Special Places – Part Two #inspiration #reflection #nurture

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Welcome to Part Two of my journey through a few of the places which have special meaning for me.  Here’s Part One if you missed it, in which I picked out a few places from my childhood and career. In this second geographically inclined post I’ve focussed places which have connections from a relationship or social perspective. This was meant to be just one post, but the more I thought about it, the more places I found.

Fleet Services, M3 (Northbound), Hampshire, UK

2016-07-17-15-14-52How shall I put this? I once made a connection with someone at Fleet Services on the M3 motorway (northbound). It was very many years ago. It was one of my earliest experiences of that beyond exciting realisation that someone I was attracted to, was attracted to me too. More than that, I will not share, as it’s too private a memory. Save to say that much water has passed under the bridge since then, and that life can have a funny way of coming full circle.

For several years, I would avoid this motorway pit-stop as it held the first fragment of what had started in a thrilling way (for the guileless adolescent girl I was), but become a bad memory. But I had cause more recently to review my negative emotional response to it, and the bigger story, and armed with a little more awareness and understanding, I dropped in and took this photograph one day when I happened to be passing by. Yes, I know, it’s a motorway service station.  But meaningful personal landmarks aren’t always about quaint streets and sumptuous scenery. Sometimes they’re about perspective, empathy and closure.

Beer, Devon, UK

One place that is all about quaint streets and sumptuous scenery is the pretty village of Beer in Devon. Here I took my first grown-up holiday with a steady boyfriend (who, a few years later, was to become my husband). We paid a thrifty £10 for a week’s hire of a static caravan with no umm… facilities (for these we had to stumble down the hill to a communal toilet/shower block – not much fun in the dead of night).  So small was this caravan that we had to fold the bed away every morning (and whenever we wanted to take a photograph that our parents might see). We fed a very hungry electricity meter with absurd amounts of coin and charcoaled the rear-end of a chicken in an oven the size of a matchbox. We walked a few miles of the Jurassic coastline each day, found delightful pubs to sit outside, ate our fill of crab sandwiches and cream teas, and had the best time.

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My husband is now my ex-husband, but we are fortunate to remain good friends. The village of Beer is intimately entwined in my mind with simpler times, and an enduring connection, which is very important to me. I’ve been back once or twice – it seems hardly to have changed, and that is much to its credit.

Lycian Coast, Turkey

I started going to Turkey around the early 1990’s – mainly on singles holidays (which I’ve written about here). Are you seeing a connection already?

img_2312I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent in Turkey; I’ve never had a bad holiday there. It’s a beautiful country and a wonderful place to relax and revive. On my first trip, I spent a week in the hectic port town of Kusadasi, but thereafter I picked small towns and villages along the Lycian coast and Gulf of Fethiye, and around the Bodrum and Bozburun Peninsulas. I also took a couple of week-long gulet cruises, which cannot be beaten for away-from-it-all bliss.

When I came to fulfil a long-held ambition to write fiction, I decided to follow the ‘write what you know’ principle, and located my psychological suspense story on a singles holiday in Turkey.  I began writing in 2010 and wrote about the process and what I was learning about the art of writing fiction, in the earlier posts in this blog.

I set ‘Singled Out’ in a fictional village – it’s a fusion of several of the places in which I’ve stayed. I had this idea that I wanted the story to immerse the reader in the setting – make them feel as if they were on the holiday themselves – and to do that, I drew on all my recollections of those earlier holidays. In 2013, I made a special trip back to Turkey for research purposes, to update and refresh my memories and gather some specific sensory data to ground my story. I visited the ancient city of Ephesus, just as my characters do, and I took a day-trip on a gulet; not the same as a week drifting the sea with no shoes on and nights lying under the stars, but not bad, given the time constraints.

img_2408‘Singled Out’ was, I now realise, my practise novel.  It explores the dark side of the kind of holiday where not everyone is who they seem. I think I’ve made a decent fist of it, but now, when I dip into its pages, I can see the journey I’ve been on and the things I’ve learned in its shortcomings. A few agents expressed initial interest, but it never made the cut, so I self-published in 2015. Readers have so far been extremely kind in their feedback.  You can check it out here, if you feel so inclined.

