough, isn’t it? I realised that for a story to be, well, a story that anyone might want to read, I had to make stuff happen.  And a bunch of people lazing about on sun loungers having a bit of a chat just didn’t cut it.

So one day I introduced a fox into my henhouse, just to see what sort of a stir I could create.  And that’s where everything changed.  Because I realised how much I enjoyed writing my dark, malevolent character.  I liked finding words for what was going on in their psyche. I enjoyed working my way into their disturbed, sociopathic mindset.  I found I loved engineering the scenarios in which this character conceals their true nature, causing others to stumble in, unawares.  I loved the idea of creating a story where the reader would know where the peril lay and would watch it playing out.

As I wrote forward the tone of my narrative changed, as it wrapped around this warped individual. It became a story, rather than a series of chirpy episodes.  Other characters acquired their own private pains, rages and challenges as the atmosphere darkened.  You may be the judge one day, but to me, Singled Out mutated from a pina colada into a whisky sour.

If I give the impression that this was a smooth linear progression, a seamless segue from ChickLit to Psycho-drama, I’m misleading you. I developed a split personality, bouncing back and forth between the two for a while and generating no small amount of frustration in my mentor.  This resulted in a certain loss of confidence in yours truly.  Eventually my mentor called me to account.  ‘You have to decide,’ she said, ‘what kind of a novel you’re writing.’  She was nice about it, but I felt the sting as the end of her tether snapped at me.  But it proved to be an important junction – a ‘pee or get off the pot’ moment.

So I decided, and I committed to grit and malevolence and a dark story where very bad stuff happens, even though all around is beautiful and languid and sultry.  And the more I applied myself, the more I enjoyed writing the pain and the peril into my narrative.  I found myself somewhere I didn’t expect to be, but it was an exciting landscape – for me as a writer at least.

The change of tempo and resultant overhaul across a series of edits has taken over 3 years, but I know what kind of a writer I am now, and I have my first novel – or at least the manuscript thereof – which is now in search of an agent.

Whatever it is, one thing is certain, it’s not ChickLit.  And I’ve discovered I do have an imagination, and it’s not bursting with sunbeams and sugar sprinkles.

Food, Glorious Food

iStock_000002093969_MediumI enjoyed writing a few gastronomic moments into my novel, Singled Out, which is set on a holiday in Turkey. Food allows you to explore all the senses and it can be a prism through which characters’ personalities and passions shine.  People gather together to eat, so food and mealtimes are opportunities for making connections and developing relationships between characters.  They can be made to linger over meals – creating episodes rich in sensory detail and dialogue, and loaded with cues and clues.

Below is a short foodie excerpt from Singled Out. I’d love to know what you think, and to hear how you use food in your own writing.

Mehmet and Defne brought baskets of steaming pide breads covered with napkins, to accompany the assortment of dips – creamy cacik, hummus and iman bageldi – on the table. They deposited platters of succulent tomato and feta salad drenched in olive oil, and saucers of black olives. The bread was pounced upon, ripped and shared. Brenda loaded her plate with dips and slices of tomato. She scraped a hunk of warm bread through the hummus and took a bite. It was sticky and grainy and the tang of garlic and fresh lemon flooded her mouth with saliva.

‘You’re enjoying that,’ said Turner, an inscrutable smile spreading across his features.

‘Indeed,’ said Brenda. ‘Good food, a warm evening—’

‘And great company,’ he added. ‘Here, try this.’ He held out a piece of bread loaded with the cacik – slivers of cucumber, crushed garlic and mint smothered in velvety yoghurt. Brenda reached out to take it with her hand but he pulled back.

‘Take a bite,’ he said, holding it out towards her mouth. ‘Go on. I want to watch you eat it.’ The corners of his mouth twitched.

As she parted her lips he slid the bread on to her tongue. The chilled yoghurt softened in the heat of her mouth and she savoured the silken concoction as it slithered down her throat…

The Dating Game: Debut novel seeks ambitious agent

Singled Out Turkey Singles Holiday Novel

My name is:  Singled Out

I am:  A debut novel

I am seeking: An agent

My location: A singles holiday in an unspoilt village on Turkey’s seductive Lycian Coastline

The sun scorches the earth. Exotic rhythms pound out along the beachfront. Strangers mingle, thrown together in pursuit of pleasure for a single week of their lives.  A dangerous individual circles the unwary group like a wolf. He begins picking off victims, playing a sordid private game.  Can he be stopped? Who will dare to get in his way? And what will it cost them?  

Hi there! I’m Singled Out. I’m a debut novel and I’m looking for a soulmate.

Not so long ago I was a wretched mess of a draft – half-baked, blistered with plot holes, scarred by cliché and rambling all over the place.  I would spend my days splurged on the sofa, stuffing my pages with excess adjectives and downing bottle after bottle of purple prose.  Things got so bad that my author staged an intervention. I couldn’t put it off any longer – it was time to straighten myself out.

