Getting back in the writerly zone

Well, here we are again, a little over a year since I last blogged. Every now and then in the last several months, I contemplated taking my blog down altogether. Various things stopped me – inertia, other preoccupations and, occasionally, somebody from across the world stumbling across an old post and making comment.  So more than a year after my last post, those words are still… live.

Long-time readers may remember, I published Singled Out in February 2015 and began writing Novel Number Two five months later. It was a faltering and ultimately false start. Life intervened over the next three years or so. Work kept me busier than I’d anticipated, then my mother fell terminally ill and needed all the care I could give. What came next, the clearing-out of her lifetime of paperwork, passions and possessions, was time-consuming and emotionally exhausting. By then I needed life to give me a boost. It chose to deliver a disruptive payload of gallstones instead, and surgery and hospital stays effectively wrote off the next few months.

But since then, things have picked up quite a bit, it’s fair to say. Life is good and positive again, in many ways.  One outcome of this is that I’m at last making time to get back into this funny business of… writing stories.

I write all the time. A self-employed marketer and copywriter for 20 years, I know I’m privileged to be one of lucky ones who is paid for their words. Those commercial writings, these days mostly for corporate blogs, event promotions and websites, have kept me in paper and ink and I’m not in the least ungrateful. But as I’m in a position to scale back a bit on the jobbing copywriting now, I want to reconnect with the joy of fiction and get started (again… again… again…) on Novel Number Two.

As a result of that faltering early start, I have seven short chapters, about 7,000 words. But they’re in not-bad shape – for a first draft. I have a whole, entire story outline too – and now I’ve read it through, I realise… I still like it. The theme is very in vogue and the story has legs.

So I’m going back in and alongside this endeavour, I’m turning this blog around and setting it back on its original track as A Writer’s Notepad.

My original writerly posts have been knocking around for upwards of six or seven years and they’re buried at the bottom of a deep blogging black hole. I reckon there’s life in a few of those old dogs, so I’ll be updating and reposting the odd one as well as penning a few fresh words too, on the second-time-around experience. I venture most of those early posts weren’t seen by more than a handful of people anyway.

Will it be any different this time, I wonder?

After that, we’ll just see how it goes.

Life Laundry

Julie Lawford Aug 18I’ve been having a bit of a sort-out and a clear-out lately; physical, emotional, psychological – and digital too. It’s come about through a combination of reasons. Dealing with the clear-out of my mother’s life, possessions and paperwork over the last 18 months has shown me, quite brutally, that just like her, I’ve been holding on to much more stuff (of every kind) than I should be.  It’s made me question what I’ve been keeping, and why, and look afresh at everything, challenging it to show me its value or its beauty.  Gallbladder problems over the last several months have made me feel, well… vulnerable… in a way I haven’t felt for a very long time. With this (hopefully) behind me, the need to reassert control over my life and environment has been compelling.  And for the first time in several years, some old stress symptoms were making a most unwelcome return.  Last time they’d proved difficult to shift and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again – ignoring the early warning signs, failing to deal with the stressors.

Time to think

Over the summer I had a lot of time to think, as I spent a few weeks doing little else whilst my insides settled down and my physical scars mended. This pause for reflection  helped me decide to use the remaining months of 2018 to consolidate, reassess and, personally speaking, regroup.

So as soon as I felt my energy levels pick up again, I got on to it.

Out with the old

I’ve been ruthless with the stuff that needed to go. I’ve been back and forth to my local tip with general and recyclable waste, garage, attic and cupboard clearance. I’ve been shredding… and shredding… and shredding more.  Old financial paperwork and old client work formed the bulk, but my philosophy has always been ‘if in doubt, don’t bin it, shred it’.  My local council very kindly told me it was ok to break the rules just this once  and put six bags of shredding out for the recycle collection in one go. My alternative was living with the six bags blocking my kitchen door, whilst I carefully filtered it out a little each week for, oh, I don’t know how many weeks, but certainly until long after Christmas. I’ve been clearing out my wardrobe and bagged-up stock of old clothes too, so local charity shops and Ebay have benefitted. Horror of horrors, I’ve even been thinning out my bookshelves.

I’ve dusted top shelves, reorganised cupboards, glued and sewed loose bits of stuff, consolidated a giant bag of travel-size toiletries and sprayed some noxious pink treatment all over my lichen-stained patio and decking. (I’m not at all convinced it will deliver the results the marketing blurb promises, but time will tell.)

Emotionally and psychologically speaking, I’ve been tackling issues which have lingered in my life for longer than they should have done. In one instance this involved a difficult conversation, but once the talk was talked, the weight that lifted was palpable. Another, a resignation from a thankless voluntary position I’ve been holding because nobody else wanted to do it. After too many years, I’ve decided it’s someone else’s turn, and that’s that. I’m giving plenty of notice, but I’m not intending to make succession planning my problem.