Sanibel Island, Florida, USA

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In January 2015, after having prevaricated, pushing back on her generous invitations for three years, I went to Florida to visit my cousin Martha. The reason for my prevarication was my grossly overweight state and the simple fact that I couldn’t face the discomfort of a nine-hour transatlantic flight and all the other fun-and-games of a transit into the USA. As it turned out, and entirely to my expectation, the journey was a gruelling one, as I was at my very heaviest (it would be nine months before I began to get to grips with my healthy/weight-lossy project). But I’m so very glad I bit-the-bullet and overruled my fears.

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Martha was a New Yorker, lately moved to Connecticut. On retirement, like others with sufficient funds for a holiday home, she began to fly south, to Fort Myers, Florida, for the winter. There she made a beautiful second home to which she welcomed a seemingly endless succession of guests. My visit began a day late (I wasn’t joking about the gruelling journey), but it was sunshine and smiles from the moment I arrived. Martha was the most wonderful, thoughtful and generous host.

Spot the basking alligator
Spot the basking alligator

One of her favourite places was Sanibel Island, and she treated me to a day trip. We crossed the endless road-bridge and drove on down to JN ‘Ding Darling’ Nature Reserve, where I got a little too close for comfort to a basking alligator. We dined on fresh seafood at Traders Gulf Coast Grill and Gifts (yes, and Gifts – those American’s never miss a retail opportunity).

img_3592Then we mooched around taking photographs in the botanical gardens and on the beach at Sanibel Moorings and stopped by the lighthouse before heading home. It was a special day, as everywhere we stopped was either a favourite place for Martha, or it harked back to holidays of her youth.

My lovely, wonderful cousin was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer just six months after my visit. She died in September 2016. I can never express how glad I am that I made that trip when I did, and was able to spend such special time with my ‘sister of the heart’.

Home, Greater London, UK

Talking of hearts, home is where the heart is, so they say. Cliches notwithstanding, I love my home. It’s just an ordinary suburban house in a quiet street, with a small courtyard garden. As well as being my home, it’s my workplace – and it’s my sanctuary.

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Over the years I’ve renovated and redecorated, so now the whole place reflects my personal style.  It’s calm, neutral (too neutral for some) and uncluttered. It’s geared around my needs and activities too. I have a room set aside for my Pilates and exercise equipment, and another which is my workplace and writing space.

fullsizerenderI like things just-so (call me obsessive if you will), and nothing pleases me more than to arrive home after a busy day with a client or up in London, to leave the world on the other side of my front door, and sink into my comfy curly-uppy chair in front of the TV.

I have a personalised relaxation recording prepared by a hypnotherapist a few years ago. In it, she urges me to picture the safest, most relaxing place I’ve ever been. For ages, I would try to picture lovely beaches where I’d been on holiday – they’re relaxing, after all, aren’t they? But it was when I realised that the place where I feel safest and most relaxed was my own home, that I began to use this recording most effectively. I would lie on my sofa, or recline on a chair in my garden, and I wouldn’t have to imagine myself anywhere, because I was already in my safest, most relaxing place.

Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti

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Halloween is perhaps a fitting opportunity to take a look at a certain type of character who often finds a home within psychological suspense fiction; the sociopath…

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When we hear the word psychopath we tend to think of infamous mass murderers, names like Ted Bundy, Dennis Nilsen and Fred West evoking memories of some of the most horrific crimes of the last few decades. Fiction has many compelling psychopaths – Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs of course, Misery’s Annie Wilkes and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman; and there’s Max Cady, Robert De Niro’s terrifying vengeful psychopath in the film Cape Fear.

Yet most people who score solidly within the Hare Psychopathy Checklist aren’t killers, and the word we associate with the less murderous on this spectrum today is… sociopath.

You won’t find most sociopaths stashing bodies under the floorboards or consuming a victim’s liver with fava beans and a nice chianti.  They’re part of the community.  They are your boss or your next-door neighbour, or the guy who smiles at you at the bus stop. 

They’re sharp-witted and can be fiercely intelligent; they hold down jobs, often with considerable power and influence; they enter relationships, they marry and have children; at work, you might call them shrewd or ruthless, single-minded or controlling; in social situations they’re the life-and-soul.

For most people encountering such a person, the word sociopath doesn’t immediately spring to mind. If you label them at all, you might say they were a con-artist, cheat or bastard.