So I’ve been in therapy.  I’ve been dispatched on courses and hidden away on retreats.  I’ve forced my author to accompany me, dragging her away from the distractions of email, piles of washing, odd jobs, miscellaneous errands, internet retail emporia, and – horror of horrors – out of mobile coverage. I’ve been subjected to group therapy and prescribed some unquestionably excellent advice.   I’ve been on a diet too.  I’ve dropped a dress size, losing 9,000 words to a series of edits – that’s almost 10% of my body weight.  I’ve been working out every day… working out how to make the plot sizzle, working out how to invigorate my characters, and working out how to build the tension and tighten the twists and turns.  Finally, I was given a glossy makeover and now, sculpted and trimmed, I’m double-line spaced and dressed in wide margins and a curly serif font.

I may be scrubbed and pressed, but I’m never going to be a frothy party-girl of a novel. There’s more to me than cocktails and cosy poolside chats; I’ve got my dark side, make no mistake – it may be tequila sunrise one moment, but the next… oh, but that would be giving too much away, and a new novel has to protect her modesty, doesn’t she?

So my word-count is snug and my pages are in pretty good shape, but no novel is perfect; you may feel you want to smooth out some of my grittier characteristics.  And that’s all fine, because you’re the expert and I’m the novice and one thing my author and I have learned over the last couple of years is how to take advice.  But I want to enjoy the process, so the most important thing is that you and my author see eye to eye and get along famously – because that’s when the whole collaborative, mutually beneficial professional relationship thing works like a dream and everyone gets what they need. Happy days.

So are you the agent for me?  Are you savvy and well-connected, a joy to work with, adventurous enough to take a risk with something new and a little dark? Will you nurture me and promote me and find us a publisher? Do you want a long-term partnership, not just with a debut novel, but with her future siblings? Are you the one to single me out, and turn Singled Out into a double-act?

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.

Reader Anxiety

Library EphesusWhenever we speak, my mother asks ‘how’s the book going’.  Usually she gets the briefest response (‘fine, thanks’) in a tone that suggests a follow-up query is neither necessary nor advisable.  Don’t get me wrong, my mother and I have a great relationship.  But the book is my book, and I confess, I’m over-protective.

Yesterday, buoyed by my progress through the line edit and with the end in sight, my normally well-concealed enthusiasm leaked out.  I told her it was almost finished.

Gah!

She has, on a few occasions, hinted gently that she’d like to read my draft.  Hinted gently; in a way that could be passed over, as if it had been whispered in a voice too quiet to hear.  But yesterday the gentle hint became an insistent plea… please let me read it… I know it’s not my kind of book, but I’d love to read it… because you’ve written it… because I’m your mother…  Ah, yes, that final trump card.

My mother is 78 years of age and quite something (in a good way).  In the last 15 years she’s written and self-published two non-fiction books – both thoroughly researched, serious works which have been well received in their niche sectors; a history of her family from the time of the Inquisition to the present day, and a history of the music publishing business which has been in the family since 1863.  She’s a woman of culture who loves the stimulus of learning, classical music, art, history and travel.  In case you haven’t realised, I’m hugely proud of who she is and what she’s achieved.

My novel – I’ve called it Singled Out – is a psychological drama set on a holiday in Turkey, which I expect to sit firmly on the quality general fiction shelves (positive thinking… see?).  In a beautiful setting, bad stuff happens.  It’s gritty, because I found I liked writing gritty stuff. I take a few of my characters on a day trip to Ephesus, but that’s about as cultural as my story gets. It isn’t the sort of story I imagine my mother selecting from the shelves at Waterstone’s.  Even so I understand why she wants to read it.  And I’m pleased – of course I’m pleased – that she’s not only interested, but keen to read it.

But it matters, what family think of you, and I think my writing might come as a surprise.  Actually, perhaps even a shock – at least in parts. So when my mother reads it – and this will happen –  I will await her response to the more visceral elements of the narrative with considerable apprehension.

Will she be nice about it?  Yes, she will, I know it.  She’s my mother, isn’t she? But I know myself, and I know that whatever she says, in whatever way (and it won’t be her fault) it will somehow be the wrong thing, and it will set me on a spiral of self-doubt and angst.  There’ll be something I find to fret about in the tone, or the words, or it will be that thing she doesn’t say, or perhaps a momentary hesitation, a seeking after the most appropriate descriptive.  It might be an ill-judged platitude. It could even be her fulsome, wholehearted praise; since even that will disturb me, because I won’t believe my story deserves this.  She can’t win and that has nothing to do with her, and everything – everything – to do with me.

So for now, I can’t, I just can’t.