Other changes are taking place, enthralling and unexpected. In recent months one or two friendships have reappeared, repaired or strengthened in ways I could never have anticipated, whilst I’m consciously letting other less enriching connections fall away.

To the administratively mundane… There was the bundle of more onerous desk-based jobs which have clung to my task list for far too long. You know the kind of jobs I mean; the ones which you stare at on your list every day, knowing they’re on there because they need to be done; but you can’t face actually doing them because they’re too complex, or boring, or tricky, so you move on to do something easier instead. Three down, two more to go, and already I feel so  much more in control.

Digitally speaking, I’ve been busy on the keyboard too. I’ve reorganised my data files, culled my contacts list, sliced away at my slew of email folders, sent thousands of pointless photographs to the trash-can and checked my back-ups are working. Phew!

Somehow, I’ve made the time to have major electrical works done at my house too, the list of little things that needed doing having finally grown so large that it involved three precious weeks of my electrician’s time.  Next stop – finding a painter for the top-to-toe domestic redecorating project – and I’m on it!

To blog, or not to blog

One last thing though, and it concerns you, my lovely readers. I’ve made a decision about my blog. You won’t have seen that much from me lately – and that’s because I’ve let myself off the hook, freeing myself from the self-imposed burden of posting regularly.

The decision I’ve now made, is to stop blogging altogether.

I opened this blog to build an audience for my writing. Initially I wrote about the experience of writing, then of trying to get an agent, then of self-publishing. When I ran out of steam on that front, I began blogging about weight-loss and healthy lifestyle, and lately my blog has ranged all over the place – no core topic, no strong stand, no clear message… and perhaps (though I may be being very self-critical here) not much point at all. So I’ve decided, for now at least, to call it a day.

I didn’t want to disappear without a trace, leaving those who care wondering whether something ghastly has happened to me.  So this post will stay up for a while, perhaps a month, before I take down the whole blog and leave a holding page. Not sure if I’ll be back or not, but I think, probably, not.

I love writing, you see. But I don’t make enough time for it. And when you have a blog, and you find yourself with a couple of hours to write, the obvious thing to do is to write something for the blog. Net result – no actual writing of actual fiction, no developing of Novel Number Two, happens. And that’s another thing that I want to change in this great Life Laundry period.

The process of clearing out the old, makes room for the new. And that’s what I’m hoping – intending – will happen. That in reasserting control, clearing down some of the clutter of my life, I can make time for the things I want to do more of. One of those is to focus more consistently on my health and fitness, and another is to write fiction, properly, again.

So – and I hope you will forgive me – this is me, signing off. For now, or for good, I’m not sure. But I really, really am so very grateful to those people who have actually read (and hopefully enjoyed) my posts over the months and years. Thank you for reading, for making yourself known, for commenting, for interacting – it really has been a pleasure.

Adieu.

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.

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. 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…

* * * * *

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?

Birth of a Book: Week 2 #amwriting

acorns-57305_1280To plan, or not to plan, this is the question

I’m more of a planner, than a pantser, which means I can’t get very far into a new novel without putting a bit of flesh on the bones of my scraps of story outline.  Those three or four pages need to evolve into a chapter-by-chapter summary before I begin to feel even a little bit comfortable about where things are going.

I’m not obsessive about it. I won’t end up with 10,000 words, perhaps 3,000 all told, in table format, so I can juggle the chapters around. (And no… so far, for those who are interested in this kind of thing – no Scrivener, just MSWord.) I write a few lines about what happens in each chapter, plus – and this is very important – a note of qualification; an answer to the question… what is this chapter doing in the story? That means either (i) how is the chapter moving the story forward, or (ii) what is it telling the reader about a key character. If it doesn’t do one or the other, it has no business being in the story.

So planning has taken up what time I allocated this week, and I’m satisfied that things are taking shape. I’m about half way through, and I’m pretty sure i know where the rest is going – that’s for next week. When I’m done, I can pick my way forward through the chapters, knowing what I need to write.

Do things change as I go along? You bet they do. Things I think will work, don’t. Things I’ve forgotten, emerge. Characters evolve in ways I hadn’t anticipated. New ideas arrive. So I’m certain I’ll be re-engineering my chapter-by-chapter as I go along. That’s a given. But wherever it goes, I have to begin with a plan.

Planning aside, I’m determined to keep up with my minimum 500-word commitment (I can’t allow myself fail after just 2 weeks). So Saturday saw me out in the garden with my laptop, bashing my way to 800 words.  Hardly a stellar performance, but the plan came first this week; that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Oh… and one other thing – a happy motivational moment. Singled Out hit that magic 100 sold copies milestone this week.  It got there with the aid of a promoted post on Facebook of which, more later, once the promo is over and I know whether or not I broke even or got ahead by a few quid. Still… One. Hundred. Sold. Copies. Break even or not, it was worth it.

I’m a minnow in an ocean of self-publishing fish, but I confess, I feel chuffed. It’s a start. Onward and upward.

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.

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.  😉