But words like this sell these destructive individuals short.

Motivated only by their own needs and drives and without conscience or empathy, sociopaths have the capacity to wreak havoc.  They are narcissistic, manipulative and deceitful, shallow and self-serving. They’ll tell you what you need to hear, to get what they want. And when they’re done, they’ll depart without a backward glance, leaving any amount of disruption in their wake.

Most people can’t understand the way a sociopath thinks. Most people are able to empathise with others, share their pain or distress and offer comfort because they care about how others feel. Most people will think through the possible outcomes of their actions and avoid doing things which cause harm to others. Most people have values, standards and morals, and appreciate how these underpin society.

Most people strive to be good, kind, understanding and loving; but not the sociopath.  To the sociopath, these traits are weaknesses to be exploited.

Speaking as a writer, I think sociopaths are fascinating. They’re terrific antagonists, shocking in their ability conceal their true nature, hiding in plain sight, and capable of the sort of behaviours that are beyond normal people. They give the writer so much that is unsettling and potentially catastrophic to play with.

I was in thrall to a sociopath for just a few months, very many years ago. Now it turns out there is much about the psychology of the sociopath which is finding its way into my writing; like character traits, and wiles and ways with which I became too intimately acquainted.

They say ‘write what you know’, don’t they? And that’s interesting, because I think what I went through way back then, might be helping me to write better bastards today.

And that’s an unexpected payback, for sure.

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.

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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?

Facebook Advert – Trial Run #ammarketing

I ‘boosted’ a post on Facebook, essentially an advert for Singled Out. Here’s how I got on.

I haven’t done much advertising/promotion of Singled Out, outside this blog and a few Tweets.  I have neither the time, nor the dedication to go about this task with the sort of commitment one needs to apply if one wants sales in the thousands. Besides, as we hear everywhere, the best way to promote a first book… is to write a second. And that’s just what I’ve at last started to do.

But I was persuaded to try out a boosted post on Facebook, mainly on the basis that it didn’t involve any effort at all.  I was a few copies short of my first notable sales milestone – 100 copies – and I simply thought, ‘it’s worth a punt’. A friend (thank you, Suzanne) showed me how it worked, and it took about 10 minutes to set up the post and pick my target group. Facebook steps you through the process, nice and simple.

I didn’t have a suitable post on my blog, so I decided simply to link to the Amazon.co.uk page for Singled Out, here.

Here’s the post, as it appeared:

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As it’s a story set on a holiday, it seemed worthwhile to target people setting off on, or even already on, their holidays. A #nobrainer one might say.

I decided on a very modest budget, £10.00, and ran the ad over 6 days. This was my criteria:

  • Target group: Women in the UK aged between 35-60
  • Stated interests: fiction, suspense novels, single person, Turkey, travel
  • Placement: Desktop and Mobile news feed

Across the 6 days, this post was boosted to 2,297 women in the target group.  There were 63 engagements. That means 63 people either liked my page, commented on the advert, or – best of all – clicked through to the Amazon page.  My stats tell me that 51 people clicked through to the page.  That means my cost per result was £0.16.

During those 6 days, I made 6 sales, and a further sale the day after – a total of 7 sales attributed to this promotion. Yes, I know, It’s small potatoes, compared to some lucky/successful/hard-working authors, but together with a few sales earlier in the month, it served to make August my most successful month for sales since March, the month after Singled Out was launched.

So… the 7 sales I can directly attribute to the Facebook post more than covered that £10 investment.  Happy days. But the significant thing that post did, was to take me over 100 sales.  That doesn’t mean much in the big wide world, but it was important to me, and definitely worth the punt.

In the interests of full disclosure, I tried a second Facebook boost immediately the first ended. I used the same advert and selected different criteria. I ran for 6 days again, but I invested a budget of just £5.00 this time, half the original budget. My target group was male rather than female, and I was more restrictive with my stated interests. I know… I shouldn’t have adjusted two criteria at once, but I did.

  • Target group: Men in the UK aged between 35 and 60
  • Stated interests: suspense novels, psychological novel, single person, Turkey
  • Placement: Desktop and Mobile news feed

This time I was less successful. With a tighter focus, the available audience was smaller, a total of 858 people reached, from which there were 12 engagements – 3 likes and 9 website clicks. And one sale – which was very gratifying!  Facebook tells me my cost per result (ie, engagement) was £0.42.

So…

  • Of 2297 women, 51 clicked the website – that’s 1 in every 45, or just under 2% – that’s not bad for a ‘cold’ contact. What’s better though, is that of those 51 women, 13% made a purchase.
  • Of 863 men, 9 clicked the website – that’s one in every 95, or half as many as the women’s group. But that 1 sale is, technically speaking, 10% of the click-through traffic to the website.

I messed around with my keywords, but that was in an attempt to be more targeted with the men. It didn’t pay off.

I can’t say I’m surprised that women engaged more enthusiastically with my post than men. That would be for any number of reasons that I can guess at. But I can’t really speculate without generalising horribly, and I don’t want to do that.

This was just a trial. The numbers were all very small and my investment was tiny – but I didn’t feel that was inappropriate, given my relatively modest sales to date. I would try another Facebook advert in future – the results justify tweaking those keywords, investing again, trying a broader geographic spread, and so on. But I can’t exactly see Facebook shooting my sales into the stratosphere.

If you’re a self-published author who’s been thinking of trying Facebook adverts, I hope this has been useful.

And if you’re one of the lovely ladies who clicked on that link and have found your way to my blog… let me extend you a big, warm welcome. 🙂

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.

Birth of a Book: Week One #amwriting

Hardly an auspicious start, but I broke through my first 1,000 words this week and named two characters.  I’m off the ground at least.

Here are three things which are already blindingly obvious to me:

  1. I may like to think I’ve learned from writing my first book, and that I can bring those learnings, newly acquired writerly abilities and Book One experience to bear; but at this point, I feel like a child who’s been given a pencil for the first time, and isn’t quite sure which is the business end.
  2. I need to re-read all those posts I’ve written on ‘show not tell’. Two pages in, and I’m already stating the bleedin’ obvious, line after line. A bit of self-flagellation is in order.
  3. Inciting incident… conflict… what?

This is going to be tough. But I promised short-and-sweet, so that’s it for tonight.

Birth of a Book: Day One #amwriting

2013-12-04 11.56.49Today is an auspicious day – a good day. It’s the day when I finally begin actually writing my follow-up to Singled Out. Tardy but resolute, I’m starting work on my second novel.

I thought, as I’m going to be spending more time writing and less time blogging over the coming months (see what an optimist I can be), it might be interesting to chart the progress and (see what a pessimist I can be) the pain.

This is Ground Zero. There is nothing here except a pair of opening paragraphs flapping about in the breeze (a derisory 255 words), along with two pages of typed notes on the original idea (two years old), and two pages of handwritten notes (scribed whilst I waited for my my old PC and my new iMac to play nicely) on the updated idea. That’s it.

I’d intended to be so, so much further on by now, but, well, life… has got in the way. I call myself a writer, but I haven’t written anything new for two years  (for the purposes of this blog, I’m not counting marketing blurb, which I write pretty much every day). I’ve edited – that means the odd paragraph and a lot of pressing of the delete button – but not actually written.  Those two new opening paragraphs surfaced in March, but since then… nothing. Not a word.

I am ashamed.

But I will do better, and this is where it starts.

Whilst I wrote Singled Out, a writing buddy and I had a modest commitment to one another – that we would exchange 500 new words each week, on a Sunday evening. We reasoned that anybody, no matter how preoccupied or how busy they were, could manage 500 words a week. And we did it, both of us, with almost no fails, for month after month, as both her first novel and my own took shape. What happened of course was that we both wrote considerably more than 500 words on most weeks, because that 500-word commitment opened the floodgates. So we would either pick a choice 500 words to send, or send the lot. Difficult weeks would find me bashing out a desperate page late on a Sunday afternoon, but most weeks weren’t that dire.

My writing buddy and now very dear friend has invited me to take up the 500-word challenge again and I’m going to do it, because I’m tired of being a Writer Without Portfolio.  Stand-by, Suzanne. Shit-or-bust, you will get words this week.

The idea is, I’ll report back every week – short and sweet though, because I want to spend more time writing and less time blogging. Forgive me, but I want to get that next book out of my head and on to some paper. Either that, or stop calling myself… a writer.

Wish me luck.